Tuesday, July 24, 2012
This one kind of sneaked up on me. I don't recall it as ever being much of a holiday staple in my family when I was growing up, and by the time I had started to figure out how much I like Capra movies—Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and especially Meet John Doe did most of the heavy lifting there—I was still suspicious of the Christmas and angels theme. I saw bits and pieces of it over the years, enough to convince myself that it was worth continuing to avoid.
Then, somehow, I ended up watching a TV broadcast from beginning to end at some point in the late '80s. I was surprised by how dark it is, even the photography, which verges on noir in some sequences. It's not just that it's a story about a man who has decided suicide is his best option. It's that it's a portrait so dead-on believable that it's almost painful to watch, telling a story in excruciating detail of lifelong frustration and disappointment. George Bailey keeps seeing his (relatively modest) dreams so systematically denied that his interior life shrivels to the point where, in one of his darkest moments of despair, he can cry out to his wife, "Why do we have to have all these kids?"
There's a happy ending, of course, complete with a lot of corn, which I don't mind any more. In fact, the corn practically provides relief—I'm not convinced it's that happy of an ending. More of a giddy one, much as the Christmas holiday itself can be, all forced gaiety and modulated attempts at comity. But is that the same thing as happy? Nothing much has changed for George Bailey, after all. He still doesn't have that civil engineering degree, he's still living in Bedford Falls, and it's more obvious than ever that he's never going to shake the dust of the crummy old town and see the world. He may send deranged winks heavenward when he hears a bell ring, but I'm not sure he's figured out why he has to have all those kids. That's what haunts me and fascinates me—It's a Wonderful Life is so much more alive to itself and convincing when it goes to its dark side that it's nearly terrifying.
The performance from James Stewart is first-rate. It came clear for me here finally that Stewart only plays galoots, he's not actually one, as the bracing sexual chemistry with Donna Reed that erupts in the clip at the link demonstrates. Further evidence of his powers can be seen in other Capra pictures and in such Hitchcocks as Rear Window or especially Vertigo.
"He says it's the chance of a lifetime."
Phil #25: Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) (scroll down)
Steven #25: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
This is the first of a three-pack of my favorite movies that have traveled together for some time now in most permutations of my list. I like them all equally, but in different ways that are hard to quantify, thus grouping this way is more a convenience for writing about them, as you see me using here. I don't know how many people would ever associate them otherwise. I have also written since this countdown a bit more extensively about It's a Wonderful Life, here.