Tuesday, December 23, 2008

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE


IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946, USA, Frank Capra, screenplay with Frances Goodrich / Albert Hacket / Jo Swerling / Dorothy Parker / Dalton Trumbo / Clifford Odets, from Phillip Van Doren Stern's short story "The Greatest Gift")
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?

I know. For many it's pretty much just one of those sentimental Christmas favourites, a harmless exercise in seasonal nostalgia that kind of makes them feel nice. Warm apple cider for the soul.

That's not my experience. Somehow I managed to reach my early forties – and something akin to early onset midlife crisis – never having seen this holiday classic. Somebody happened to rent the video, and I sat down blithely for a taste of some sweet, easy-to-digest Capra corn.

Frank blindsided me completely. By the last half hour, my face ran with tears. Eventually I was sobbing. Not because of sweet platitudes about how everything will always work out, not because Christmas will always be cheery, but because of the opposite. It showed me my life, which didn't feel so wonderful.

I saw a man make a lifetime of small sacrifices that led him to... Well, despair. George Bailey is a man who doesn't live out his dreams. He lives something very different than the life he imagined for himself, and when he comes to the end of it all he can't quite see that it's been worth the trouble. Ouch. And they show this thing at Christmas?

It astounds me that people think of this as a gentle little Christmas hug of a movie. Bah! It's a sucker punch - no surprising, really, with uncredited screenplay contributions from Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo and Clifford Odets, none of them known for their sentimentality. Critics for the TimeOut Film Guide write “Take a closer look at Capra’s IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, one tough movie for much of its running time. The climactic affirmation of genuine friendship and mutual reliance is so affecting precisely because it’s so darn hard-won. Although the picture has become synonymous with homespun, small town values, it achieves its profound emotional resonance precisely by stressing their limitations. The 'unborn' sequence is chilling not because it's morbid fantasy, but because Pottersville was and is so much closer to contemporary society than the nostalgic gentility of Bedford falls. For both Capra and Steward, Wonderful Life was their first movie after serving in WWII, and it's riven with their anxieties on coming home. Regardless of whether or not you believe in angels, it's a wonderful movie."

So, yes, they do show this thing at Christmas. A time when refugees shelter in animal sheds to give birth, when politicos protect their power with mass murder, when God sends messengers to keep saying over and over, "Fear not." A time when, against all odds and all fears, a baby is born, and lives long enough to make a difference.

AFTER LIFE, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, MR HOLLAND'S OPUS, THE TRUMAN SHOW

Available at Videomatica


from "1000 Films To Change Your Life"...
Take a closer look at Capra’s It's A Wonderful Life, one tough movie for much of its running time, since it shows how irrepressibly decent James Stewart has had to sacrifice his own dreams of travel and achievement to sustain his family's loan company on which the local community depends. Decades of self-denying service lead him to, well, contemplate suicide from a bridge at Christmas since his insurance policiy seems the only thing able to rescue the operation from financial doom. Not such a wonderful life then after all, until Henry Travers's passing trainee angel shows him the corruption and misery which would have overrun his home town Bedford Falls had he not been bonr. The climactic affirmation of genuine friendship and mutual reliance is so affecting precisely because it’s so darn hard-won. The triumph over – and thus sublimation of – the fear of loss is at the heart of Capra's film.
Trevor Johnston, "Joy: A User's Manual" in Time Out: 1000 Films To Change Your Life

Some of the most heartening films are also the most heartrending: does It's A Wonderful Life move us so deeply because we believe in miracles, or because we know the cluastrophobia and frustration of dreams unrealised? If it's the latter, could it be that the movies' greates gift is just this: the expression of our repressed emotions, our secret and silent sorrows? Further, that films operate on identification and empathy, and that this empathy is – in a cinema – a shared experience a recogntion that we are all in this together? (Preston Sturges put it very eloquently: 'I like the movies. You get to hold hands.')
Tom Charity, "Celluloid Sorrow" in Time Out: 1000 Films To Change Your Life

"This story is the lousiest cheese..." Capra admitted to his star after making a rotten pitch. Stewart stuck by his favourite director. "Frank, if you want to do a movie about me committing suicide, with an angel with no wings named Clarence, I'm your boy." Although the picture has become synonymous with homespun, small town values – values Stewart personified and Capra obviously cherished – it achieves its profound emotional resonance precisely by stressing their limitations, even to the point of suicide. This is the tragedy of a man who deams of travelling the world, building cities and making love to Gloria Grahame, who never leaves his hometown, works in his dad's office, and marries Donna Reed. The 'unborn' sequence is chilling not because it's morbid fantasy, but because Pottersville was and is so much closer to contemporary society than the nostalgic gentility of Bedford falls. For both Capra and Steward, Wonderful Life was their first movie after serving in WWII, and it's riven with their anxieties on coming home. For Stewart, it paved the way for Vertigo and The Naked Spur; for the director it was in effect his testament. That Capra relents and 'saves' his hero is but bitter-sweet consolation. Regardless of whether or not you believe in angels, it's a wonderful movie."
Tom Charity, Time Out Film Guide 2008


Notes from IMDb;
The movie drew fierce criticism for its political statements about post-WWII society when it was released in 1946. Even the FBI labeled it a "subversive" movie and charged that its use of a nasty, Scrooge-like businessman "was a common trick used by communists."

After the war Frank Capra set up Liberty Films with George Stevens and William Wyler to make more serious, soul-searching films. This was Liberty's only production. This was the first and last time that Frank Capra produced, financed, directed and co-wrote one of his films. Frank Capra often said that this was his favorite of all his films. Voted the #1 inspirational film of all time in AFI's "100 Years, 100 Cheers" (June 14th, 2006). In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #20 Greatest Movie of All Time.

Debuted a week after William Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), which won the Best Picture Academy Award for which Wonderful Life was nominated.

Lionel Barrymore convinced James Stewart to take the role of George, despite his feeling that he was not up to it so soon after World War II. While filming the scene where George prays in the bar, James Stewart has said that he was so overcome that he began to sob right then and there. Later, Frank Capra reframed the shot so it looked like a much closer shot than was actually filmed because he wanted to catch that expression on Stewart's face. James Stewart was nervous about the phone scene kiss because it was his first screen kiss since his return to Hollywood after the war. Under Frank Capra's watchful eye, Stewart filmed the scene in only one unrehearsed take, and it worked so well that part of the embrace was cut because it was too passionate to pass the censors.

Capra managed to bypass the production code stipulating that criminals be punished for their crime: Potter never met justice for stealing the $8,000. Capra noted several times that he had received more mail about this point than anything else in the film.

For the scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock into the window of the Granville House, Frank Capra hired a marksman to shoot it out for her on cue. To everyone's amazement, Donna Reed broke the window with true aim and heft without the assistance of the hired marksman! When Officer Bert shoots at George, the "s" in the electric "Pottersville" sign far away in the distance, goes out.

The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) is showing at the movie house as George runs down the street in Bedford Falls. Henry Travers, who plays Clarence, the angel, starred in that film as Horace P. Bogardus

The cigarette lighter seen in this film (the one which George wishes he had a million dollars on) was previously seen in another Frank Capra film, You Can't Take It with You (1938).

The set for Bedford Falls was constructed in two months and was one of the longest sets that had ever been made for an American movie. It covered four acres of the RKO's Encino Ranch. It included 75 stores and buildings, main street, factory district and a large residential and slum area. The Main Street was 300 yards long, three whole city blocks!

The raven, named Jimmy, appeared in all of Frank Capra's movies.

The instant that George says "God" on the bridge, it starts snowing.

4 comments:

Michael said...

Great post Ron. This is my favorite movie. I watched it a hundred times as a kid, and it really warped me, in many subtle ways. For example, I thought I could talk to women like George does to Mary while they walked home from the dance. Alas, it is very psychedelic, and I found out that there are not many Donna Reeds running around. Another example of how this movie affected me is its view of money. Everyone who has money is not admirable. Even Sam Wainwright is depicted as a womanizer, though he is not quite the scrooge that Potter is.

If you have not seen it, I recommend the alternative ending played by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live.

Susan said...

The New York Times just had an opinion piece by a writer who had the same take you did. It make me rethink this movie. I doubt I can ever watch it again.

Check out this: http://www.angryalien.com/1204/wonderful_lifebuns.asp

I've been a fan of this blog for a while.

Ron Reed said...

Hey Susan, how gratifying to know you enjoy the blog. It still surprises me to realize that anybody reads this darn thing besides me and a few of my friends!

Interesting to read the New York Times piece by Wendell Jamieson that you mention (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/19/movies/19wond.html). Fun piece of writing! But I'd hate to think that Jamieson's tongue-in-cheek cynicism or my own comments about the film's darker side would stop you watching this beautiful film. For me, it only adds to my love for the piece to notice its darker colours - that there's some spice there, it's not all sugar.

What's most important about what the film is this. Hollywood has become obsessed with the idea of following our dreams: that everything will be fine if we just figure out what we want most, and go after it with all our heart. As somebody who decided more than half my life ago to do that very thing, to set aside other easier lives in order to be a full-time theatre artist, it's a theme that resonates with me. And I can see how it resonates with all those Hollywood writers who've left their day jobs to chase their own dreams, and with audiences who enter the dream palaces at night to catch a vision that takes them beyond the dull realities of the work they do in the daytime.

But an obsession with that "follow your dream" stuff is an adolescent obsession, and Hollywood reveals its immaturity when it churns out film after happy-ever-after film about the joys of following one's bliss. There's truth there, but not the whole truth: the deeper truth lies in sacrifice, community, leaving aside self-preoccupation to engage with other people's lives, to further other people's dreams.

And that's where IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE shines. There's a maturity there - a Depression-raised, war-deepened realization that, in the final analysis, it's not all about me.

Keep watching this one, Susan! For all its shadows, it's still a wonderful film!

Ron Reed said...

PS Loved the bunny movie!