Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

I've purposely shied away from reviewing classic films. What else could really be said about a film that has been around for generations and has become not just a favorite, but has earned a piece of the history of American film making in such a way that it's become a tradition, in and of itself. I find myself inadequate when charged with such a task.

But I've decided to write a review for It's a Wonderful Life, maybe against my better judgement. I've got a few reasons for doing so. The first is simple, it's one of my favorite films. Looking at the list of reviews I've written, the films that list covers and specifically those which I've written favorably about, it might seem somewhat surprising for me to proclaim this sentimental, optimistic, "Capra-corn" kind of film as one of my two or three favorite films. Most people don't associate this film with the kind of dark, cynical, subversively penetrating themes and concepts I tend to favor and gravitate toward. Considering how syrupy and schmaltzy it's considered now, it's interesting to note that at the time of it's release it was widely considered too dark for the holiday season. It wasn't a flop at the box office, but it certainly didn't perform in such a way as to suggest the place it would come to occupy in our holiday culture. 

Another reason for me to write something about this film is that it's one of those rare films which presents the opportunity to write about a thing related to art as a whole that I think important. It's a film I have a kind of relationship with that has evolved through the years. This isn't a high minded concept. Each of us has at least one thing, probably a few films, albums, songs or books, which have been around through different phases of our lives, from childhood to adulthood and onward, and about which our understanding on the emotional, intellectual and yes, probably even the spiritual levels has evolved into something different, not necessarily better or worse, but deeper, more whole and concrete. In this case it's a film I loved as a little boy, and which I love no less as an adult, but that I love very differently, because I not only see it through adult eyes, but because it speaks to me on a completely different level than it did the little boy who saw it so many years around Christmas time. 

And It's a Wonderful Life is a quintessentially American film. I enjoy foreign films, and a stroll through the archives of this blog will be enough proof for anyone seeking it that I have no prejudice toward them. At the same time, being an American, I have a special place in my heart for films which present the dominating characteristics of American life with any attempt at a real degree of narrative honesty. I think It's a Wonderful Life does that, not only presenting those qualities we most enjoying seeing represented in film, but some of those we least enjoy seeing. In that way, it's actually an extremely well balanced and fair minded variety of fictional narrative. 

I'm not going to go into a long plot synopsis. I'm going to assume the overwhelming majority of people with enough interest to be reading a review, in a blog, by someone without "professional credentials" has enough of an interest in film to have seen It's a Wonderful Life. If not, go watch it, as soon as is humanly possible. Reading further will probably only color you're own experience with the film to a degree which is unnecessary. Go. Now. 

In those early years, the first few viewings of It's a Wonderful Life, I think the little boy I was reacted to the aspect of the story that is very much a fantasy adventure. I've always had an appreciation for fantasy and science fiction, and being a kid who had no religious training and parents who were of the most lapsed variety of Catholic, films with different religious themes or narrative aspects really didn't seem any different than those with dragons, witches, knights or aliens. There is an adventurous aspect to the film. As much as George Bailey may resent life in the little town of Bedford Falls, it seemed pretty exciting to me. There was definitely more going on in George's life than there seemed to be in my own or the lives of the people I knew. He was falling saving his brother from drowning in icy water, and saving Mr. Gower the neighborhood pharmacist from drunkenly poisoning a sick boy, having girls chasing after him, fighting the powerfully despicable Mr. Potter, constantly saving that old Savings and Loan, marrying the beautiful woman who loved him, meeting angels, getting to see what life would be like without his birth, and finally getting to reap the rewards of all that frustration and desperation being set aside in favor of something bigger than himself. In many ways, it's a relatively typical heroes narrative. But George Bailey was the quintessential everyday person. He's not some brawny tough guy easily tossing a beating to the evil doers. In fact, through ninety percent of the film, the closest thing it has to a real villain, Mr. Potter, is handing him the proverbial beating. George is very slowly losing the fight, which is only important because that actually means the town of Bedford Falls is losing, because that's actually what George has been fighting for through the entire film. He sets aside all of his own aspirations and his own goals for the town, his family, and the Savings and Loan that serves them. In a rare moment of real truth in a Hollywood film, Mr. Potter never recieves the justice we so richly think he deserves. Even after his final dastardly act, the only one which is lawfully criminal, he's never found out. George never actually achieves the victory the first three acts of the film portray him as fighting for. One of the things which made the film so appealing to me as a child was that George Bailey was living an adventure in a place that wasn't very far away or exotic. It was just another small town, like every small town boy dreams of escaping. And any small town boy, like I was, with a knack for needling figures in positions of authority, gets used to losing the battles he's been waging. 

I also think It's a Wonderful Life is a film so well made and put together, that it's actually hard not to like it. It's narrative is so compelling, it's hard not to be drawn in. The characters are so well drawn and the performances are so good that you want to root for these people, not just George Bailey, but his wife, family and the people of Bedford Falls. Mr. Potter is such a cantankerous old bastard that you can't help but dislike him and hope that George does eventually stick it to him. Children are probably most susceptible to good film making because they're coming to the experience with very few preconceived notions. They have no poltical point of view, no cultural references to offend, and for the most part, It's a Wonderful Life upholds all of the kinds of ideas we're taught are good when we're children, so it supports the things we're already being taught and are hearing regularly from adults, at least on the surface. 

As an adult, it's come to mean much more to me. As someone who has at times felt he's gotten a second chance at life or at the least a chance to re-evaluate the ideas and perceptions previously driving his life, it speaks to me on a very different level. George Bailey isn't a perfect man, at all. At times he's impetuous, rash, resentful, and indecisive. The trajectory of the narrative, George's life as the film represents it, is overwhelmed by the circumstances in George's life which are in many ways beyond his control. His father's death leaves the future of the Savings and Loan his father and uncle built in question. George's decision to forego his trip to Europe and then his college education in order to stay in Bedford Fall's and see to it the Savings and Loan survives and continues is more a decision in reaction to his own disgust at Mr. Potter's words during the board meeting than it is a decision to stay and keep the business going because he beleives it will be good for the town. More than anyone else (with the possible exception of his wife Mary) Potter keeps George in Bedford Falls. Most adults would agree it's not the best basis on which to make a decision, especially one with the ramifications related to foregoing a college education, but at the same time, most people understand exactly what it is to make that decision, and how it happens. I see this scene, and the others like it in the film, and I know what it's like to make those decisions, and to live with the consequences they bring, the frustration and resentment, and to eventually be able to look at them as part of a much larger whole that isn't at all frustrating and instead as something to be more grateful for, to be happy with and proud of. 

Anyone who's ever been involved in a long term relationship with someone they love, also understands the compromises involved, and that at times, those compromises sting more than others, even when every bit of faith in the future you can muster says it's worth it. The clash of one's more specific ambition with the more general and vague love for another person and the life the two of you have is something we rarely see portrayed with any real honesty. Here it's presented with more honesty than most films of it's time or ours. It's a singular part of a much larger struggle for George. He loves his wife and his children, obviously. But he can't help but still feel some disappointment and some regret for not having gone and chased the dreams he'd grown up with. Being stuck in the same small town he'd grown up in, fighting the same battles his father had fought, very literally, without the chance to find out what heights his talents may have taken him to eats at him through the first three acts of the film. But at the same time, it's just as clear that he is very happy with his wife, and their life, and he loves her and his family deeply. This kind of internal conflict, which is so very common to life in middle America isn't often played very fairly. Most film makers weight the argument in one direction or the other from the beginning and use the rest of the film to make the case for the side of the argument they've chosen. Capra doesn't. Throughout the film, we feel empathy for George not being able to go out and chase those dreams, but at the same time, we're happy to see Mary with him, the support she provides him and the way they interact (for the most part). It's an ambivalence which is hard to strike in any narrative, and Capra presents it beautifully. The film may be in black and white, but most of it's narrative isn't presenting us with a black and white reading of events. There's a whole lot of grey. 

One of the other major things I appreciate as an adult is that the first three quarters of the film are much darker than most people tend to credit it. Because it ends on a much brighter, lighter note, and actually earns that ending, most people tend to forget exactly how much has transpired before. George Bailey has almost constantly had his options cut away from him through circumstances that are beyond his control or through the selfishness of the people around him. His younger brother leaves him in the lurch on more than one occasion, his less than adept Uncle sets in motion the films final act by losing eight thousand dollars out of little more than the petty desire to brag and a flaky mind, and so on and so forth. He's constantly beset with either moral dilemmas or financial troubles which he's only been lead to because he is George Bailey, the good man we want him to be. As with Mr. Gower in the early part of the film, George seems to be life's punching bag, specifically because he is trying to do the right thing. George's life may be wonderful, but even it's being wonderful almost in spite of his being a good man, it's still a hard life, full of hard questions, hard decisions and two very long, hard fights. His fight with Potter, and the harder fight to win, the fight with himself, his frustration and his disappointment.

George's on going attempt to keep Mr. Potter from gaining complete control of the town is the kind of thing we've seen thousands of times in movies before. The difference between this film and so many others, is that the fight isn't that grand and dramatic. Sure, some of the scenes and the dialog are relatively dramatic, but in towns across the country, this same fight was being waged. It's something so much a part of the American character that we're still waging those exact same battles today. Distrust of a concentration of power and wealth are at the heart of the nation's founding and have worked themselves into the way we see ourselves and our world so deeply that the battle George wages with Mr. Potter throughout the film is familiar, understandable and sympathetic no matter what time period it is when one first sees the film. The questions related to the profit motive versus the greater good have probably been around since nomadic groups of hunter/gatherers traded amongst each other, though they are especially acute in a society based on a capitalist economy. We still have these same arguments today, the most currently public being centered on the internet itself. Are we going to allow a small group of major corporations have control of content or is it going to continue to be a much more open, user based medium? We still haven't decided, but in it's essence, it's the exact same fight George Bailey was putting up against Mr. Potter. It's the kind of argument we Americans have been having amongst ourselves since the country was founded.

Possibly the thing I most enjoy about It's a Wonderful Life now is that each of these episodes plays itself out, with George being consumed by them in a singular way. As an audience, we're seeing them and understanding them as part of a larger narrative, but George isn't. For him, each one is immediate and urgent, and only vaguely related to the rest, until the last act of the film of course, when George gets the opportunity to find out exactly what would have become of Bedford Falls and the people he cares about if he hadn't been there to fight through each specific incident to create the larger whole. George never became a rich man through the creation of Bailey Park, but he provided an opportunity for dreams more humble than his own to be achieved. As he stumbles through the town which became Pottersville in his absence, it is a little comical to see the nightclubs and bars as representations of everything antithetical to the kind of small town community George was able to help continue. It's certainly a little puritanical, and it reminds me that the distrust with which rural and suburban communities view cities has a long history for us as well. But it's the cut throat nature of the entire sequence which is most striking. The convivial tone George brought to the majority of his interactions with the rest of the people in the town is gone. These people are largely strangers to one another, and he who falls among them gets kicked, not helped to his feet. It presents a strong argument that more than George's ability to help these people own homes, stay free of Potters tyranically selfish nature, it was his friendly and giving spirit which was most important for the town, and so long as there was one man continuously willing to sacrifice for the better of the whole, it effected the nature of the entire town. It suggests that so long as George was there to be willing to give, each of the others to whom he gave, had a little more to give to the next person. Not necessarily materially, but in terms of human kindness and compassion. 

The interesting thing about that suggestion is that it's just as much a part of the American tradition and character to be venal and petty, selfish and apathetic. It only took George's absence for all of these things to change and for Bedford Falls to become the den of sin and cruelty that is Pottersville. George gave up his ambitions up in favor of those whose ambitions were more humble than his own, but even George's ambitions were humble in comparison to those of Potter, and without George around to be a counter weight, the same kind of selfishness and cruelty colored the entire town, just as his own good nature had effected the town in his reality. 

All in all, this is a great film. It came to it's classic status many years after it was finally released because the copyright lapsed, making it a cheap and easy film for television stations to run, and run it they did. Once it started being regularly shown on television in the seventies, it started to be recognized as the brillaint film making it is. Another interesting thing to note is that Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption is an avid admirer of It's a Wonderful Life's director, Frank Capra, and Shawshank went through a similar cycle of not really being all that popular at the box office, being nominated for a number of Academy Awards and not finding it's real audience, one that is nearly rabid in their love for the film, until it started being repeatedly shown on cable television. Now, the two films are considered among classics of American cinema. 

On a trivia note: in the early part of the film, when George is approaching Ernie's cab, where Burt stands reading a paper, the headline which is only visible very quickly reads, "Mr. Smith Wins Washington." The film that Capra and Jimmy Stewart had last worked on together before Wonderful Life was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

1 comment:

  1. By pure serendipity (Jung would say "synchronicity," a meaningful coincidence) I read this review the same day I was handed this James Baldwin quote on, of all things, a bookmark:

    "Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one already known it. The loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.

    "And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed.

    "Yet it is only when persons are able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream they have long cherished or a privilege they have long possessed that they are set free-- for higher dreams, for greater privileges.

    'All people have gone through this; go through it, each according to their degrees, throughout their lives. It is one of the irreducible facts of life."


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