Friday, April 13, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

USA, 130 minutes
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling, Philip Van Doren Stern, Michael Wilson
Photography: Joseph F. Biroc, Joseph Walker, Victor Milner
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editor: William Hornbeck
Cast: James Stewart, Henry Travers, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Sheldon Leonard

Since coming to terms with how much I like and admire and value the cornball object known as It's a Wonderful Life, I have maintained that it's because the picture is essentially fearless, and not just "for its times," about going right at human depravity. For every saccharine declaration that, "Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel's just got his wings," there's someone mean and surly like Sheldon Leonard standing there saying, "Hey, look, mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere." It's almost like the call and response in gospel music, these extremes between whitest whites and blackest blacks, and it's one of the best things I know, short of The Wizard of Oz and Blue Velvet, at sharpening such contrasts and making you feel them viscerally.

I came to it late, finally catching 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 pure noir in some sequences, and Universal-style horror in others. It's not just that it's a story about a man who has decided suicide is his best option (nor that it's unafraid to use the word "suicide" plain). The fact is it's just good all through, with a screenplay that expertly juggles its many extremities, and top-notch performances. It boldly rears back and lets loose a story in excruciating detail of lifelong frustration and disappointment, the story of George Bailey (played brilliantly by James Stewart in one of his greatest performances), who keeps seeing his dream denied of escaping the small upstate New York town in which he was born and has lived all his life, that dream so systematically denied that his interior life shrivels to the point where, in a moment of uncalculated despair, he can cry out to his wife, "You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?"

The storytelling is energetic and creative, finding its own rhythms and feel for each sequence and bringing you right along every step of the way. The structure is confident and eccentric, with the first 75 minutes a lengthy pastiche of flashbacks of the past that swiftly sketch and then flesh out its many characters and their relations, many of whom we see grow from children to adults. Then it spends about 25 minutes in the present before embarking on the science-fiction ghost-story alternate future imposed on George by supernatural sources. It's a real amusement park ride, one that sends you spinning and sprawling with George free floating into a psychic space without mooring, where morality is absent and identity is gone.

The basic operating environment of the picture is in the vernacular of the brash mid-century urban wise-guy American comedy—the Frank Capra style ever more purified, screwball matured and perfected, absorbing Preston Sturges and Damon Runyon, rollicking on swaggering series of bon mots and sight gags with touches of romance, dear old Ma, and inevitably slapstick, drunks colliding into piles of junk, everybody into the swimming pool, naked in a hydrangea bush, pratfalls as needed, mugging too, and any old gag will do. One character puts his thumb in his ear, cocks his hand at the wrist, and brays, "Hee-haw!" and insists that all respond in kind, even into advancing middle age. High-spirited high jinks and horse play are the order of the day and there are numerous scenes with groups of strangers suddenly showing up all laughing out loud as one of our characters makes a fool of himself again.

But opposing all this joie de vivre, injected into the loose spaces that it opens up, come scenes that are unnerving, as early on, when the grieving and confused pharmacist, Mr. Gower, lashes out and slaps around the young George Bailey after George has declined to deliver the medicine that he (George) knows is actually poison, the result of a mistake by Mr. Gower. It looks and sounds like a vicious assault by an adult on a child and it's shocking in the moment. In one of the picture's best and most loved and iconic scenes, which climaxes when George first declares his love to Mary (played in a nice turn by Donna Reed), he's actually desperately denying his love. It's more of a tortured, painful moment, with George grabbing Mary by her upper arms and shaking her violently.

Really, it goes on and on that way. Comedy, comedy, and then a scene with George bawling out his uncle: "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 going to be me." And again with the grabbing and shaking. Uncle Billy (played by Thomas Mitchell), weeping, puts his head to the desk sobbing. Then a squirrel climbs on top of him. This is what I'm talking about. This is the speed with which it switches back and forth between its two polar modes. And by the way, speaking of the fauna in that Building and Loan office, what do you think that crow is doing there?

The scene where George goes home on Christmas Eve thinking he is ruined, with Mary decorating for Christmas and one of their daughters monotonously practicing carols at the piano, is simply amazing, one of the great set pieces in all cinema. George is a terrifying figure in that house, a malevolent presence, kicking and snarling, and finally just losing it and starting to wreck stuff. If this is comedy, it's still a new kind of comedy.

There's a happy ending, of course—or it might be more accurate to say there's 10 minutes at the end, perhaps 10 of the most bludgeoning minutes of schmaltz in all cinema, 10 minutes that most people seem to come away thinking of as more or less the whole of the movie. It's truly one of the most grotesque displays of excess of its kind you are likely ever to see. The power of it is frightful—not a dry eye in the house is a mild way of putting it. I love it in spite of myself.

Or perhaps "love" is not the right word. I respect its power. If the whole movie was that I would not like it very much, but it is only the last 10 minutes. And the ride that got me there is so thoroughly satisfying that I'm happy enough to go along with the rather odd and stern edict and sit there for a few minutes bawling. I think of it as my own way of giving it the standing O it so richly deserves every time it plays anywhere.


  1. Could have sworn this was on your Facebook list, Jeff.

  2. Oh yeah, that's still on the way. My plan is to get everything I can both coming and going.

  3. The crow/raven was the pet of the director, he felt it was good luck. He also used it in other movies.