Op-Ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (#8)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judging whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
I might as well reveal the fact that I think that Frank Capra made just one masterpiece during his long career. That masterpiece was It Happened One Night (1934) and because of the untouchable perfection of that film I feel like nothing else in his filmography can compare to it. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington features a wonderfully spiky and cynical turn from Jean Arthur but it is a little too preachy for my tastes, while You Can’t Take It With You (1938) just doesn’t feature the sort of jokes that define a timeless comedy. It’s a Wonderful Life might be my second favorite film of his and I do find a lot to appreciate in it as it represents Capra returning to his roots as a purveyor of character driven coming of age stories which deal with the difficult decisions that people have to make as they mature. He gave up on the self important messages that weighed down some of his previous efforts and returned to bringing human emotions to life. It is still maudlin and there were points where it threatened to give me a toothache but it doesn’t slip into Pocketful of Miracles (1961) territory and presents most of Capra’s strong suits.
It’s about the life of George Bailey, James Stewart, who plans to leave the small town of Bedford Falls, New York to travel to other countries and then study, but he is forced to stay after his father dies and he must run the bank they own. He has met and fallen in love with former classmate Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) but his commitment to work and rivalry with the evil Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who drives up prices on property and intends to enslave the town leaves him feeling sad. When his brother, who was meant to take over from him, is married and offered a better job, George is resigned to the fact that he will spend the rest of his life in Bedford Falls. He is married to Hatch and has multiple children with her but struggles to keep the bank financially solvent. Then, a blunder that his uncle makes leaves him broke and vulnerable to the possibility of criminal conviction. This leads him to consider committing suicide but the intervention of an angel causes him to appreciate what he has.
I have always bristled when people claim that Capra was superior to his contemporaries because so many of his films were driven by messages or political ideas. They will hold him up as a paragon of virtue and dismiss masters like Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges for making frivolous, empty entertainment that only aims to please audiences. They claim that he is radical for presenting populist politics on screen rather than presenting conservative messages or simply not explicitly hitting the audience with a grand idea. Personally, I feel like Capra’s story can feel like examples of champagne socialism, and sometimes their idealism gets on my nerves as he leaves the audience believing that a lot of their problems can be solved through luck and maintaining a positive attitude rather than allowing them to understand the political systems that keep them from achieving prosperity. His better work was able to present ideas in a less obvious manner and he could convey themes through mise en scène and subtle asides.
It’s a Wonderful Life is not subtle in conveying its message as it tells the audience that appreciating what you have is very important and features one villainous character who is not particularly nuanced. It suggests that this one man, Mr. Potter, could ruin everybody’s life rather than making the point that there are pre-existing social ills in society that lead to these serious problems. All of Bailey’s friends seem extremely nice and when they burden him, it is always unintentional. Surely they are more selfish than they seem and they wouldn’t just be sad little victims who wait around to have their lives changed by Bailey, who can miraculously control their fortunes. This story of good vs. evil did seem rather simplistic and I would have preferred it if this wasn’t just a fight between two individuals but I did expect this. Capra intended this to appeal to a wide audience and it wasn’t aiming to get into any thorny details when it came to politics. Maybe I should simply accept the fact that this was a nice fairy tale in which good could triumph over evil but I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth when that unrealistic ending closed out the film.
That was my primary issue with It’s a Wonderful Life and that is what stops me from calling it a masterpiece or one of my favorites but there is still a lot to love here. I suppose I should talk about the central romance before getting into any of the other parts of this story as AFI voters apparently saw this as a romance rather than viewing it as the story of a man going through a mental breakdown. I suppose I think that this genre placement is acceptable because the love story between husband and wife is essential to the story working and you do come to care about this couple and whether they will stay together. I still don’t believe that this film should have been on a list of the greatest love stories of all time. They are both idealized characters as she is the perfect wife, who supports him in everything he does and is endlessly optimistic. However, Reed is so darn likable that you can’t help but go along with it. Like Janet Gaynor she has soulful eyes and a mouth that curves up into a smile at every little provocation. She seems naturally sweet rather than being full of affect and she and Stewart have an easy chemistry that allows their characters to move beyond acting like basic sketches of lovestruck youths.
Their love doesn’t really move beyond the honeymoon phase and they don’t seem to face much marital strife, even as Bailey’s professional life gets worse and worse. She remains devoted to him and raising their children and he is saddened by the idea of killing himself as he knows that he will be letting her down and betraying her after she has done so much for him. This makes their relationship difficult to analyze as it is not rooted in the real world and Hatch is more of an idea than a fully fleshed out character. Despite all that, I did smile as I watched their long first date and nobody can resist the scene in which they accidentally fall into the swimming pool. It is all a bit hokey but it is slickly handled by Capra as he makes this charming enough that we can believe in the Baileys as the ideal married couple.
Capra’s use of Reed is often inspired as there are several scenes in which he relies on her to reflect the mood in the room. However, her emotional reactions often contradict what her husband is feeling and she makes assumptions that only create problems. We notice the irony of certain situations through the way that she responds to her husband and see the ways in which family life can trap somebody rather than allowing them to live freely. During her husband’s breakdown she watches on with sorrow in her eyes but she doesn’t seem to fully pick up on the fact that her husband is at his wit’s end. There is a coolness to her emotions that lets us understand why Bailey feels so isolated from the people around him and doesn’t feel like he has a shoulder to cry on. His wife is so utterly perfect in that she only ever displays measured emotions and it can be difficult to talk to somebody when they can’t relate to your concerns. When a partner seems so serene that you are almost embarrassed by the struggles you are going through, where do you turn? There is a minor separation between this couple when it comes to the way that they see the world and this causes some discomfort for Bailey. Reed’s angelic face is so inhumanly beautiful that it can feel like she doesn’t have human concerns and when we view her lovely smiles and dewy skin through the eyes of her tormented husband, we see something to resent in her carefree spirit.
The use of Christmas-based set dressing was also admirable as there is something claustrophobic about a house that is full of tinsel and stockings filled with presents. All of these items are meant to be cheery and uplifting but the house looks cluttered and the lavishness of the decorations is simply a reminder of the fact that Bailey’s life is dominated by money and the need to financially support his family. We don’t see him directly interacting with his children that often and they are presented as burdens for a significant period of time as they require him to pump money into their education and their interests. When Bailey’s financial problems are sorted out at the end of the story, his problems with his children disappear and they turn into apple cheeked sweethearts who want to snuggle with their father. Is this Capra trying to reflect on the way that Capitalism has destroyed the traditional family unit? I don’t know if he is trying to go that deep and he certainly wasn’t averse to promoting consumerism himself but he does mount the tension nicely.
This is not a pro-Christmas cheer movie, as it suggests that Christmas is a time when you are reduced to considering all of your deepest anxieties. It is also honest about the fact that it can be difficult to sit around with your family for several hours and try to have serious conversations about the worries that have been on your mind. Sometimes it is not pleasant to sit around with the people who knew you as a 5-year-old because they might end up lecturing you or disapproving of your actions when you pour your heart out. It does end with scenes that tell the audience that Christmas is the happiest time of the year and ennui and depression can be overcome but there is a hard road to get to that point. A more mature film would have ended with Bailey killing himself and we would have seen the devastation that this event caused within his family but this is not aiming to be mature. It wants to appeal to the entire family and children don’t want to learn about the negative impacts of suicide when they are watching a film on Christmas.
This has entered into the canon of great Christmas movies and plays on American television every year, which has boosted its popularity after only being a modest hit upon release. It is funny that it has become Capra’s best known film as it was viewed as a minor disappointment for him when it came out. It wasn’t the disaster that some people claim it was, and it did earn a lot of major Academy Award nominations but it couldn’t compete with films like It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). Capra had set up such high expectations for himself that people were immensely let down when he couldn’t keep up his momentum. Its comeback narrative on television has become well known and people like the fact that it can be seen as an underdog that slowly evolved into a classic.
I found myself thinking about the concept of Christmas as a romantic time of the year and I don’t know if I can fully get on board with that idea. I have never looked at Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year and I can’t say that I have ever fallen in love during this period. I love the members of my family but we all become a bit crabby as we desperately run to a Christmas party which seems to last forever. Then you have to sit around and watch as people slowly get drunker and drunker before deciding to slip out the back door, say goodbye to your grandmother, and return home. I find it much easier to socialize with the people I love at different points in the year and I definitely feel less pressured when I know that I am not obligated to spend time with people. When you decide to socialize with somebody, it is more meaningful than being forced into a situation where everybody feels like they need to laugh at each other’s jokes and participate in needless traditions. It’s a Wonderful Life made me feel some warmth towards this holiday season and for that I am thankful.
It also made me think about the Christmas films that I love and I realized that most of them are not directly related to Christmas itself. I always find myself turning to Portrait of Jennie (1948) when I look through my cabinet of DVDs on the 23rd of January and that puts me in the right mood. It doesn’t center itself around the holiday season but its nightmarish, dreamlike quality is strangely hypnotic and the use of magical realism will forever link it to the myths related to Christmas, in my mind. The involvement of Jennifer Jones doesn’t hurt and Joseph Cotten never looked dreamier. If you have ever been attracted to the idea of doomed, obsessive love then this might be for you.