Let's talk about movies and plastics. No, not The Graduate yet again, but instead the seasonal classic It's a Wonderful Life.
In case you somehow haven't seen it, in a pivotal scene, the character of George Bailey is visiting Mary, the woman who soon becomes his wife. The date isn't going well, though, and he storms out, only to return for a forgotten hat. Another of Mary's suitors, Sam Wainwright, at that point is on the phone with her and asks her to put George on the phone.
You can just take a moment to can find the scene on YouTube — and the movie is streaming on Amazon Prime — but if you don't have time to watch, Sam asks George if he recalls when George told him about someone who was using soybeans to make plastics. He then notes his father's company is about to create a plastics manufacturing company, but in another town. George convinces him to invest in his hometown instead.
"Why not right here? You remember that old tool and machinery works? You tell your father he can get that for a song," George says. "And all the labor he wants, too. Half the town was thrown out of work when they closed down."
As the scene ends, George rejects the idea of working for the plastics company himself: "I don't want any plastics! I don't want any ground floors! I don't want to get married to anyone, ever!"
Of course, the next scene is George and Mary's wedding. Their honeymoon cash goes to save the family's building and loan business. Sam goes on to "make a fortune making plastic hoods for planes."
Recall this was a scene taking place in the 1930s in a film from 1946. (For context in timing, the group now called the Plastics Industry Association formed in 1937. The Society of Plastics Engineers formed in 1946. Tupperware began producing housewares in 1946, too.)
So why plastics? And why soybean-based plastics?
Plastics were indeed used in multiple military applications during World War II, including aircraft. And using soybeans to make plastics wasn't unheard of. Henry Ford famously invested in the concept in the 1930s. But there was a connection between the movie and its creators.
Director Frank Capra, before he got into movies, was a chemical engineering graduate from the California Institute of Technology, although he was frustrated by his inability to turn that degree into a career before he found his way into film. There's a theory that his own studies led to inserting the line about plastics, although I haven't been able to find confirmation of that.
But plastic did come up in Capra's own writing several years after It's a Wonderful Life debuted. In his autobiography The Name Above the Title, Capra wrote about how he struggled to escape poverty after his family emigrated from Italy and how many times he failed before finding his path.
"It was a magic carpet — woven with the coils and ringlets of a wondrous peel of limber plastic, whose filaments carried the genetic code of all the arts of man, and from which the abracadabra of science conjured up the hopes, the fears, the dreams of man — the magic carpet of film," he wrote.
But beyond Capra's writing and background in chemical engineering, Jeffrey Meikle, a professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, writes that plastics actually plays an even bigger part in the story of It's a Wonderful Life and American post-war life in general.
"At the end of the film it is [Sam Wainwright] who rescues Bailey's collapsing bank — and the citizens who had put their trust in it," Meikle writes in his 1996 book American Plastic: A Cultural History. "Although Capra's sympathies lay with small-town life, the progress of the outside world as exemplified by the expanding plastic industry clearly stood for other positive values."
Rhoda Miel is a Plastics News assistant managing editor. Follow her on Twitter @PNRhodaMiel.