Lost in the Movies: It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

If there's a more American film than It's a Wonderful Life, and a more American hero than George Bailey, I don't know it. No other film more comprehensively or powerfully captures the common American experience between the wars - that is to say, between Armistice Day and V-J Day - and no other film creates a richer dialogue between the dreams and ambitions that motivate us (then and now), the comforts and camaraderie that soothe us (perhaps then more than now), and the responsibilities and burdens we feel toward our families and communities (now more essentially than ever). It is timeless but it is also very, very much focused on its own time (or rather, a time just passed), a quality that gives It's a Wonderful Life tremendous strength rather than dating it. By featuring popular songs and political references, by tying the daily life of Bedford Falls into the greater drama of the nation, it provides us with a moving portrait of our parents' or grandparents' experience; by not being afraid to situate itself in a particular moment in history, the movie shows us the universal in the particular. Besides, It's a Wonderful Life has never been timelier, maybe not even when it was released, amidst a postwar era waving goodbye (and good riddance - no wonder the film struggled at the box office) to the years depicted onscreen.

Indeed, while it represents a generally darker, grittier strain than was apparent in most thirties films, It's a Wonderful Life functions more as a culmination of one Hollywood epoch than the introduction to a new one. Its ensemble cast, its determinedly studio-created world, its dreamy, diffused black-and-white glow, all hearken back to the golden age of Hollywood which was starting to come to an end. Within a few years, techniques like location shooting, stylistic developments associated with noir and naturalism, looser acting styles imported from New York, and outside circumstances like the HUAC hearings and the breakup of the studio monopoly would all contribute to a noticeable shift in American movie style and content. These trends would escalate with the increasing use of color and the introduction of widescreen, facilitating an increase in lavish epics to compete with television (ironically, the medium that would eventually make It's a Wonderful Life the classic it remains today). Before long, the kind of film It's a Wonderful Life represented - focused in scope, indulgent of character, romantic in its emotional content yet realistic in its sensitive observations of social dynamics - would be more or less extinct.

Of course the film is also tied into the period it concludes directly, through its very story. This story opens (well, putting aside the cutesy angelic introduction, which is charming if slightly off-tone) with kids sledding onto an icy lake on long-handled shovels: the scene feels torn directly from a nostalgic wall calendar. For us ninety years later, the nostalgia is all second or thirdhand, but in 1946 anyone over the age of thirty-three could remember such a time themselves. Older viewers would of course recall the darkness of this period - the weariness after the war, the paranoia of the Red Scare, the ravages of the influenza epidemic, the economic slump before the boom; the sense that the old familiar comfortable world had already died. But the film doesn't ignore these elements, it just hints at them, as is appropriate when our main character is still a boy from a happy family, living in a bucolic small town. The darkness is there, but it's still slightly offscreen - entering the scenario via a telegram little George stumbles upon in the drugstore, informing old druggist Gower that his son has died from influenza.

This information, and the subsequent drunken mistake in which Gower almost poisons a family with the wrong pills, spurs George's first good act (well, aside from saving his brother from drowning). That is no coincidence - obviously heroism, however modest, requires circumstances to overcome and here is where cynics critical of It's a Wonderful Life don't give it enough credit: it earns its happy ending the hard way, by sending its hero through the ringer, making him pay for every act of good will or selflessness he commits. After all, if being a hero was easy, everyone would be Superman. Until the very ending, the message seems to be that whether or not crime pays, being a decent human being certainly does not. This leads to another, even more important, observation: the obstacles George faces are not plot conceits, small little problems manufactured out of whole cloth in a fictional little town. They are fundamental challenges that all Americans struggled with during the Great Depression and World War II. The influenza in the telegraph is a tip-off that Frank Capra and his co-writers will be drawing deep for the situations in their scenario - angelic interventions aside, for most of its running-length It's a Wonderful Life is anything but a fantasy.

Most importantly (aside from the influenza and the war, in which the enemies are offscreen), the film does not make these antagonistic circumstances vague or general, "nobody's fault" - It's a Wonderful Life has a clear villain, Mr. Potter, and Potter is the epitome of the rich, powerful, and evil banker. Here the film states its terms quite clearly: George Bailey's greatest foe is not "natural" injustice, but human greed and selfishness. In recent years, I have noticed a tendency, among those who think it's a good and bad thing alike, to identify It's a Wonderful Life as a conservative film. On the most obvious level, we have its identification with family values, its warm portrait of an all-American small town, and its use of supernatural intervention in response to prayer. The notion that this makes it conservative, however, is so wrong-headed as to be nearly ludicrous. This misunderstanding springs from an identification of liberalism and conservatism with cultural values that would emerge 20-25 years after the film came out, values which were inordinately privileged in political definitions (especially by the Republican Party, which cannily used them to its advantage) but had little to do with fundamental political values. The past five years have seen a turnaround in this viewpoint, but its legacy lingers.

However, it should be easy enough for anyone focused on the substance of the film, and the context of the times, to put a cultural definition of conservatism aside. There remains the fact that Capra and Stewart were both dyed-in-the-wool Republicans (Stewart once got in a fistfight with Henry Fonda over politics, though they patched things up and became close friends). Certainly they couldn't have intended to make a liberal film - and conservatives have been quick to point out that Bailey is a private entrepreneur, not a government bureaucrat, that the fundamentals of his business rely on knowing his customers, on judging for himself what is best and worst for his operation. Some have even tried to read Potter as a stand-in for the meddling, monopolizing government - and I suppose you could see his wheelchair-bound physical condition as a nasty reference to Roosevelt (although given the difference in the demeanor and philosophy, this seems an absurd stretch). Ultimately, if one is focused on policy one can't really define It's a Wonderful Life as liberal or conservative; it has nothing to say, except by elaborate inference (which can go in both directions), about government intervention in the economy.

However, liberal and conservative philosophy is not limited to policy matters. There is a rhetoric as well, which is just as important if not more so in defining the national discourse, and ultimately determining policy - and private values. While conservative rhetoric has, defensively, made references to charities or private initiatives filling in the "giving" gap if government social spending was cut, their public language contradicts this beneficent rationale at virtually all opportunities. Since at least the sixties, there has been a vituperative, angry quality in defining the poor, from anecdotes about "welfare queens" to the recent wrongheaded claims that 49% of the population are freeloaders, paying too few taxes to the federal government (so much for the notion of conservative lightening the tax burden or decrying "class warfare"). It is not my intention to indulge in a lengthy political digression, nor to malign all self-identified conservatives who, believing that government intervention hurts more than it helps (as it may at times), do their personal part to help the needy and struggling. Yet one cannot deny that, especially with the rise of the Tea Party, any lingering strain of "compassionate conservatism" has disappeared from conservative rhetoric. In its place is a fierce, Ayn Rand-like belief that society has its mighty producers and its puny takers, that material gain is a function of good character (or vice-versa, really), and that the profit motive alone will take care of society's ills - if such ills even need to be addressed at all.

Let's take a closer look at this film - which, incidentally, was deemed potentially "subversive" by the FBI (I wonder if they knew that several leftists, including Dalton Trumbo, had worked on the screenplay without credit?). George and dad Peter may indeed be private entrepreneurs, but both father and son are terrible businessmen. Taken purely as a business, the Bailey Building & Loan is a disaster, barely managing to stay afloat, misplacing funds due to to employee incompetence (since employment is based on nepotism rather than qualifications), and refusing to keep expenses low. Does George provide a service that takes market share away from Potter? Yes he does, but at a heavy cost. Most importantly, it is making risky loans to aspiring homeowners - the very practice conservatives (and many non-conservatives) believe caused the 2008 economic meltdown: misguided "bleeding heart" sentiments triggering a self-defeating collapse. Were the Building & Loan a nonprofit, its results might be admirable (though its practices, from last-minute infusions of cash to Uncle Billy's sloppy depositing, would remain objectionable). But George is a terrible capitalist, concerned not with growth or development but providing a service as if he were (gasp) a social worker. Potter calls him out on this repeatedly, most notably in his attempt to dissolve the Building & Loan at a board meeting following Peter Bailey's death. George's response to this is unequivocal and should brush aside, finally and completely, any notion that this film endorses the market-will-take-care-of-it, let-the-working-man-fend-for-himself philosophy:
"Just a minute... just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was... why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what's wrong with that? Why... here, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You... you said... what'd you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken down that they... Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? 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, my father died a much richer man than you'll ever be!"
If this is a conservative movie, then I'm a six-foot tall rabbit.

What makes the film more than just a powerful soapbox, self-righteously preaching to the converted, is its rich sense of conflict and doubt within George himself. He believes those sentiments above, but he also doesn't believe them, or rather he doesn't want to. He wants to live the American Dream, or rather one aspect of the American Dream - the aspect associated with ambition, adventure, and expansion. Instead, over and over, he is forced to sacrifice his dreams (and anyone who's ever yearned for excitement, dreamed of a wide world out there will identify immediately with George's aspirations, and feel acutely the sting of his disappointments and frustrations). He does this so he can give others their little share of the other American Dream, the dream not of restless exploration, but comfortable security, a place to settle down - something he has found but wants to kick off. The film's attention to this dual strain of Americanism - after all, the families who moved out west were called both "pioneers" and "settlers" -  is one of its strongest virtues. George's crisis gives the movie a timeless appeal because it address the material pinch and anxiety of hard economic times, but also the spiritual ennui and frustration of more secure periods - it makes an excellent gateway from the hard-pressed years of the New Deal into the restless energy of the Eisenhower era.

For two-thirds of its running length, It's a Wonderful Life creates an intensely moving, perpetually resonant, bittersweet portrait of American life and American crisis. Every scene is loaded with connotations that echo to this very day - however less clean-cut high-schoolers have become, however raunchier courtship has evolved, however dysfunctional families have come to appear, there are still fundamental truths here we can relate to. Who hasn't felt that confused sense of sticky nostalgia and subtle discontent observing high school graduates three or four years after one's own graduation, and wondering where one stands now? Who hasn't felt that mixture of sly bravado and quivering romanticism in flirtation (or felt that awkward sense of pride and embarrassment when the older generation looks on knowingly)? Who hasn't felt that sense of putting the past behind after an unexpected delay, looking forward to an open future ("What are the three most exciting sounds in the world? Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles!"), only to discover to one's surprise that it isn't so easy? The telephone sequence, celebrated by no less misanthropic or cynical a team than the Coen Brothers (who have raved about discovering this scene on television before the movie became a Christmas staple), is as sensual a scene as Hollywood ever created under the Production Code - because it displays a tension not just sexual, but psychological. George anxiously desires to escape, but also to be trapped, enfolded in the familiar world of "home" which must have vanished with his father's death.

After establishing (the wrong word, so intensive and long is the build-up) George's entire personal history, the film enters its darkest, and richest, sequence. This is everything the movie has been building towards, in its accumulation of character detail, its establishment of time and place, so that we feel like we've been living in this town for nearly thirty years too. It is Christmas, the war is over, and a sense of exuberant relief and festive celebration is in the air, especially as George's kid brother returns from Washington, having been decorated as a war hero. By now, George is settled into his role in Bedford Falls: he is a father of four, he's been active in the war effort (having been kept out of the war by his bad ear, earned in rescuing Harry as a boy), and he no longer talks of travel or business plans. Observant citizens might even suspect he has a mistress in the sexy and needy Violet Bick (once Beauregard - obviously a marriage didn't work out) - another sign he's become one of the town's all-around, established citizens. He has his place in this society and seems content, the youthful dreamer transformed into the regular guy, with his small pleasures and daily duties, on the cusp of middle age.

Appearances can, of course, be deceiving, even to those who convey them, and this one is exploded by the appearance of a bank examiner and the disappearance of $8,000. What follows is one of the most memorable breakdowns and outbursts in movie history - a panicky George simply falls to pieces and it's clear that, as drastic as this development is (meaning prison and scandal) it is the cumulative effect which has made him collapse. His complaints to Mary ("Why do we have to live in this old house? Why do we have to have this many kids?") may be presented as the tirades of someone upset about something else, but they have the ring of truth, as if the risk of absolute failure has now unleashed all his demons.  Only his comforting of Zuzu, the last flickering flame of hope in his bleak existence, offers a sense of warmth and intimacy. When he returns to the living room and destroys the train set and tower (last indication of his long-held dreams), shouts at his family, and then stares back at them like a stranger, the inconsolable rage at thirty years of broken dreams, compromises, struggles, doubts, and sacrifices, collective as well as individual, has found its blackest depiction yet. George plummets further, getting beaten up in a bar (his savage abuse of his daughter's teacher, whose husband attacks him, is boldly unsympathetic), drunkenly crashing into a tree, and finally contemplating suicide over the rough waters, snow falling overhead, capping off what has to be one of the most shocking anti-Christmases in any supposed "holiday" movie.

Capra doesn't seem to have anywhere to go here - so the film leaps into left-field. Of course, it's misleading to introduce the film's most famous part this way - after all, the very basis for the screenplay was a story of an angel showing a man what his life would be like if he'd never been born. This is the heart of the movie's popularity, the crux of its appeal, and it's clearly this factor above all the others that has made the movie a legend, a beloved classic that can stand beside The Wizard of Oz, E.T., or Pinocchio for audience enchantment. Without the fantasy element, the Christmas Carol twist, and the happy ending to end all happy endings, It's a Wonderful Life may still have been rediscovered, but its appeal would mostly be limited to classic film buffs and historians; the wider public would go on its merry way none the wiser to what was missing. Yet it's worth pointing out just how different, in feel and mood, this last third (maybe only a last quarter) of the movie is from what came before. That's probably the reason that most viewers, going back to watch the movie after some time, are shocked to discover how dark it is, how human and melancholy - they remember (and the hype has helped them to remember) the inventiveness of the alternate-reality scenario, the comedy of the angel's antics, the spooky horror-story vibe of Stewart's haunted visage as he looks at familiar faces, and the heartwarming good cheer of his triumphant return to reality. They remember the "magic."

Perhaps because I've seen the movie so many times (often by myself), perhaps because my own sensibilities tend a different way, I tend to forget how entertaining and comforting the end of the movie is, how well it goes with eggnog and Christmas trees and snow falling outside and the fire blazing, with Bing Crosby carols playing softly in the background and visiting relatives competing for your attention. In this ambiance, even the earlier passages in the movie can take on the rose-colored tinge of the conclusion. But watching it again, away from the Christmas atmosphere, alone or with one or two other viewers, no distractions, one comes to a very different conclusion, discovering, to one's surprise, a very different emotional response. Indeed, I've come away from this film - this film, of all films! - depressed at times, invigorated by watching its artistic achievement but exhausted by the feelings it dredges up, feelings of being oppressed and stressed out and disappointed and frustrated. In this light, the ending doesn't quite seem to fit with what came before (the film moves so confidently, wraps one up so tightly in its created environment, that on a first screening I don't think most viewers will experience this issue). It's like switching the channel from an intense piece of psychological drama to an episode of "The Twilight Zone."

This isn't a criticism - I don't know where else the story could have gone, I find the juxtaposition of these two tones and approaches fascinating, and like everyone else I marvel at the imagination of the alternate-reality scenario. But it is an admission that the more I watch It's a Wonderful Life, the less I am left with a soothing feeling of comfort and good cheer, and the more I feel the lingering presence of those earlier scenes, of desperation and hard work (does any other popular film focus so determinedly on the intricacies of business?), of troubled love and missed opportunities and muted resentments, and yes, also family warmth, wisecracking companionship, the quiet satisfaction of doing the right thing even if you know you won't earn a nickel by it. It's a "wonderful" life? Maybe, maybe not - at times what you're watching is wonderful, at times you feel like George Bailey stumbling blindly in the snow. But it's life, that's for sure. And it's art. And it's a hell of a great movie.

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was re-published a year later under the title "'Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!' It's a Wonderful Life's Dark American Christmas."

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