A Defense Of It’s
A Wonderful Life
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/25/05
I’ve never commented upon a book nor a writer that I have not read before, even if I’ve gotten bad word of mouth from others, simply because I usually just trust my own instincts more. I also try to practice the same in regards to other art forms, as well, although sometimes, in the lesser arts (compared to writing) I admit that I’ve not always been a hundred percent faithful to that credo. Never has the need to actually experience a work of art before dismissing it been so hammered home as purely and evidently as my recent experience with the 1946 Christmas chestnut film, It’s A Wonderful Life. The Frank Capra classic is one I’ve avoided, mostly due to its negative reputation as a ‘heartwarming tearjerker’. I’d watched his other major films- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, etc- and found them to be good, if a bit propagandistic in the Norman Rockwell way. I’ve also seen my share of Christmas classics- from 1970s telefilms like The Gathering or The Homecoming (the pilot for the tv drama The Waltons), to kid’s classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, even to other films like the assorted A Christmas Carol incarnations, Miracle On 34th Street, and even the camp classic, starring a young Pia Zadora, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.
But, I’ve always avoided It’s A Wonderful Life due to its reputation as a ‘classic’, and a cheesy piece of Americana on par with the worst of illustrator Norman Rockwell’s hagiographies to an America that never existed. Capra has always had a reputation as a fluff director, even though he directed some fine films before and after this one. I guess I always felt this must be something to rival Steven Spielberg in the schmaltz factor. So, a few weeks ago, on December 10th, when I was tired, one Saturday night, after much khazery due to corporate insanity, I plopped onto bed, and instead of reading, turned on the tv. It’s A Wonderful Life was just coming on NBC. I was ready to flip the channel, but something said to me, ‘Stay, watch just a bit. A little cheese cannot hurt. It might also be what’s needed to lighten my gloom.’ I was too tired to argue with myself, so did. I am forty, and decided it was time to see for myself what all the fuss was about. I had seen the most famous scenes here and there, in five minute snippets, and over the years must have seen a good thirty to forty minutes, total; including the scenes with the talking stars and galaxies, the rescue of Clarence the angel from the river, and the joyous ending. Pure corn, I thought. Right?
But as the first few minutes passed I found that the film was deeper,
quite a bit deeper, and far better written than I had ever thought- not just for
itself, but for a 1940s film from Hollywood. The boy (Bobbie
Anderson) who plays a young George Bailey is excellent, and the
transition to Jimmy Stewart as George works well. As scenes and minutes passed
it became obvious: this was not a mere morality play, like A Christmas Carol;
although that’s a brilliant morality play. So, I started taking notes, really
drawn into the action, and wanting to analyze it anew, for the several essays
I’d read on it all declared it fluff, but ‘goof fluff’, basically. Were
they watching the same film as I was? The 1940s film era seems to me to be
amongst the worst in Hollywood history, rivaled only by the 1980s. The war years
were filled with mostly sickeningly patriotic fluff, and the late 1940s filled
with noirish mediocrities. Yes, classics like Citizen Kane and The
Third Man appeared, but by and large it was a weak decade. It was soon
apparent to me that It’s A
Wonderful Life was one of the
exceptions, and that its vilification and ignorance for several decades, until
the mid-1970s, when it dropped into public domain, was inexplicable. When public
and local tv stations started airing the film in the mid-1970s the film took
off, in terms of ratings, and a critical reassessment, and became a beloved
classic, running on several stations per market almost non-stop. It deserved the
status, for it’s a truly great film- no ifs, ands, nor buts. NBC somehow
wangled the exclusive rights to the film about a decade ago and has aired it two
or three times during December ever since. The film comes in at 129 minutes,
although commercial padding stretches it to three hours nicely.
In doing some research, I
found out it
lost about half a million dollars in its initial run, costing about $3.2 million
to make and falling short in box office. The New Yorker trashed it
critically, as did many other big newspaper, although a few outlets praised it,
such as The Hollywood Reporter. It garnered five Acadeny Award
nods (including Best Picture, Best
Actor, Best Director, Best Sound Recording and Best Film Editing), but
won nothing. William Wyler’s The
Best Years of Our Lives won Best Picture. It also had a bizarre history of
being at the center of the early 1990s film colorizing debate, and new
copyrights being issued for the color versions, as well as being labeled
Communist agitprop by J. Edgar Hoover’s FB, in 1947, because of its capitalist
villain, but it was an absurd claim.
In rewatching the film
this past Christmas Eve my initial opinion of two weeks earlier was only
strengthened. It’s a film, like 2001:
A Space Odyssey, or The
Thin Red Line, by Terrence Malick, that is so rich and textured that only through
multiple viewings can its full treasure trove avail itself to the viewer.
The film opens as if a storybook, telling the viewer that this may indeed
be just a fable. We see a wintry scene of Bedford Falls, a small town set
somewhere in the northeast United States- most likely New England- although
it’s never specified. It’s Christmas Eve, 1945, and the townsfolk are
praying for one George Bailey (Stewart). It seems he’s suicidal. We see
different locales, which are bound to become recognizable to us as the film
progresses. We then peer upward, to the firmament, where galaxies and stars
pulse and speak. The effects, while not dazzling, are just right in their
simplicity so as to not seem corny. The galaxies and stars are angels who have
heard the prayers for George Bailey. The angels, Joseph and Franklin, assign
Bailey a guardian angel, but only have
Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), an Angel Second Class, who hasn’t
earned his wings, despite being dead for over two centuries. We learn that
Clarence was a forgetful clockmaker who had the IQ of a rabbit, but the faith of
a child. Some have taken this to mean the film is asking for a suspension of the
rational mind, but do not most films? This criticism is just silly. Then,
Clarence’s voice is heard, but he appears as a comet, and he will be brought
up to speed on the life of his charge. He is told that if he can prevent
George’s suicide he will finally get his wings. The bulk of the film is what
Joseph and Franklin are telling Clarence about George, thereby making most of
the film one long flashback until George will eventually meet Clarence.
We are in winter of 1919, and young George (Anderson) is twelve. Having
been born in 1907, the film’s present is set when he’s thirty-eight, in
1945. When his younger brother Harry Bailey (George Nokes), only eight, slides
down a hill on a shovel, he falls beneath thin ice, and George saves him. We
learn that both boys survived, but Georgey caught a cold, infection, and went
deaf in his left ear. He also works part-time for the local druggist, Mr. Gower
(H. B. Warner), whose son has just died from the flu epidemic. We also glimpse a
horse-drawn carriage with Mr. Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the local
banker, a character who makes Ebenezer Scrooge and John D. Rockefeller seem like
pikers in the ‘bastard’ department. Two girls who are four years younger
than George, and will figure strongly in the film are at the soda counter- blond
Violet Bick (Jeanine Anne Roose), who has a crush on George that is never
reciprocated, and brunet Mary Hatch (Jean Gale), whom he’ll one day marry, and
who pledges her love right then and there. Both are antagonistic, with Mary
sticking her tongue out at Violet after George refuses to help her down from a
stool, in an attempt to woo him, and both have revelatory moments. Violet is
told by Mary that she likes every boy, implying her flirty nature is heading her
toward trouble, to which the small blond matter of factly replies: ‘What’s
wrong with that?’ Mary’s pledge of love, however, is not straight-forward,
but whispered in George’s bad ear, ‘George Bailey, I’ll love you till the
day I die.’ But, now, they are just
girls George flirts with as he dreams of leaving Bedford Falls, seeing the world
with the National Geographic Society, and possibly becoming an architect.
There are more important things, like his discovery that the grief-stricken
druggist has accidentally filled capsule with cyanide, rather than medicine.
George objects, but is ordered to deliver it. He goes, but heads towards his
father’s Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association office for advice
on what to do. His father, Peter Bailey (Samuel Hinds), is busy fending off Mr.
Potter’s attempts to destroy his rival. George’s dumb Uncle Billy (Thomas
Mitchell), stops George from interrupting, but is called away. Peter Bailey is
ridiculed for giving loans to those who need it, and not making vast sums of
money, preventing the poor from having to live in Potter’s slums. George
defends his dad, but is shooed away before he can ask about the pills. Mr. Gower
is angry that George failed to deliver as ordered, and he slaps the boy about,
as George cries, tells him of his error, but says he understands that Gower was
not in his right mind, due to grief. Gower tests the pills, sees he was wrong,
and begs for forgiveness, thanking George for catching the error, and preventing
a tragedy, and George swears he’ll never reveal the secret.
Nearly a decade passes.
It’s 1928 and George plans to go to Europe before going to college, after four
years of working at his father’s B&L. He gets a monogrammed travel bag, a
gift from the still grateful Mr. Gower. As he enters the drugstore to thank his
old boss he wishes he had a million dollars, and presses the handle of a good
luck charm, just as he had done a few minutes, and a few years, earlier in the
film- the first of numerous repetitions that enhance the building of
characters’ pasts, as well their character. We see other of the townsfolk,
such as Bert the cop (Ward Bond) and Ernie the cabby (Frank Faylen), who offers
George a ride home. Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame), now the local sex bomb, flirts
with him. It is the first of a number of quite sexual moments, considering the
film was made in the 1940s and set in the 1920s, that belie the All-American
sort of pabulum image the film has acquired. George has a last meal at home,
before Harry (Todd Karns) graduates from high school. Now, Harry will work for
the B&L while George gets adventure and education, then plans to become a
builder and entrepreneur. Harry, who has been horsing around with George, chases
Annie, the black maid into the kitchen, professing his love for her in a moment
of real tenderness, that portrays the maid’s role in the family in a way quite
distinct from the condescending way most films portrayed blacks in that era.
George wants nothing to do with the B&L, for he wants to do ‘big and
important’ things. As he says, a little bit later in the film, to Mary, just
before he breaks a window, wishing at the Glanville house:
I'm shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and
I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then,
I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m
gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a
hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.’
Peter Bailey defends the
B&L’s mission, but knows George must find his own way. At Harry’s
graduation party, in the high school gym, George meets old friends Sam
Wainwright (Frank Albertson), and Marty Hatch (Harold Landon), Mary’s brother.
Marty says Mary’s back in town and would love to dance with George, who again
spurns Violet for the beautiful Mary (Donna Reed), whom he dances with.
This is the start of a montage that shows the duo falling in love. They dance in a Charleston contest, and a boy (played by ex-Little Rascals star Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer) Mary spurns for George, gets his revenge by pushing a button that opens the dance floor, to reveal a swimming pool below. When he stole Mary away from the boy George humorously tells the self-absorbed boor, ‘Why don’t you stop annoying people?’, to which the boy doubletakes. The pair are oblivious to what others see, and dance into the water, then keep on dancing, as others gleefully join in. Afterwards, they walk home and flirt. He’s in football clothes, and she in a bathrobe monogrammed with the initials BFHS for Bedford Falls High School. They see the old Granville house- a wreck Mary vows to one day live in. They flirt some more, singing Buffalo Gals, another repeated motif, and George hurls a rock through the old house’s window, after wishing, and says he’s going to leave Bedford Falls soon. Mary then breaks a window with a rock and makes her own wish. They flirt, and George says he’d lasso the moon for Mary, if she wanted. Then an older man, listening to them on his porch, tells George to kiss Mary. George acts ambivalent, and the older man grumbles that, ‘Youth is wasted on the wrong people.’ He goes inside and George accidentally steps on Mary’s bathrobe, disrobing her to nudity, as she bashfully hides in hydrangea bushes. This well written and realistic scene ends with some very frank sexual talk for the era- again filmed in the 1940s but set in the 1920s, as Mary and George continue to flirt, with him having the upper hand now, ‘This is a very interesting situation! A man doesn’t get into a situation like this everyday, not in Bedford Falls, anyway.’ Just then, Harry and Uncle Billy pull up in a car. Peter Bailey’s had a stroke and dies. Mary watches George drive off. Europe is on hold, as George must keep the business going.
Three months go by, and
Potter is ready to pounce, wanting to dissolve the B&L, and offers
platitudes about Peter Bailey, than calls their clients, ‘a discontented, lazy
rabble instead of a thrifty working class.’ George, who’s lost out on a trip
to Europe, is all set to go off to college, defends his father’s honesty and
nobility vis-à-vis Potter:
Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about. They do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book, he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.
This is not sentimentalism, nor is it Communism, but plain old common sense. It’s also wholly plausible coming from the mouth of a man with a good heart, defending his father’s reputation from a fiscal barracuda, and in a great touch by Capra, as George pontificates, old Potter yawns his disdain. But, George feels all is lost, until the B&L’s board votes not to sell to Potter with one proviso- George must be Executive Secretary, succeeding his father. He suggests Uncle Billy run the company- but that’s untenable. George has to choose between his personal and selfish dreams, or his father’s altruistic dream. It’s not an easy call, and the anguish is palpable. Stewart really acts as he wrestles, then accedes to the board, claiming, ‘This is my last chance,’ yet knowing he’s lost I, so gives in to the board’s wish. So, with Europe and college out of the question George sends his brother off to college with his saved money, and Harry becomes a football star.
Four years pass quickly in the angels’ tale, and Harry returns in 1932. The plan is he’ll run the business while George goes off to college. George and Uncle Billy wait for his return at the train station, and George dreams of travel to Venezuela or the Yukon, holding brochures for those destinations- anywhere that isn’t Bedford Falls. Yet, fate intervenes, again. Harry is a newlywed, to Ruth (Virginia Patton). She tells George her father has a great job in a glass factory waiting for Harry in Buffalo. It’s the height of the Great Depression, and good jobs are hard to come by. Again, George is faced with his own dreams or a great reality for his brother. George won’t stand in Harry’s way, yet his face contorts with anger and frustration, and even bitterness. There are many moments in the film, as this, where we see George Bailey as a real character, not some sappy caricature, as the film’s many critics distort him into being. That night the family celebrates Harry’s return. George and Uncle Billy talk outside. The drunken Billy staggers away, as George hears a train whistle. While waiting for Harry at the train station, George commented that a train whistle was one of the most exciting sounds going. It represented freedom and escape from Bedford Falls. But Jimmy Stewart’s ability to distill a moment shines through here. Now, what a minute earlier was plainly representing George’s dreams, is now their leaving him, possibly forever. In anger he tosses away his travel brochures, and his mother (Beulah Bondi) sees his upset, and tells him that Mary Hatch is back from college, too, and he should visit her. George reluctantly goes, and Mrs. Bailey telephones Mary of George’s impending arrival. But, George heads to Main Street, where Violet Bick again throws herself at him. George concocts a fantasy hike to a mythic Mount Bedford, and she dismisses him, as others laugh.
He ends up at Mary’s, who is expecting him, and all dolled up. George is still cranky, but Mary still loves him. Four years earlier, on their walk home after the fall in the pool, George had promised to lasso the moon for Mary, and we see that she has a needlepoint portrait called ‘George Lassos The Moon’ in her living room. It’s one of dozens of little touches and repetitions that work so well in the film, and also defines Mary as a real character. George, in a believable reaction, due to his disappointment, mocks the portrait. Mary tries to feel George out about marriage. Her mother calls from upstairs to find out who came a-calling. When Mary says it’s George her mother asks what he wants, and Mary answers, in a very un-1940s display of sexual liberation: ‘He’s making violent love to me, mother.’ Her mother mentions that Mary is now engaged to Sam Wainwright, George’s old pal, and he’ll be calling from New York soon. She and George argue, and Mary smashes her record of Buffalo Gals, a song with special meaning to the two of them. Sam calls and Mary tries to make George jealous. Sam wants to speak with George, over a business opportunity in plastics, what Sam calls, ‘the biggest thing since radio.’ Mary and George share the phone, at Sam’s request. George has given up his dreams consistently, and resists Mary’s proximity, not wanting to capitulate again, but he is overwhelmed by his attraction, and she is too. Sam kids George that he’s after his girl. He is, but even George is not fully aware of it, as his face contorts to Mary’s scents’ rapture over him. George is being squeezed in three ways- by letting his brother have his dreams, by Sam’s offer, and Mary’s love. He bursts out in another impotent rage, grabbing Mary and stating:
Now, you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want
any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married, ever - to anyone! You
understand that? I want to do what I want to do.
He stops. She cries.
George kisses Mary passionately- a real kiss, not some run of the mill romance
kiss, but a real kiss that true love augurs. Sam is literally left hanging on
the end of the phone. The whole use of the word ‘ground floor’ is very
symbolic, for the duo is on the ground floor, of Mary’s house, and their lives
together, and the very term connotes revelation ahead, which comes. Cut
to the sound of a wedding march. George and Mary are married, and Ernie the
cabby is driving them to a New York bound train, then off to Bermuda. George
will leave his hated town, if only for a honeymoon. But, rain comes, and
there’s a run on the B&L, which is closed. Yet again, George’s life is
in a pivotal moment. Mary does not want him to investigate, but he does. The
crowd is a near mob as Uncle Billy has barred entry. Potter’s engineered the
run, by taking over the bank, guaranteeing its loans, yet calling in the
B&L’s loan prematurely, while ordering the bank closed for a week for
financial reorganization, ensuring that the people who have money in the B&L
will have to go there for cash, in hopes of bankrupting them. Billy panicked,
paid off the debt, but there’s no money for any other customers. Potter starts
to offer fifty cents on the dollar for their shares in the B&L. George is in
a pickle, and in a great asides, sees the memory strings Billy always wears
about his fingers, smiles, and tells him that he can take off the one signifying
the bank run now. It’s minor moments like this that reveal the awesome depth
and realism that Capra brings to the screen. George again makes a desperate
appeal, and the townsfolk trust him, knowing that the B&L is all that stands
between them and Potter’s dominion over every aspect of their life. Mary walks
in and offers to pay up smaller portions to everyone in need of money from the
two thousand dollars they were going to spend on their honeymoon. All but the
first greedy customer, Tom, settles for just a small stipend. He demands his
full $242. At the end of the day they close with a few bucks to spare. Then,
Mary calls George to come home to the Granville house on 320 Sycamore (Street or
Avenue?, it’s never specified), for their honeymoon. Bert and Ernie sing I
Love You Truly and generally make believe that the dump is a tropical suite
as Mary reveals that her wish, from years earlier, when she broke the window,
has come true. In a couple of touches that show the strength of the film, first
by tipping the hand of the ‘doorman’ with a stream of water from his hat’s
brim, and then when Ernie playfully kisses Bert on the forehead, in mock
admiration for their touch of kindness.
Time passes, and the
B&L helps many folk move into new homes in a section of town called Bailey
Park, including the Italian immigrant Martini clan. Potter’s hatred of George
grows through the years, as he sees that George is an even more formidable
obstacle to his domination of the town than his father was. Sam Wainwright stops
by to visit George and his ex-fiancée Mary, with his own wife, Jane, on his way
to Florida. George is struck with envy over Sam’s wealth and lifestyle. Then,
in what is an almost Biblical scene, set in 1934 or 1935, for George is called a
twenty-seven or twenty-eight year old by Potter, with George seated deliberately
in a chair lower in height than Potter, the old viper tries to tempt George. He
summons George to his office, admits George has beaten him, and offers him a
three year, $20,000 per year contract to manage the Potter business interests.
The money tempts him, but the offer of business trips to Europe is what really
gets George listening. George almost caves in, but then says no, in another
classic moment of the little man standing up to the evils of Big Business:
I don’t need 24 hours. I don’t have to talk to anybody. I know right now, and the answer’s no. No! Doggone it! You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money! Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Potter! In the, in the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider! You….(turning to Potter’s assistant) And that goes for you, too!
That night, George comes home to Mary asleep and wonders why he keeps putting principle ahead of pleasure. He wonders why Mary puts up with him. But, she’s not been asleep, and answers that ‘I want my baby to look like you.’ She’s pregnant. Another montage of time passing goes by. The angel Clarence is given more details, as are the viewers. Mary will have four children with George, and works on slowly repairing the house they live in, as George keeps the B&L afloat. We see yet another of the tiny moments that realistically imbue the film- George comes home one night, exhausted, and grabs the stairway railing’s ball to head up the stairs, and it comes off in his grip. He puts it back with a look of amaze. World War Two comes, and the lives of the Bedford Fallsians are sketched: Mary, her mother, and George’s mother help in the war effort, Potter heads the draft board, the druggist Gower and Uncle Billy hawk war bonds, and Billy actually gets off the best zinger in the film, at Potter’s expense, ‘After all, Potter, some people like George had to stay at home. Not every heel was in Germany and Japan.’ Sam Wainwright gets rich selling plastic parts for airplanes, and Harry Bailey goes off to war, and becomes a hero by shooting down fifteen airplanes, and saving a U.S. ship from a kamikaze bomber. George is 4F, due to his left ear’s deafness, but contributes in assorted local war efforts. VE and VJ Days come and go, which brings us back to Christmas Eve of 1945, where the film began.
Harry Bailey has gotten the
Congressional Medal Of Honor from President Truman, in Washington, D.C., and is
due home that night to celebrate. Then, the initial setup for the film ensues.
Dim Uncle Billy goes to deposit $8000 at the bank. He tells Potter of Harry’s
medal, and accidentally puts the money in his newspaper, which he gives to
Potter. In his office, Potter realizes that the money he sees Billy looking for
is his, and gleefully sees his chance at ruining the Baileys, and taking over
the town. Back at the B&L, George is visited by Violet Bick, who wants to go
to New York to start life anew. George lends her some of his own money, and
she’s grateful. Meanwhile Uncle Billy frantically searches for the cash, as a
bank examiner named Mr. Carter is coming to inspect the B&L’s books. Billy
confesses his error to George, and they search the building and all over town,
to no avail. George shows that he’s not the caricature poor critics claim, by
flying into a rage at his uncle, and it’s not just over this latest idiocy,
but obviously over years of tolerating and covering for the old fool. He
Where’s that money, you silly stupid old fool? Where’s that money? Do
you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison.
That’s what it means. One of us is going to jail. Well, it’s not gonna be
Yet, despite his rage,
later George tells Potter that it’s he who lost the money, although Potter
knows the truth. At this moment the viewer can see that George believes all the
sacrifices he has made seem for naught. He heads home and his oldest daughter
Janie poorly but relentlessly bangs away Hark the Herald Angels Sing on
their upright piano, while Mary and his oldest son Peter decorate the Christmas
tree. His youngest son Tommy comforts George. Mary sees something’s dreadfully
wrong, and George lashes out at the world, and his daughter’s playing. The
family is in shock. Told that his youngest daughter Zuzu is ill George comments
that it’s probably because they live in the damned old Granville house, which
is like a barn. He even asks Mary why they have to have so many children.
Again, as he heads up to see her, the stairway railing’s ball comes off in his
grip, and George wants to heave it, but restrains himself, and puts it back.
Zuzu gives George a flower, but the petals fall off, and George pockets them,
pretending to glue them back on the flower. Downstairs, he hears Mary speaking
to her teacher, Mrs. Welch, and George blames her for the girl’s cold for she
allowed Zuzu to keep her coat open to protect the flower. Her husband gets on
the phone, and he and George argue violently, and George challenges him to a
fight. George then rages, tossing much about the house. He then sees his
family’s fear, and apologizes, and heads into the night. Mary calls Uncle
Billy and learns of the situation. Yet, what sticks about the scene is that this
is real anguish and violence, and not the usual cartoonish sort films proffer.
George grovels to Potter
to explain the situation, and ask for help, decency, mercy, a loan, but Potter-
in one of the truly most evil scenes ever filmed, reminds George of his, years
earlier, calling him a ‘warped, frustrated, old man’, and says he’ll
summon the police on him. He claims the DA and a police officer already asked
him of George’s problem. George is an embezzler, a womanizer, and implies
he’s a john who pays for sex with Violet Bick. George offers a $15,000 life
insurance policy as collateral, and Potter mocks him and the mere $500 equity
the policy has, saying he’s worth more dead than alive. He mocks him, stating
that he go to the riffraff he serves for money, claiming they’ll run him out
of town. This scene both foreshadows what will ultimately save George, to the
chagrin of Potter, as well planting the idea of suicide in George’s mind. This
is where we were at film’s start. George heads toward old man Martini’s bar,
where Martini pleads for him to stop drinking, but all George does is guzzle and
pray. Yet, he prays embarrassedly by covering his mouth with his hands and
mumbling silently. The schoolteacher’s husband, Mr. Welch, sees George, and
decks him. Martini tosses him out of the bar, and sees to George. In a perfect
bit of realism, George bitterly states, of his bloodied mouth, ‘That’s what
you get for praying.’ He now feels suicide will be the only solution to pay
off the B&L’s debt. He drives away, and crashes his car into a tree. The
homeowner chews him out, but he’s oblivious. He heads for the nearby bridge
over the cold river, almost being hit by a truck. He’s ready to end it all,
when an old man jumps in first. George’s decency kicks in, and his own suicide
fades. He jumps in the river, but with purpose, to save the old man. The
bridge’s tollman pulls them both out, and has them dry off in the tollhouse.
They hang their clothes over a fire, and the old man dries off a copy of The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a book he’s reading. By his voice we know he’s
the angel Clarence, but George is oblivious.
Clarence explains who he
is and his mission to save George, that he jumped in to save George. George
thinks he’s loony. Clarence says:
I knew if I were drowning, you’d try to save me. And you see, you did.
And that’s how I saved you.
In yet another perfectly in-character reaction, George comments dryly, ‘Well, you look about like the kind of angel I’d get. Sort of a fallen angel, aren’t you? What happened to your wings?’ Clarence explains all and tells George what a full life he’s led, but George isn’t convinced, offhandedly remarking things would be better if he’d never have been born, rather than his committing suicide. Clarence now knows how he’ll save George. He grants the wish and tells George he’s never been born. Suddenly, the storm dies down, his left ear works, his lip is fine, and their clothes are dry. While a bit out of the ordinary, this is not enough to convince George of Clarence’s claims. This trip to the alternate universe works for its very understatedness- it goes straight into the conceit, with no razzmatazz. George asks Clarence to tag along with him, and they come to a bar where Martini’s was, but it’s owned by Martini’s bartender, a Mafia type. The town is also now called Pottersville, not Bedford Falls. The town is now filled with vice, pool halls, bars, whorehouses, strip clubs, fight clubs, pawn shops, and gambling dens. When the bartender rings up his register Clarence states that every time a bell rings, it means an angel’s just gotten his wings. George is a bit embarrassed by Clarence’s demeanor, and tries to fob it off to the ruffians.
George is still unconvinced, until his old boss, Mr. Gower comes in, now
a rummy and bum who is mocked by the bar patrons. George asks what happened and
learns that he spent years in jail for accidentally killing a kid with a wrong
prescription. George looks for his wallet but it’s gone, along with all ID.
Even Zuzu’s petals are gone. Clarence tells him this is what he wanted, after
all, yet George feels he’s just dreaming. But George’s influence was not
only in saving Gower’s fatal error, which ruined his life, but saving the town
from Potter’s evil grip, by keeping the B&L afloat. In this version of
reality the B&L sunk with old Peter Bailey’s death and Uncle Billy’s
incompetence, and Billy went mad and was institutionalized. Violet Bick is not a
mere flirt, but a drunken whore. Bailey Park was never built, and is the
dilapidated cemetery called Potter’s Field , that it always was, as well a
place where slum houses still stand. Folk like Bert the cop and Ernie the cabby
don’t know George, and their lives are poorer for it. His home, the Granville
house, would never be restored, and be a dump. George’s kids were never born,
and his brother Harry died in the icy lake, at eight, because George was not
around to save him. Consequently, all the men Harry saved in World War Two also
died, because Harry wasn’t there to save them. With a dead son and husband,
George’s mother became a bitter boarding home landlady, and does not recognize
the never born George. The closeup look of horror on George’s face is
Clarence returns, and
states what is usually pinned as sheer cornpone, but is true, even if a bit
Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and
when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?
At the graveyard where
Bailey Park stood in his reality, George sees Harry’s tombstone (1911-1919),
yet, even though the stone reads as it does, Clarence says George’s brother
died at the age of nine. This is one of many continuity errors in the film, for
we even hear at film’s start that Harry was eight when he fell through the
ice. Of course, we must recall that Clarence’s IQ was equated to that of a
rabbit by his fellow angels. Clarence then tells George he had a wonderful life,
too bad he threw it away. Still, George has a final hope- to locate Mary. She is
now a mousy old maid librarian, who never knew love in a world without George.
Granted, a woman as lovely as Mary would hardly be lonely, and likely ended up
in a loveless marriage with Sam Wainwright, but the point is taken. She
doesn’t recognize George, and he grabs her, to convince her he’s her
husband. She screams, and people intervene. Bert the cop comes and George slugs
him and takes off, as Bert shoots his gun at him, having lost him earlier, after
trying to bring George in, when Ernie tipped him off, as a possible drunk, and
Clarence literally disappeared from Bert’s grip.
George gets to the bridge
with Bert closing in. he pleads with Clarence to restore his life
Clarence! Clarence! Help me, Clarence. Get me back. Get me back. I don’t care what happens to me. Get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please. Please! I want to live again! I want to live again. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again.
As if that’s not enough, George’s old friend Sam Wainwright sends a telegram from overseas, stating that he’ll send $25,000 to help George, and more if needed. Mary has helped Uncle Billy rally all the people who George Bailey helped. The auditor and sheriff tear up the warrant for George’s arrest and they all sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing as Janie plays it on the piano. To top off the good will, Harry Bailey arrives, to find that even his honor from the President cannot top his big brother’s good fortune. He cheers his brother as ‘the richest man in town’, an unsubtle dig at the again thwarted Potter. With the Christmas carol done they all sing Auld Lang Syne. Holding Zuzu, George sees Clarence’s copy of The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. It’s inscribed: ‘Dear George, Remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings! Love Clarence’. George’s dream was real. A bell on the Christmas tree rings and Zuzu says, ‘Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.’ George smiles and replies, ‘That’s right, that’s right. Attaboy, Clarence.’ Then he looks upward and winks, knowing his presence in the cosmos not only affected the lives of the mortal, but even those beyond this world. The film ends as Auld Lang Syne crescendoes.
Simply put, the best thing about It’s A Wonderful Life is the writing. The writing is, in fact, the true star of the film, not the actors. Adapted from a short story, The Greatest Gift, by Philip Van Doren Stern, by Capra, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Jo Swerling (and legend has it Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets also penned certain scenes without accreditation), the film is a screenwriting masterpiece, veering near schmaltz, but never crossing the line, for it is too grounded in the reality of its situation and characters, despite the supernatural borders it resides in. Its source material, The Greatest Gift, by comparison, is a mediocre fable.
No film is great without great writing, and this film is no exception. Look at the little things that are repeated- from George’s saving of his brother and Clarence from drowning, to the stairway railing’s ball always coming loose, to the Granville house’s symbolism, and on and on. But, more than being greatly written, it’s very realistically written, with great, believable, and quotable dialogue. I’ve mentioned the scenes were Mary loses her robe, and her comment on George making violent love to her when they’re on the phone, both far more daring in their era than one would suppose from a ‘family film’, yet it’s realistic. Earlier, when George is telling his plans of leaving the town to his father, just before Harry’s high school graduation, the family’s black maid, Annie, is eavesdropping on the two men, and George, winking and noddingly says, ‘Why don't you just pull up a chair and listen?’ In other films of that era, the servile domestic would have just grinned or dropped an embarrassed childish look. Instead, Annie is shown as a real person, who’ll stand up for herself. She tells George, with some sarcasm, ‘I would if I thought there was anything worth hearing.’ After George marries Mary, his mother comments to Annie, ‘First Harry, now George. We’re just a couple of old maids now, Annie.’ The domestic replies, ‘Speak for yourself Miss B.’ This is incredibly sensitive and realistic screenwriting, and Capra films it marvelously. When George and Mary are coming home after the fall into the pool this brilliant exchange takes place:
George: What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the
moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.
Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.
Mary: I’ll take it. Then what?
George: Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see.…and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair.…am I talking too much?
This is not corn, but the way men in love really act, unfortunately. All the characterizations are excellent. Especially so is Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter. Although this film is often compared to A Christmas Carol for its otherworldly visitors showing a hero what life would be like under different circumstances, most often Potter is called a Scrooge-like character. His motto, told to George when he attempts to tempt him, is very Scroogian, ‘I’m and old man and most people hate me, but I don’t like them either.’ But, the fact is he’s far worse. Ebenezer Scrooge is a grouch and a curmudgeon, and yes he berates poor Bob Cratchit (a George Bailey of the 19th Century), but while he may try to get by on others, he’s not a cheat and a thief. Henry Potter is, and is one of the most believable portraits of irredeemable evil ever put on screen. He’s not a mere symbol of evil, the way Hal the computer was in 2001: A Space Odyssey, nor Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) was in Apocalypse Now. Nor is he a delightful killer like Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux, a lunatic like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, nor a simple killing machine like the Alien in Alien, or a thousand other screen monsters. No, he is pure human avarice, spite, and hatred. And, unlike Scrooge, he is beyond redemption. This comes through most tellingly in his temptation of George with a plush job, where he also reveals himself as a bigot, calling George a ‘nursemaid to garlic-eaters’, meaning immigrants like Martini, and his later spitting back of George’s rebuffs of him when George comes groveling to him after Uncle Billy loses the money. On top of everything else, Potter is a sadist, a predator, and a hypocrite, for he has the money and won’t do the decent thing and return it, but instead uses it to accuse George of embezzlement. What makes him so monstrous is that unlike Anthony Hopkins’ filmic Hannibal Lecter, Potter is believable, and you’ve met and/or been screwed by many of him in your life. The tiff between him and George over the town’s direction, and Bailey Park’s alternative to Potter’s slums, is still relative today, in this Wal-Martized world that ravages smaller businesses, and drives workers into poverty, as it exploits even poorer folk elsewhere. This realism and eternal relevance makes it a far deeper tale than A Christmas Carol, even if, to a degree, it’s an inversion of that tale, with the otherworldly visitors not set to rescue the soul of a mean man, but the hope of a good man, and convince both of the worth of an individual. Also, Scrooge’s trip to other realities show a decent world, and one better without his current self in it, whereas Pottersville is pure hell in contrast to Bedford Falls. Yet, both trips are far shorter in reality than they are to their two protagonist percipients, and likely both are dreams, with George’s spanning a full second or so, from when Clarence jumps in the river to when Bert the cop sees him at the bridge.
Granted, the movie may be a bit of a stretch in that George Bailey seems to be the only townsfolk with the balls to stand up against Potter, much less the wherewithal to beat him at his own game, but is it really that much of a stretch? How often do things go bad at work or in a relationship because no one stands up for what is right? Too often, the Henry Potters of the world succeed in their ruin not for their own might, but for good people’s weaknesses in opposing them. This reality’s appearance in the film is a far cry from the claims of Capra corn that most viewers and critics, even if they love the film, tag it with.
In fact, It’s A Wonderful Life is an often grim film with a somewhat ambiguous ending….on a surface level. Its forebear is not to be found in the wholesome All-American films Capra did earlier, before World War Two, nor the other simple morality plays of the 1930s, nor even the larger, deeper themed epics of Cecil B. De Mille and the silent era, but in the works of Franz Kafka, especially his triumvirate of great works exploring the human ethos: The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and The Castle, especially the first two. Frank Capra/Franz Kafka- is it just a coincidence that both men’s work have earned the suffix –esque for works that are like theirs?, even if grammatically their influences should be called Capran and Kafkan, respectively. Yet, as Kafka did in his subversion of the typical idea of the hero with a viable and identifiable enemy, Capra equally sets George against a plenum of obstacles- not just the monstrous Potter, but his own flaws. There’s his own desires for travel, his forced acceptance of responsibilities, and his rage against small town America. Capra actually wars with Rockwellian America in this film, for the world of George Bailey is not that seen on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, but more that of a few decades hence- the 1960s, when even Rockwell would deconstruct his earlier visions.
That all said, some critics have gone to the other extreme, and tried to portray Capra as sort of a filmic version of poet Robert Frost, the infamous ‘Dark Frost’ that emerged in critical revisionism of the mid-20th Century. Bedford Falls is seen as a Stygian realm even before Clarence abnegates George’s existence. Yet, this is a willful misread every bit as damaging as the honest but deliterate misread of the film as campy cornpone. These critics see a wholly irredeemable America, which also pervades the ideas of many Left Wing critics today, just as the Right sees America as flawless, again lending a relevance that will not go away. Yet, Capra’s earlier films were possessed of heroes that stood against the venality of capitalistic excesses and political squalor, and these critics regard It’s A Wonderful Life as a subversion of his earlier stands, if not capitulation to those forces. To them, the film glorifies capitalism, and does not condemn it, for in the end it is capital that saves George from prison (for we know he’d’ve gone in place of Uncle Billy), and Bedford Falls is really Pottersville underneath, just not as honest about it.
These critics see this pervasive enslavement to the dollar as the American norm, not its perversion, and they’re right. They also see Potter’s view, if not person, being vindicated in the end, for even though George will now be able to remain a thorn in Potter’s side, he is as dependent upon money as Potter is, and there’s an ironic moment when, after Billy’s lost the money, and George grovels to Potter, the old man sticks a knife in George, with his own mocking words tossed back at him. Earlier, George had berated Potter as a ‘warped, frustrated old man’. Now, Potter revels in screwing George:
Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You claimed you were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me a ‘warped, frustrated, old man!’ Who are you but a warped, frustrated young man, crawling in here on your hands and knees begging for help. No securities, no stocks, no bonds. Nothing but a miserable little five hundred dollar equity in a life insurance policy. You’re worth more dead than alive.
And, at a certain level, Potter’s right, both in calling George a ‘warped, frustrated young man’ and being worth more dead than alive, yet it’s the very warp of George’s frustration that leads to what may be all just a delusion: his trip to Pottersville, and his salvation. George, ironically, while spiritually being better than Potter, is socially just playing Potter’s game, except playing it better than the old man, whose only chance at victory came with Uncle Billy’s flaw, not George’s. Even the happy end of the film is seen as merely a temporary reprieve, for now George will be further in debt to his customers, a state that he roundly despises. He’s also been somewhat emasculated by his wife’s ex-fiancé, Sam Wainwright, who can easily save the day that has driven George to existential angst. And he’s a capitalist, every bit as much as Potter is. This just reinforces their critical notion that the film is really about the power of money over all of our lives. And George Bailey, the hero, is seen as a mere doppelganger for the nonexistent George Bailey, for he never became who he set out to be. These critics posit that this gloomy point of view was readily apparent to post-War audiences, who rejected it.
Yet, this interpretation is clearly wrong, for a) it gives far too much credit to Joe Average, and b) it ignores the many subtleties of the script and film. While money is the apparent salvation of George in the film, it is just that- the apparent salvation. What saves him is the largess that others give due to his earlier sacrifices for them. And the dark view of the film also fails to recognize that while money rules both Bedford Falls and Pottersville, it is not money that is the issue. To quote the old apothegm correctly, it is not money at the root of all evil, but the love of money. In Bedford Falls the collected and collective money is being used for a good purpose, while Potter’s stashing of the lost money is not. In Pottersville money is all. In Bedford Falls the purpose of the money is supreme, and the difference. Purposiveness is the center of the film’s message, if one can boil such a wonderfully complex work of art down to a single word- not greed. To miss such an obvious thing reveals the ‘dark view’ as a willful misread, not a lack of smarts, as in the equally wrong ‘cheeseball’ accusations.
And this idea, that the lesson is not about wealth, and the difference
between it and inner peace and security, but what to do with wealth, connects it
to that other towering masterpiece of 1940s American cinema, Orson Welles’ Citizen
Kane. That the film has been so constantly critically abused and
misunderstood is a testament to the deliteracy of the current age. It’s a much
better film than Casablanca, and arguably a better portrait of a life, if
not technically a better film, than Citizen Kane. Both give dark versions
of life and a life, and sledding plays a pivotal role in both main characters’
lives, but whereas Charles Foster Kane becomes a Potter, George Bailey remains
true to himself. Also, whereas Kane’s tale is a uniquely and All-American
tale, George’s is a universally human tale.
The acting is also straight and never milked. The emotion is genuine, and
this is all the actors’ doing. Good writing can die with bad actors. Stewart,
Reed, Barrymore, and company never become caricatures. The film is laced with
true sentiment, not false sentimentality. Stewart’s vacillation between an aw
shucks nice guy and condescending jerk is believable, even as he mutters and
mumbles under his breath like Popeye the Sailor. And Reed’s portrayal
as Mary is also believable- while an optimist, she is no naïve Mary Sunshine,
being capable of quite risqué attitudes for the day- coy, sexy, flirty,
independent, and real. There are the several great scenes of the two together-
at the hydrangea bushes, and at the telephone, talking to Harry, but Stewart’s
best moment comes when, in the alternate universe his mother rejects him at her
boarding house, and he heads towards the camera, horrified, finally getting that
he is a cipher, and that’s far worse than his living predicament was. And we
feel it because he is us. Like him we have dreamt of exotic locales and leaving
our past- be it the city for the suburbs, or the farm for the bright lights, or
America for another country. Like him we have had to learn to live with
delimited horizons, and dreams that never were. We have our responsibilities,
our adultness. Yet, like him, we are at the mercy of the big what if?
Like him, we have lamented , even if just once and briefly, our lost potential,
and wasted opportunities, the girl we could have had, the adventure we should
have had, but were too committed or afraid to venture towards.
Technically the film also works. The use of close-ups by Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc are perfect encapsulations of moments and emotions, and the score by Dimitri Tiomkin never intrudes, only distills the moments. As for the sets, they are stupendous, and the screen snow looks more real than the stuff even done today. Most of the big budget of $3 million went to construct a three hundred yard long Main Street, with dozens of storefronts, and transplanted oaks. Shot in summer, the snow was man-made. Supposedly three thousand tons of shaved ice, three hundred tons of gypsum, three hundred tons of plaster, and six thousand gallons of chemicals were used (according to several online sources). And the pool in the high school, under the dance floor, was a real one at Hollywood high school.
Yet, at its center, the film works because we all have wondered what would the world be like if we were never born. Have we had an impact? After all, whether it’s leaving behind descendants, works of art, discoveries, or just our name, we all want some recognition, that we mattered, or at least were here. It helps define our sojourn, and allow us to extrapolate meaning from a cosmos which is random, indifferent, and so large and eternal as to defy the meager human ability to fully comprehend. With that as a base desire, the film then goes nearly two hours showing us a life that has many tangents with ours- be you an American, Mongolian, or Zulu. We see the effect George has had, even if he does not, and know what can only await him when Clarence pulls out his life’s rug from under his feet- if not the particulars, certainly the general effects, which can only be negative. Yes, George may be more involved with others than the typical person, but we are all connected, however peripherally. This film does a better job than any other film in espousing the notion of The Butterfly Effect, even more so than the recent film of that name. We all see ourselves in George Bailey, for the film does not focus on George’s mere home nor business lives, but all the important moments they bound, and even fail to contain. We can easily extrapolate ourselves into his position, especially at his moment of crisis, when he literally, as Potter taunts, is worth more dead than alive- at least on a material level.
I see myself as a George Bailey. I did not grow up in the relative comfort of his small town, but I could not go to college, due to circumstances beyond my control, and ended up financing my sister’s college education. I, too, have been stuck in jobs I loathed, and which abused me, unable to support myself solely by my best talent- my writing. I have spent years caring for an ill parent, supporting my wife, caring for my pets, encouraging poets at my now defunct poetry group, and helping many others with advice on poems and other works of art- even promoting many arts events. I have also struggled hard to help others with my website, Cosmoetica- to engage people to think for themselves, not become unthinking zombies for the Henry Potters of Academia, the Christian Right, nor Political Correctness. I have weathered lies, viruses sent, hateful emails, threats of violence, and phony lawsuits. I have championed the lesser known writers and works of quality, with no reward for myself, save knowing I was doing the right thing, in a sphere of human endeavor where I am not only outnumbered almost infinitely, but in a sphere filled with hatred, bigotry, small-mindedness, and fear. Yet, I have perdured, so has my website, and like George- although I’m an agnostic, I’m looking for that one break that will turn my life around- at least on a material level, which is what happens to George. Fortunately, I have a leg up on him in realizing the goodness of my station as it is, and that the proffering of good deeds and great works of art is its own reward, even as I long for that break that will pull me out of the financial rat race, and help with the establishment of a global currency of accomplishment rather than pelf.
This toweringly great film is all about corralling the material instincts and aspects of the world, and using them for the right reasons, while appreciating the values that lie beneath those instincts. The cynics, dummies, and willful misreaders of this film be damned! It is not corny, cheesy, hokey, nor a mere feel good tearjerker, like its many inferior copycats are. Too often the commercials or excerpts that are shown damage the overall film’s perception, for it’s a synergistic film, whose whole far surpasses its parts. It is great art, period. It is defensible not only on an emotional level, but on intellectual and artistic levels. It is also testament to the fact that great art always rises to the surface, even if bad critics pummel it. This has an extra resonance for me and those who produce excellence with no immediate reward nor recognition. But, even without that, It’s A Wonderful Life deserves its plaudits, and your viewership.
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