August 24, 2011

#20: It's a Wonderful Life

Despite its classic status, Frank Capra's Christmas weepfest It's a Wonderful Life was not a critical or commercial success when it was released in 1946. In fact, some prognosticators believe that had it been released a few months later, it would have fared better with audiences and particularly with the Oscars, which were not nearly as stacked and competitive in 1947 as they were in 1946, the year The Best Years of Our Lives took home the top prize (a fact that I couldn't dispute). It wasn't really revered the way it is today until it became a rebroadcast staple on television in the 1970s and 1980s. Funny what a few years can do to a film. Maybe in a few years I'll look that way at the movie that had the sole preview on this DVD: Queen Latifah's Last Holiday. (?!?)

Company: alone on this one, though I should have grabbed some friends to well up with. Kecia came in near the middle and declared her distaste for how depressing it is. I hear that, though I think there's more to it.

Cuisine: my fridge is full of leftovers from Stephanie's going-away party this weekend, so I munched on fruit salad, bean dip and multigrain chips, and of course, coffee.

Bedford Falls is an idyllic little town, or so we're led to believe by a couple of angels chatting in the heavens overhead. Someone "down there" is going to take his life in just a few hours, and the angel Clarence (a jovial Henry Travers) is sent down to save him, with the promise of wings and being promoted up from Angel, Second Class. But first, he (and we) are treated to a master class history course called George Always Comes In Second.

George Bailey (played with classic charm by Oscar nominee Jimmy Stewart) has always gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop. He saved his brother from drowning as a child and as a result lost his hearing in one ear. When his father has a stroke, George is obligated to take over the family lending business, and gives the money he'd saved for college to his brother Harry (Todd Karns) on the promise that Harry will take over when he gets back. Upon his return four years later, Harry has a wife and a job offer too good to pass up. On the night George and his wife are set to leave for their honeymoon, a bank run by most of the town forces the couple to lend what money they'd earmarked for their vacation back to the town so the business wouldn't collapse. George is continually disappointed, never as downtrodden as the proverbial Job but suffering quietly through his life that is not turning out the way he'd hoped.

But all along the way, in between these twists, we are treated to a sweet, almost saccharine love story between George and the woman he's meant for, Mary Hatch (the lovely but underused Donna Reed). As they dance the night away, as they are tricked into falling into a swimming pool (and continue to dance), as they wander home singing "Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight..." the audience is acutely aware that we are watching something special, a love story that doesn't need to try to be sweet because it already is. Stewart and Reed have remarkable chemistry that looks so effortless you nearly forget they're actors.

"I think I'll go find a girl and do some passionate necking."

The sun starts to set on their romance even on their most romantic evening, after they've fallen in the pool, when a stranger in their neighborhood pleads with George to kiss the girl already, muttering: "Youth is wasted on the wrong people." This line caught my ear, and might be a thesis for the entire film. Love it.

The great foil, however, is that George is in the business of money, and as movie audiences are reminded time and time again, money won't make you happy. George is so distracted here that he can't even notice Mary's sweet devotion and affection for him. You just want to slap him, tell him to snap out of it -- but it will take divine intervention for George to learn The Great Moral.

Lionel Barrymore plays the soulless slumlord Henry Potter, which is not much of a role really, although Barrymore makes a legend out of Potter with every scowl and sly look he can muster. In a way, he doesn't even exist in the narrative except to continually press on the back of George's mind, the happiness that Potter has probably never felt. He's an archetype, the symbol of greed and wealth in the film, and since George has been "a thorn in his side" for a long time, he'll bring him down by any means necessary. When that opportunity to do so literally falls into his lap, he takes it, driving George to the edge.

"How'm I doin', Joseph?"

This happens on Christmas Eve, after which George arrives home to his appropriately cheery family. He's basically an asshole to every one of them and makes his kids cry. Wait, this is an inspirational film? We've been treated to a sweet love story for about an hour and a half and this is where the fantasy element comes to the front. After George storms out in a huff, Mary tells each of her children to pray hard for Daddy, which amount to the prayers heard by the angels at the film's beginning. Way to save your dad with prayers, kids!

George's mind is filled with thoughts of suicide, and it's after Potter proclaims that he'd be "worth more dead than alive" because of his insurance policy that George heads for the town bridge to make a jump for it, but his angel Clarence saves him. Clarence is basically a weird hybrid of the three scepters in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which show that protagonist unaltered versions of his past and present and a gloomy prediction of his future. Clarence, on the other hand, has a nastier trick up his sleeve, and shows George, without warning, a world without him, one in which he'd never been born. Is this not our greatest collective nightmare?

George does not handle it very well.

No one recognizes him. His town doesn't look right. His mother runs a boarding house and has no children. His wife is an old maid, and a librarian for God's sake! This is what it takes to set him right, to show him how good he's had it despite everything that's gone against his plan for his life. Luckily he's able to snap out of it when Clarence leaves, but this sequence is deeply disturbing. In fact, Rich Cohen (for wrote a fascinating piece last Christmas declaring It's a Wonderful Life to be "the most terrifying movie ever." I can't say I wholly disagree with it. Without any special effects (maybe save the fake snow and Clarence's disappearance), Capra illustrates our deepest fear, a world without us, one that goes on without us. It's the ultimate vanity test, and luckily, like Ebenezer Scrooge, George comes back from the brink of insanity and views his life differently.

Oh, and the town donates the money he needs. And everyone sings Auld Lang Syne.

The movie ends with warm holiday fuzzies and carols and cute children slinging all over Stewart, and a toast from his brother: "To my brother George, the richest man in town." He means it literally now -- the $8,000 George needed now lies in front of him -- but we are meant to hear it in the figurative sense. It's no coincidence that Clarence leaves behind for George a copy of the book he'd been reading, The Adventure of Tom Sawyer, in which a boy with nothing makes a life. George has everything now: what can he do? And what can we do?

It's sweet, it's silly, it's dark, but goddammit if I didn't at least well up at the end. You'd have to have a pretty hard heart not to. It's not the best movie ever made but it's genuine and means well, and it might be hard to find a more universal message than the one It's a Wonderful Life provides.

A slightly darker film up next: more Marlon, in On the Waterfront.

1 comment:

  1. nice summation. i was one of those kids in the '70s that watched this at christmas because, well, the only three stations in town played it over and over and over (since it was public domain). but it spoke to me and may have helped shape me, oh gods, and even now, when i watch it, it may be a little broad but ... it doesn't pander. and it DOES mean well. and i still tear up myself. so. atta boy, clarence.