It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
In the week or so since I watched and fell back in love with this movie, I’ve been struggling to remember how old I was when I first saw it. In our household we didn’t really watch anything as tradition around Christmas and certainly not this, but I’m tolerably sure that I was less than ten years old and that it was my first exposure to James Stewart, who made a major impression on me. What puzzles me is that while I remember liking the movie a fair bit and catching it again on cable a few times, it’s hard me to figure what I saw in it, what grabbed me about it. For despite its widespread and unassailable reputation as the key film for American families to watch around Christmastime, a film whose perpetual availability and absorption into our culture despite its initial failure have let it run into our blood for decades, it seems to me now to be distinctly and unmistakably a film for adults. This in some ways is analogous to the career and existence of its director Frank Capra: reputed to be the all-American mom-and-apple-pie auteur of simplistic nostalgia and tired truisms, his major films are actually cynical and tough-minded, working carefully to earn their emotions, from pure joy to utter despair.
What’s more revealing, probably, is how I reacted to the film when it was shown to us in eighth grade, the last day before Christmas vacation — I enjoyed the movie and laughed in the right places, but was chilly on what I then felt to be a mawkish sentimentality permeating the picture, especially its final third (into which Capra skillfully stuffs almost the entire story). For me as well as my classmates, the show of unvarnished love and joy in the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life was something to be mocked and looked down on, a hoary gesture from the past. I still liked the movie and its wit and spark, and the aching sorrow of Stewart’s magnificent performance stuck with me enough for me to file it away and remember it positively.
What I think my disquiet back in 1997 at the film’s hard-won cheeriness really says, though, correlates nicely with Capra’s own thesis, which is not, mind you, that “he is never alone who has friends.” It’s that to the extent we’re driven by our impulses and expectations in our grand conception of ourselves — Stewart’s George Baiely with his bags already packed for hobnobbing in Europe, blind to the unconditional love nearby Mary (Donna Reed) holds for him — it’s only when we’re humbled, blindsided, wounded that we learn the bare facts of who we are. Who I am now is a person who was reduced to a sobbing mess of memory and awe by the close of this film in 2012 — there are few moments when I can recall being so sincerely and heartfully affected. That’s a result of all the same aging, maturation, resignation George would’ve come to know in a similar period of time. Capra’s interest is in discussing not what we do, as is sometimes mistaken, but who we are: who George Bailey truly is under his fine and decent deeds for others, and the degree of the sacrifices and sadnesses he hides in that classicist masculine way. In the same sense as The Best Years of Our Lives, released within the same two-week period (my god, can you imagine?), this is a film about us — and it bears witness nearly as powerfully.
Presumably you don’t have to be told what It’s a Wonderful Life is about, but there is something to say about the career trajectory that led Frank Capra to this happy and risky moment. He’d been at Columbia since the silent era, his career ushered into an unprecedented level of prestige by producer Harry Cohn, who credited Capra with transforming his studio from Poverty Row to power. Acting on what he credited as a message from above to craft films which would inform the audience that God loved them, and that he too loved them, his films gradually attained a sense of life and populist zeal that was often mistaken then for empty idealism. It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It with You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington each vividly enlivened some aspect of American life that seemed to emanate from the heart and mind of a man Just Like You and Me, not the proverbial Hollywood “outsider.” Just as important here is Stewart, who’d starred in two of those three key Capra films. For both men, this was a return home after several years of military service — the cumulative pain of the past five years is palpable in Capra’s frame but most of all on Stewart’s face.
Though he was destined only to improve as an actor, arguably peaking with Vertigo in 1958, there is perhaps no better place to see the full-bodied genius of his work; he alone would be enough to give the lie to any reductive sentiment about the importance of actors to a film, the intelligence of film acting as a craft. Stewart’s embodiment of George is so persuasive, so galvanizing, that it’s difficult to detect where the character ends and the performer begins. A moment of sublime loss of self and fearlessness like Stewart’s breaking down at the bar midway through the picture is as harrowing, beautiful, and moving as anything captured on film. His tearful face in that scene or his breaking down in his initial embrace of Mary — those are the most spectacular of all Hollywood special effects, the wonder of an emotional moment captured for eternity.
Capra’s return to the U.S. was also marked by his move away from Columbia (though his prior film, the quickly made Arsenic and Old Lace, had been a Warner Bros. production); he financed this picture independently with a new collective called Liberty Films, distributed by RKO (only too appropriate that the studio whose “newspaper movie” was Citizen Kane would issue a “Christmas movie” that would turn out to be It’s a Wonderful Life), and evidently spared no expense. Particularly when compared to the technically scrappy and fragmented appearance of It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It with You, It’s a Wonderful Life looks and feels as pricey and slick as it apparently was — a new kind of movie snow was even concocted specifically so that Capra, always seeking naturalism in performances, could record sound live. The investment was not recouped at the time; typically the blame goes to The Best Years of Our Lives, a juggernaut ironically directed by Capra’s friend (and business partner in Liberty) William Wyler, which would go on to become the highest grossing American film since Gone with the Wind in 1939. But there is also the matter of the film’s central bleakness, which is only slightly relieved by its joyous but still melancholy resolution, and its defiantly unconventional structure — one reason, perhaps, that it plays so well and as such an adventurous selection today, however sentimental and nostalgic our attachment to it may be.
It’s useful as well to note that said nostalgia, as to some degree with Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz, arises far more from regular television reruns and showings and the revived Classic Film culture of the ’70s than to anything connected with the film’s cultural presence in 1946, limited to some Oscar nominations and little else. But by the early ’80s, the legacy was sealed enough that Stewart could accept his Lifetime Achievement Oscar and bring tears to the eyes of millions by thanking those watching for giving him “a wonderful life.” The movie’s everywhere, yet it feels sacred in some sense — Capra would sardonically label it a strike against atheism in 1946, and there certainly is the grandness of a hymn or spiritual in its graceful story, but much of the film’s immediacy and universal nature is tied up in the central unhidden secret that it’s not actually a Christmas film, nor is it a religious film. It is a humanist film, like most of Capra’s, one that speaks to the basic decency of people and calls out for kindness and directness of relation, recognition of love and affection, simple expression of emotion. These rallying cries remain important, as important as anything a movie can tell us.
Perhaps it’s significant in another way, then, that Wonderful Life would lose not just money but the Oscars to The Best Years of Our Lives, an equally dark but ultimately far less optimistic film that pleads passionately for those same things. It speaks perhaps to the mood of the times that its tearful melancholy would resonate so strongly when this film’s sometimes oppressive sense of loss did not. In both cases, however, we have a film that aims not to make us cry but to present something to us that will make us feel such deep empathy that we are very likely to do so — two films about people, two films that earn emotion without shortcuts, without music welling up artificially to inform us of the nature of the next beat. I wish more people my age had seen The Best Years of Our Lives, but I’m thrilled most of us have seen this one — it’s such an immensely powerful film, and such a good experience for us to claim as a rite of passage and a touchstone in American culture. I only hope it retains that status for the rest of my life and beyond, because the effect it had on me this last time… gosh, sometimes you forget that movies can do that, especially these days.
If we’ve been inundated with homages and parodies (from Back to the Future Part II to Beavis and Butt-Head) of It’s a Wonderful Life for decades, it’s easy to guess that many of us, especially those who don’t catch the annual TV broadcast, have managed to forget how the film actually works. Capra would later state he barely noticed he’d made a Christmas movie; the majority of the film is simply an exploration of the personal history and inner world of George. The sequence in which the angel Clarence (a delightful Henry Travers) shows George the distressing alternate reality in which Bedford Falls has become Pottersville and his social circle is desolate and derelict, Mary suffering a fate worse than death (she’s the town librarian!), in fact covers only a fraction of the narrative, all in the third act, and all more ambiguous and dark than you likely remember.
And as in all of Capra’s films, the dialogue crackles with humor and energy, the supporting players are uniformly excellent (Lionel Barrymore giddily eating up his chance at villainy, Thomas Mitchell stumbling around delightfully, and Donna Reed above all, her heart seemingly set to bursting), and the suspicion of capitalism embodies just the right amount of HUAC feather-ruffling. You almost don’t notice that very nearly the entire film is a flashback, and what’s left is mostly fantasy — the sense of unreality and displacement permeate as clearly as if Bedford Falls were an idealist fabrication for which dreams are sacrificed, and Pottersville the only real place. The only solace one can count on, it seems to suggest, is other people. Hold them tightly if you can.