Monday, December 31, 2012

Special 400th Movie Review: It's a Wonderful Life

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

Words of wisdom uttered 35 years too late for George Bailey to take them to heart. Who, upon reaching middle age, hasn’t felt that sense of loss at having failed to achieve the ambitions of youth? Who actually fulfills all the dreams he has before growing up and settling into a life of adulthood? And who among us truly appreciates the riches we have when all we can see are missed opportunities? It’s a story at least as old as the Industrial Age, when increased leisure time for most people meant the possibility of doing things most people would never have dreamed about. George Bailey has become an enduring cinematic character because he embodies all those universal characteristics of failed ambitions and dreams deferred or lost. George believes his life is disappointing and sad. This is just another aspect of his universality. For it sometimes takes an outsider to point out just how fulfilling our lives truly are – in fiction anyway.

Frank Capra was the quintessential director of small town America on film in the 30’s and 40’s. His career included a string of hits through the 1930’s, films that are now considered part of the American film canon: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; It Happened One Night; and Lost Horizon. It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946 was his last great film, made right after WWII, a time when Capra devoted himself to service by enlisting in the army and directing several documentaries in the Why We Fight series. His popularity waned after the war most likely because audiences were no longer interested in the idealism and optimism that his pictures engendered. Film noir and movies with darker subject matter became the norm in the late 40’s. It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t quite succeed as a story of optimism amid a world that was reeling from the effects of a devastating world war. It was critically acclaimed, but achieved disappointing popularity. However, as idealistic as the movie is, it is a film that takes us to some dark places.

As a child and a young man, George dreams of getting out of tiny Bedford Falls and traveling the world. He is so blinded by his sporting ambition that he fails to see the love of Mary staring him in the face, telling her he can’t wait to skip town and see Rome, Athens, and other exotic locales. He never imagined leading the life of an ordinary man – getting married, buying a house, and having children. These were dreams I had in youth. I too thought of myself as someone whose preferred lifestyle wouldn’t match up with that of a husband and father. Yet here I am, after doing a fair bit of traveling and even living abroad for a time, with a wife and child. Are there moments when I consider the things I can’t do because of the choices I’ve made? Of course. But that kind of thinking gets you nowhere. And the truth is, even if I had chosen differently and were a bachelor now, I might have different regrets.

George can not see this in himself. He doesn’t look around and see Mary (Donna Reed), the beautiful wife who loves him, and four adoring children. He doesn’t look at a town full of people who respect him and value the Building and Loan that his father managed until his death, one event among many that kept him from going to college and seeing the world. When George looks around he sees a provincial life, a situation he got saddled with by circumstances not of his own choosing. And when things start to go badly at work and a large sum of money goes missing and the greedy land tycoon Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) threatens to expose him to the banking investigator, George goes to pieces and puts himself on the verge of suicide.

From here the film doubles back on its opening, which started with angels discussing George’s life and his need for saving. We know from the outset that George is going to find himself in dire straits and that an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who reviews George’s life from the time he saves his younger brother’s life in icy waters until he’s about to meet his own demise in icy waters of a winter some 25 years later. The mystery is not in whether or not George’s life will go as he hopes, but how Clarence will convince him that his life is worth living.

James Stewart was the classic Everyman actor, and as George Bailey he brings that quality in spades. He had already played the idealist lead for Capra in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but he seems to draw on his experiences as a veteran of WWII to reach deep inside George and bring out his inner turmoil. Consider the scene when he really begins to come apart at the seams after learning of his company’s missing $8000. The movie transitions from early scenes that play as a cross between romantic and slapstick comedy – George and Mary fall into the school pool as the gym floor opens beneath them; Mary loses her robe on the walk home – to something altogether more sinister. George returns home to his family preparing for seemingly inane Christmas activities and everything pales in comparison to the emotional devastation he’s facing. Later he stumbles around town drunk before contemplating ending his life. As the world closes in on George, so does the framing and cinematography, which mirror the claustrophobia he feels until Clarence comes down and gives George the gift of life.

That gift – giving George the chance to see what Bedford Falls would be like if he’d never been born – is somewhat borrowed from Dickens, but it works because it’s such a shock to the system. Our lives touch so many more than we realize. Without George in the world, his brother Harry (Todd Karnes) drowns as a boy and so is never able to save a transport ship full of soldiers in the war. Without George, the pharmacist Mr. Gower accidentally poisons a sick child and winds up a poor vagrant. George witnesses all these changes and absences until the real stickler, the nail in the coffin, of discovering Mary to be an old maid and…a librarian! Watching the movie by modern standards this is quite the quaint notion, but in the film it’s treated as shocking and chilling to the bone.

Despite this antiquated moment and other dated conventions – like the conclusion bringing together every major character to briefly wrap up all the loose ends in a single tidy scene – the film retains a universal message. And it’s a message that hasn’t aged a bit. It is as relevant nearly seventy years later as it was then.

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