By Marc S. Sanders
I have finally righted a serious wrong and watched Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, and what a pleasurable experience it has been. Reader, if this movie lover who gets hopped up on science fiction gobbley gook with laser swords and spaceships can watch an old black and white movie feeling sorrow for its main characters, and elation when the film finishes, then it’s easy to understand how timeless and impressionable Capra’s classic film truly is.
I recall when I had finally seen It Happened One Night, originally released in 1934 and arguably the pioneer of the romantic comedy genre. I could not help but connect certain moments and pieces of dialogue to the films released while I was growing up, like When Harry Met Sally… and Bull Durham. Those films took inspiration from Capra’s comedy with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Capra pioneered storytelling once again with It’s A Wonderful Life. As my wife and I watched the movie late last night until nearly two in the morning, I said to her this is like Back To The Future. My wife said A Christmas Carol. Both true statements. So perhaps while Capra was revolutionary with his own storytelling, he might have been adopting some inspiration from what came before as well. Regardless, I applaud his approach. Frank Capra is a tremendous gift to the cinematic medium. If there was a Mount Rushmore for filmmakers, Capra would most certainly be sculpted alongside the likes of Hitchcock, Chaplin and Disney.
George Bailey (James Stewart) has big dreams of leaving his sleepy little town of Bedford Falls and building grand designs of skyscrapers while also exploring the world, beginning with Europe and Alaska and whatever else needs discovering. Like any of us, our yearning for adventure and the destinies we wish for get interrupted. Before you know it, we ask ourselves if life has passed us by. It takes a guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) to remind George that life has been with him all along; maybe not the life he envisaged, but certainly a life of purpose and significance beyond just himself.
George watches as his high school chums go on to grand accomplishments that pay off in enormous amounts of wealth. His younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) goes to college, gets married and becomes a celebrated war hero. However, George remains in Bedford Falls offering loans to his fellow townsfolk that he can’t afford to honor with a business he inherited from his father. To lend and support comes involuntary to George. He’s just a good man.
On the other end of the spectrum is the mean, wealthy miser Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Barrymore plays Potter like one of the worst villains in the history of cinema. An unforgiving, jealous wretch of a man. His cruelty is long and unmatched, even if he is relegated to a wheelchair. He knows how destitute George is, despite his unending generosity, but Potter won’t tolerate the admiration George receives. To squash George’s stature, he’ll buy out his business. He’ll make every effort to silence George Bailey’s influence. Potter will even try to take George under his wing where he can maintain complete authority as a big fish in the small pond of Bedford Falls. Yet, Potter’s never-ending wealth cannot crush the love for George’s humbleness and giving nature.
A favorite device of mine in movies is when the filmmaker can turn the story’s setting into a character all its own. Examples of this are shown in pieces like Spielberg’s Schindler’s List where the use of thousands of extras and piles of rubble bring testimony to the atrocities of the Holocaust. In James Cameron’s Avatar (which I just watched as a refresher for the just released sequel), an imaginary neon glowing planet awakens our senses, and we learn that its inhabitants form a symbiont circle with the plant life and animals that dwell there. In many films, the time and place speak to the viewer. Bedford Falls is a main character to the story. Capra makes wonderful use of the Main Street where each business building quickly becomes very familiar as if we have walked into these small town structures a hundred times. It hearkened me back to my time in Fair Lawn, New Jersey where I would accompany my grandmother on her daily errands to the bank, the kosher deli and the Woolworth’s. Wherever she went, everyone knew Helen. In Bedford Falls, the pharmacy with the soda jerk doesn’t look new to me. It appears like I’d seen it a hundred times before. Martini’s, the bar, felt like I knew every hob knobber in the joint. I could smell the ink and feel the creak of the wooden floors in Bailey Building and Loan.
The townsfolk are also assembled wisely by Capra. An old man sitting on his porch at night takes in the flirtations that George and soon to be wife Mary (Donna Reed) exchange with one another. This man represents Bedford Falls taking stock in what’s to come next for our protagonist. The people in this town have a rhythm to their gatherings. Capra offers a magnificent shot where the camera is overhead behind George, wearing his overcoat and hat, and the townspeople are facing him at the other end of the sidewalk. They expect of George, but does George have anything left to give? I can only see the back of Jimmy Stewart, but I know all too well the expression he’s sending to the people opposite him. Look at the scene where they march over to George Bailey’s business demanding their monies back. How one delivers a line followed by another is perfectly timed to James Stewart’s despair. The ending is beautifully cut as these same folks come into George’s home to offer their sense of giving during a desperate hour of need for George.
I always knew the story of It’s A Wonderful Life. Years ago, I saw a stage production where Miguel portrayed George opposite his girlfriend in the role of Mary. Yet, I was not familiar enough with the surprises that Capra’s film offers. I just didn’t realize how much fantasy is embedded in the movie as Clarence is meant to be a naïve angel who has yet to earn his wings. Seems a little too childlike for me on the surface. I’ll admit I didn’t take to the angels represented as blinking stars early in the picture. That’s hokey! However, when Clarence is personified in the latter half of the film, Henry Travers brings a sense of clarity to the purpose of life when he forces George and maybe anyone watching the movie to imagine what things would be like had they never been born. Reader, I think I’ve seen story adaptations like this on episodes of Family Ties and The Golden Girls. In this movie, it becomes frightening as we realize the actions we take carry impacts with them. Had George not rescued his brother Harry from a skating accident, what would have happened to a squadron of soldiers during the war? Had George not had the nerve to dance with Mary at his high school dance, what would have happened to her? Had George not existed, then he wouldn’t be available to lend monies to people and what would have happened to a beautiful collection of new homes that would never be erected? These questions are incorporated into roughly a thirty-minute last act that remind you to appreciate all that you saw earlier in the film. I want to say its cheesy, but Travers and Stewart really don’t make it that way. The sequence comes through with forthright honesty from Travers, never going big or outlandish, and genuine anguish from Stewart who convincingly appears like he’s lost everything when earlier he felt like he had nothing.
I read that Jimmy Stewart did this film shortly after returning from serving in World War II. He was suffering from PTSD and much of the torment and agony that George exhibits was coming through naturally on film. This has to be one of the all-time greatest performances on screen. Jimmy Stewart’s timing in practically every scene of the picture is perfection. He’s a wide eyed optimist with big enthusiasm to get his life going. Then he transcends into a teasing flirt with the girl he was not expected to hook up with. When George tells Mary he wants to throw a lasso around the moon and give it to her, I really believe he could do it. We have Jimmy Stewart to thank for that. Later, he’s unexpectedly frightening as he is on the verge of being charged with fraud and penniless. Stewart is uncompromising in front of Donna Reed and the young actors playing his children. When he kicks over the table with the train set and gifts, on Christmas Eve, it’s terribly shocking. Sadly, it’s relatable. A film from 1946 presents personal problems and struggles that exist today. That is why It’s A Wonderful Life is such an important piece. We struggle to live with our struggles.
Frank Capra’s film is necessary to remind each of us to never give up, no matter how hard it gets. We have value. We have importance to ourselves and to others. We are loved. Yes, it’s only a movie and it conveniently solves itself in its made-up fantasy. However, those that enrich and occupy space in our daily lives are real and they are folks who depend on us for their fulfillment and happiness. We are necessary to making their lives better and sustainable. Reciprocally speaking, they are just as important to mine and your satisfactions. It might be drippy to claim that Frank Capra’s film is a “feel good movie,” but I prefer to believe that the writer/director, along with Stewart, Reed, Travers and the rest of the company served a higher purpose. They demonstrate that we have all been blessed with an enormous gift filled with the riches of love and friendship that life absorbs and treasures.