Sunday, April 6, 2014

EW #6: It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Many people remember It's a Wonderful Life mainly for its happy ending.

I should come right out and say that in general, I am not the biggest fan of Frank Capra's work. He is a very skilled and talented director, to be sure, but there is something about many of his films' "aw, shucks" style of crude populism that rings false and even feels ideologically dangerous to me. I am in agreement with Mark Harris when he says of Capra's onscreen politics that they are marked by "a kind of  easy yahooism" that reflects the Italian-American immigrant director's "overheated and erratic political impulses." *

That said, I have come to really appreciate It's a Wonderful Life over the past several years, not so much for its overt message "about how hard it is to see the magic of life as we're living it" (as Entertainment Weekly cheerily puts it) but rather for its subtext about how our inflated sense of self-concept often blinds us to the fact that, as the Buddhists say, "life is suffering." For me, Life is about how profoundly off-base and un-self-aware George Bailey is throughout most of his existence, and how this only increases his dissatisfaction with what is, in the end, a pretty limited set of life choices. He imagines himself as a man of action, an adventurer, a man destined to see the world and do great things. Instead, he is just an average schmuck who is so fearful of leaving Bedford Falls or taking real risks or letting his late father's business collapse that he ends up right where we'd expect him to: in Bedford Falls, paternalistically protecting his family, friends, and community just like he has done since childhood.

And there is nothing wrong with this. I find Life's somewhat neorealistic** ideology to be a welcome change from the relentless Pollyanna-ism of, say, Capra's 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. If Mr. Smith naively suggests that the little guy can make a difference if he just does what's right and follows his heart -- a comforting, if bullshit, message -- Life suggests that the average guy won't really accomplish jack shit or make any major changes in life at all, but that that is to be expected. I think a little "reality principle" injected into a Hollywood film like this is a good thing; it constitutes a real breath of fresh air.

The real power of It's a Wonderful Life is its unrelenting look at the 
stultifying, soul-crushing aspects of small-town American values. 

Now many might resist my dark reading of this beloved film and interpret George Bailey's successful holding action against the vile capitalist Potter as a heroic accomplishment. According to this reading, George's community's love for him is a justly deserved reward for his heroically protecting them from Potter's exploitation. Superficially, this is accurate: Potter is indeed the film's main villain and the nightmare version of Bedford Falls that Bailey sees when Clarence the Angel shows him around near the end of the film is called Pottersville, a stark, hostile urban space symbolizing the "dark underside of Hollywood ideology" that looks like it came out of a film noir.*** Some would say that that nightmare vision is just that -- a vision -- and that it is wiped away or obliterated by the supposed "real world" of a restored Bedford Falls in the film's denouement. Yet I am inclined to agree with Rich Cohen when he writes that Life is actually a "terrifying" movie whose dark undertones are not erased by Bailey's temporary stymieing of Potter or the film's stock ending: "I do not think the hidden message vanishes when the movie goes Hollywood and happy. I believe the resolution of the darker movie is, in fact, still there, wrapped around the happy ending of the classic."

Indeed. And that darkness, that grim tale of "the good man driven insane," all the way to suicide, is what makes Capra's "holiday classic" stick with me. It is an extremely bleak film for the normally upbeat Capra to have made. And if its pull back from the edge at the last minute feels a little hollow or contrived -- which it does to me -- it is because of the film's admirable willingness to look at the exploitative and soul-crushing dimensions of small-town American capitalism square in the eye for the preceding two hours of its runtime. Like Citizen Kane and The Godfather, It's a Wonderful Life tells us something essential about American life precisely because, unlike so many other lesser films, it documents the life of a relatable and sympathetic man who, in the end, fails miserably. It is an American tragedy and, mainly for that reason, an enduring work of art, because its tragic dimensions balance out Capra's usual giddily populist impulses to make It's a Wonderful Life so much more than the sentimental film that a literal reading of its (ironic) title would suggest.

Plus, Wonderful Life features my all-time favorite character actor, Thomas Mitchell.   

* Harris, Five Came Back pp. 66, 67.
** I refer mainly to Italian neorealism, which was just getting started around the time Capra made Life, but you can also learn about the legacy of neorealism by reading this A.O. Scott article.
*** Robin Wood, "Ideology, Genre, Auteur" p. 673.


  1. Rambling thoughts because I'm really full right now (ok, so that doesn't really make sense-- what's it to ya??):
    1. I was excited to see that Mark Harris has a new book out! I can't wait until it's out in paperback.
    2. I usually cite Frank Capra as one of my favorite directors, but it's based on really only a handful of his films, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, and maybe, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and the last two are pretty similar in structure. I'm sort of a sucker for his so-called "Capra-corn," although the moments that I like the most are some of the darker or sadder scenes. IN LIFE, one of my favorite moments is the scene between George and Mary before they get married, when they're both on the phone talking to Sam, and George is noticing Mary so close to him (even though the scene between them prior to this moment has been tense, going from a comic tension and developing into genuine tension, until he finally blows up at her angrily and spills out all his frustration about being trapped in Bedford Falls. I found that darkly realistic. Similarly (well, kinda), in DEEDS, when Deeds' bodyguard informs him of the reality of Jean Arthur's character-- that she's actually a reporter who lied to Deeds about her identity in order to get closer to him in order to be able to do a story -- unfortunately, the bodyguard informs Deeds on the day that Deeds was going to propose to her. When Deeds realizes this is indeed the truth (but he doesn't realize that she's unexpectedly fallen in love with him as well), his heartbreak is genuinely affecting. I like Gary Cooper, but not because of his acting. His acting is rather wooden in almost everything I've seen, but in this one scene, he displays genuine vulnerability and devastation, and even his bodyguard apologizes when he learns that Deeds has fallen in love with the reporter, saying he would never have told him if he had known. I think this is also a sentimental scene, but I love that Capra believes that sentiment is genuine and human. Cooper is simply amazing in this scene, utterly believable, and very naked and vulnerable. I use to say that IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and PULP FICTION were my two favorite films, but DEEDS had been playing a few times on TCM on year and I kept catching it, and this scene in particular. I always loved the film, but watching the film over and over again, made me embrace it more and now it's my favorite Capra film. Having said all this crap (ha!), I don't know if I'm actually disagreeing with what you've said. I'm attracted to Capra's sentimentality and also his idealism.
    3. But I think you're right. I don't think Capra would have viewed his own film in that way, but I think your more (comparatively) pessimistic thematic summation of the film does ring more true. But I think Capra has enough insight into human behavior to reveal the dark moments during the telephone scene, that he does seem to be aware of your kind of reading, but he may not agree with it. He may be more optimistic. Or wishful thinking. Because I don't think he would view the title as ironic.

    1. Well said! I agree that Capra himself would likely not see the title of LIFE as ironic. That is simply my reading based upon what I see in the film. And you know that I generally prefer my art on the dark, grim, edgy side. . .

      Also, I am really glad you mentioned IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, which is definitely my favorite Capra film. But I really like screwball comedies in general and that one is pretty much perfect. I also concur that Capra has a great touch when it comes to finding the melancholy "dark" bits even amidst the apparently happy bits. Very well put.

    2. Also, FIVE CAME BACK is great so far -- I am only about 100 pages in but Harris is easily one of the best film writers currently alive.