[Re: It’s a Wonderful Life] Ok, I suspect I understand why perfectly intelligent people like this film, but honestly I cannot stand it. Basically, I loathe it. Stewart is annoying as hell all the way through; one of his worst performances. The film itself was shot like a frickin’ television show; just pedestrian. It’s absolutely phony sentimental crap.
This is very confusing to me, since the film was shot in 1946. It seems if Frank Capra shot it like a “frickin’ television show,” that would make him extremely prescient, as the idea of a television show the way we think of it wouldn’t really be solidified until ten years later with I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. And I guess this means that Capra shot It’s a Wonderful Life with a lot of head-on wide and medium shots addressing stage-like action, and used high-key lighting so that there’s no definition or richness of exposure.
But this doesn’t explain shots like this.
I’m sorry, but when this movie is overlooked as “phony sentimental crap,” it upsets me. I think part of this is the fault of the networks that played it incessantly over the years during the holidays when its rights lapsed and it was a free Christmas movie to pound over the holiday airwaves using horribly degraded prints and VHS dubs that turned the whole thing milky and garbled and awful.
But the film is a masterpiece. The argument I will always make until the day I die is that what makes this film so good is its horrific moments. I’ll even agree that the film has a pedestrian perspective, but I don’t meant that pejoratively at all. I mean that the character of George Bailey is a common man in 1946, and December 24th is a scary motherfucking day in his life, only made worse by the possibility that it might be the LAST day in his life.
The story takes a common man who’s lived a small town life, a man who’s kept his chin up through increasingly terrible tragedies and asks the question: How much is enough? How much do we have to put up with in this lifetime? What is happiness? The title has a double meaning. Here are a list of things that George Bailey lives through until that fateful Christmas Eve:
- His kid brother nearly dies, and George just manages to save him, although he goes deaf in one ear. So George is partly crippled from an early age.
- The Influenza pandemic of 1918. Between 50 and 100 million people died during this epidemic. And this was at 1946 levels of population. Well over half the world was infected. There is no other way to put it—for modern people, that is shit-your-drawers terrifying and so devastating I wonder if 1st worlders in 2011 even have the ability to comprehend something like that. I don’t think I do.
- His own college dreams are dashed and gone (READ: FOREVER) when he has to take over the family business to keep it from drying up, which has the potential to cripple every life in the entire town of Bedford Falls. Potter wants to subsidize and basically destroy Bedford Falls as a small vibrant community where people actually know each other. He wants to turn it into a quiet place of strip malls. If Capra and the writers were prescient, it was here instead. More on this later.
- The stock market collapse of 1929. Oh and by the way, this happens on the day he gets married. Finding Mary Hatch (and having children with her) is really the one miracle in George’s life. However, this day is darkened not just by an inconvenience that keeps them from their honeymoon, but by a economic destruction that sends the entire country close to a starving apocalypse for the next 12 years. Oh, and his family business and Bedford Falls are almost destroyed again when there is a run on the savings and loan. They narrowly miss this catastrophe by keeping two dollars in the vault.
- The Great Depression. George and Mary struggle to raise a family of three during arguably the hardest period to do so during the 20th century. Also, Potter’s land deals are more alluring to Bedford Falls, because no one has any money, and everyone is itching to sell.
- George watches his friends go off and travel the world and make millions, like he always wanted to. He stays home, because he is in all effects stuck there.
- World War II. You know, that war where everyone in the western world knew—if not loved—someone who died. George again almost loses his brother in the conflict.
- George finally loses everything. The business will be gone. He and his family will be destitute. The town he stayed and fought for will be wiped off the map. His whole world will be taken away from him. What’s worse is this makes the choices his made—the way he’s spent this entire wonderful life—worth nothing. He may as well have left, traveled the world, done the things he wanted to.
- He heads to a bridge and prepares to commit suicide.
So again the question Capra asks is: How much is enough? Yes, he’s given George Mary, a family, friends, but over the course of the last hour plus he has taken NEARLY EVERYTHING AWAY FROM THIS MAN. And in 1945, Capra knows full well that the last 30 years of the country’s existence has been extremely rough. He knows that the audience in the theater can identify with some if not all of George Bailey’s misery.
At this low point, Capra then tries to prove to George, prove to the audience, likely prove to himself that in spite of all that’s happened, this life is worth it. And he does it quite brilliantly by taking George on a harrowing supernatural journey. It may seem cliche now, and he wasn’t the first, but to do this in a major Hollywood motion picture back then… it was the stuff of magic.
And George embarks on a HARROWING journey. Think of how interesting it is that an angel would visit George but look and act like Clarence. That it wasn’t a winged beauty that would simply deliver George from evil. That it would make George choose, realize where the real value in his life is. It would hold his face to the fire and tell him that he hasn’t suffered enough. That in spite of his losses, how dare he think of throwing the gift of his life away.
Capra needs to make this point for his protagonist, for his viewer, for himself. Because if he didn’t, we’d all throw ourselves off a bridge.
And yes, this movie comes up in regards to the American Dream a lot recently, how back then it was about owning a house, and Potter’s idea of renting makes more sense today in lieu of the sub-prime crisis and bank / Wall Street mess. How the American Dream is just that, a dream. But what is not a dream is the fleeting moments we share with others who we are close to, whether that’s at Christmas, or one minute on some afternoon in a ten-year draught of terrorist attacks and bankruptcy and disease and environmental destruction.
Anyway, I get it. It plays a lot over the holidays and you’re tired of it. I am sorry you feel that way.
I’m actually going to go see it at the Arclight on Monday at 8pm. I want to see it on the big screen in the dark, with perfect sound and sight, see the fear and desperation in George’s eyes, see George really come to the brink, so that when he comes back, and I come back with him, and I go back home, and I hug my wife, I’m reminded again of what that means.
Chris explains in perfect detail why I’m not ashamed to count It’s A Wonderful Life among my favorite films of all time.
Me too. It’s one of my favorite films ever. And Chris absolutely nails it here. (Here is the essay I wrote on it a year or so ago, touching on a lot of the same stuff.)
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- markbringelson said: Something to be said when a film evokes deep responses like yours & mine, so I give it that. My tv remark was a bit out of line. But nothing you say changes anything for me. We think differently. I admire your passion; not the film.
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- byronic said: Yes, sir. ***Loud, heartfelt, persistent applause from London to LA***
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- lizlet said: THE BEST MOVIE.
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