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It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra

USA, 1946

Credits

Review by Briallen Hopper

Posted on 25 December 2011

Source TV broadcast

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Christmas in Connecticut

There’s something strange about the ritual of sitting down with popcorn at the height of suicide season and watching a holiday movie with many of the same basic themes as The Seventh Seal. Is life worth living? Does anyone hear when we call out in the darkness? Will death win the match? And what happens to a dream deferred? It’s Christmastime—let’s have an existential crisis!

I am not the first to notice that It’s A Wonderful Life is shockingly dark, or at least clinically bipolar. The movie invites us in with twinkling stars, kindly angels, folksy narration, and small-town charm, but within minutes we are slapped with death, drunkenness, and the brutal beating of a child. Mr. Gowers, a druggist in Bedford Falls, has just lost his son to war; in a haze of liquor and despair, he almost kills a customer with a botched prescription, and then lashes out at his young assistant George Bailey, who saved a life by refusing to deliver the poison. George is beaten until he bleeds, and until Mr. Gower understands how he averted the catastrophe. A scene that begins with cute kids flirting at the soda fountain ends with a boy and an old man crumpled together, clinging to each other and sobbing helplessly in relief and pain.

Then, in a jerk of emotional whiplash characteristic of the film, these tears dissolve into an image of George as an exuberant young man stretching his arms as wide as they’ll go to signal both the size of the suitcase he wants and the expansiveness of his desires. We are shown this moment in freeze-frame, so we get what the narrator describes as a “good look” at George’s moment of maximum optimism. The next hour of the film is devoted to destroying both George’s mood and his reach. Every time a bell rings, George loses some of his wingspan.

As George is cut down to size, we are treated to the unparalleled emotional range of the famously dark post-war James Stewart, who (unlike George Bailey, who was 4F and couldn’t fight) had recently returned from combat in Europe. In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther observed that Stewart had “grown in spiritual stature as well as in talent during the years he was in the war,” which seems right. By the time they arrive in Bedford Falls, Stewart and Capra have both come a long way from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart’s innocence is gone, as is Capra’s interest in American political institutions. They have both taken a turn towards the morbidly psychological. We may still succeed in persuading ourselves that we’re watching an uplifting Capra-corn dramedy, but the relentless twists of fate that thwart George Bailey’s far-from-wonderful life are straight out of noir, and the counterfactual history he enters late in the film is told in the language of horror.

The most horrifying thing of all is that the bleakest scenes take place not in the counterfactual Pottersville but in the all-too-real Bedford Falls. Blending humor and horror, the film shows how even at the best of times George’s feelings fail to fit his life. This is, after all, the man who proposes to the woman he loves by shouting in desperate defiance, “I don’t want to get married ever to anyone! You understand that? I wanna do what I wanna do!” (Cut to George doing everything he doesn’t want to do.)

A few years ago I discovered that a friend and I share a favorite scene: the one where George comes home to his family after learning that because of someone else’s financial slip-up his future is in ruins. The scene is a dark burlesque of the classic “Honey, I’m home!” routine soon to be enshrined in a hundred sitcoms, and it can be watched as sit-comedy, complete with slapstick shtick (as when George accidentally grabs the loose finial on on the banister for the thousandth time) and snappy one-liners (as when he exclaims bitterly “You call this a happy family? Why’d we have to have all these kids?”). But what makes the scene truly funny, and truly scary, is the ludicrous mismatch between the everyday cheer of George’s wife Mary and their bevy of adorable children, and George’s monstrous, violent despair as he tries and fails to go through the motions of affection and domesticity. Within minutes he has reduced most of his family to tears. The humor is slicingly sharp in its dramatization of the dread and disorientation that take over when depression makes the people we love unrecognizable to us, or when it makes us unrecognizable to ourselves.

And this is all before the supernaturally uncanny scenes in which George walks into his life as a stranger, having gotten his wish that he’d never been born.

In 2008, the first Christmas after the crash, A.O. Scott praised the film’s surprising darkness. As I write this three years later the darkness seems even more timely. In It’s A Wonderful Life, as in life as we know it, banks wobble and fail; mortgages hang in the balance; the poor and middle-class get poorer, and the rich get richer. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is newly loathsome as the 1% from central casting, getting rich during others’ hard times. (Mr. Potter tells George, “During the Depression… you saved the Building and Loan, and I saved all the rest”; George replies, “Yes. Well most people say you stole all the rest.”)

But what really makes It’s A Wonderful Life more watchable now than ever is its reminder that what ought to be the most optimistic account of the American dream ever made in Hollywood – Frank Capra meets post-War prosperity and the construction of the suburbs – is at its heart a story of compromise, contingency, and infinite deferral. Yes, George can have a wonderful life, but only if he gives up his desire to do a job that he likes and instead does a job he hates; if he lives vicariously through the new homes of others while raising his own family in a dump; and if he accepts that his financial fate depends not on his own hard work and on strong financial and political institutions (these are either useless or absent) but on the last-ditch charity of his friends.

We are George Bailey: we are the 99%. And if we are willing to make peace with life on these terms, and to affirm whatever remains (our sometimes unrecognizable family and friends, the blood and bruises that prove we really exist, and the dried-up petals lining our penniless pockets), then life can still be as wonderful as it ever was. Sometimes it helps to cry.

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