For our latest instalment in an Introduction to Film: Hollywood, we looked at Narrative, Institution and Ideology in film. The film shown was Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.
It was the great American poet Walt Whitman whom Frank Capra quotes, when talking about the inspiration for his celebrated classic. The line, from the poem ‘A Song for Occupations’ reads; “The sum of all known reverences I add up in you, whoever you are ..” What a sentiment! It would be prudent to note that Capra’s own philosophy of film making and life, is summed up in the film and ergo, this line of prose.
Frank Capra was a little out of practice at making big budget crowd pleasers by the time he came to make ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. Based on the novel ‘The Greatest Gift’ by Philip Van Doren Stern and filmed in 1946, it was to be Capra’s tentative re-entry into Hollywood after documenting events, to great acclaim in WWII. The second world war had taken many men away, including huge Hollywood players like Capra, who was ranked as a Major in the U.S. Signal corps and made many propaganda films for the U.S. Government. Star of the film James Stewart, was a bomber commander in Europe and flew many dangerous bombing raids over Germany.
Upon returning to Hollywood in 1945, Capra was “anxious” and “a bit frightened” at the prospect of returning to work to make a commercial feature film. Due to changes in the world and world views, he questioned his abilities to recreate the old magic.
His experiences during the war years, lead him to question his faith in the human race and the goodness of man. Had he portrayed events in his films a little too naively? Was he wrong to believe that man is essentially good and that things will inevitably out work for the best in the end, if the cause is just, and the moral high ground is maintained? Irrepressibly upbeat and a fan of laughter, Capra would come to an equilibrium in his heart, which he channelled through the creation of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.
It is essentially a good-hearted fable, that inspires both tears and laughter. A series of order, followed by disorder and in turn followed by restoration of order, is one of the recurring themes throughout the film. The story champions man and his ongoing plight with the daily grind, living with the disappointment of having to watch his dreams slide away slowly, due to necessary as well as selfless sacrifice.
The central character George Bailey (played by screen legend James Stewart) is our typical everyman. A plucky, hard-working, middle class American. His sights are set firmly on the top, as he dreams early on of travelling the globe and of a successful career as a civil engineer. His youthful plans are grandiose and yet still plausibly attainable given his intelligence, good character, general acumen and determination. However, as the film progresses, we see George have to relinquish one dream after another and make several sacrifices, for the good of those around him.
He is of course, comforted somewhat by the love of a good woman. Neil Young’s ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ springs to mind here.
Wonderfully played by Donna Reed; the character of Mary (virgin mother or just a popular name of the times?) is smitten with George since childhood and becomes his high school sweetheart and ultimately his wife. Throughout the film she acts as his counsel, moral compass and muse. For each inauspicious event that unfolds before George, he has a beautiful woman who loves him, the love of another. A consolation most people will settle for, at the end of a hard day.
We see George measured against the other male figures in his life. For instance his Father, a taciturn and good-hearted man who has worked all his life for little, but managed to support his family and live a blameless existence. There’s also the villain of the piece; the cantankerous and ruthless Mr. Potter, played by the magnificent Lionel Barrymore (great-Uncle of contemporary star Drew Barrymore). In Potter, Capra feeds all his dissatisfaction with right-wing conservatism and the more selfish facets of capitalism. Potter is everything George stands against and ultimately, someone he must appear before, cap in hand, and beg for mercy. There is also George’s best friend Sam Wainwright, who juxtaposed to George, seems to have all the luck and money in the world. Despite all his ‘would’ve been’ and ‘should’ve been’ moments, we see in George Bailey, a “righteous dude” as Bill and Ted would say. Speaking of Muppets, there are also two incidental characters in the movie, a cop and a taxi driver named Bert and Ernie. Apparently there is much debate as to whether the Henson Workshop intended the tribute to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, in naming two of their flagship characters on Sesame Street, Bert and Ernie.
Ultimately, George is confronted with a dire situation in which his buildings and loans company falls foul of his well-meaning but bumbling Uncle who misplaces $8000 (which falls into the hands of the evil Potter) and is threatened with complete collapse due to a bank run and then threatened with prison. After returning home and taking it out on the wife and kids, George does what any other red-blooded american male would do in the face of such blues; he goes to the tavern to drown his sorrows. Realising that his life insurance policy is good for $15,000 George gets it into his head that he is worth more dead than he is alive. Having four children and a wife to provide for, George decides to throw himself from the bridge and into the river below.
But, thanks to an aspiring 1st class angel Clarence Odbody (played to a tee by Henry Travers), George is rescued from his suicide attempt by proxy, in that Clarence throws himself into the river, causing George to react naturally and plunge in to save Clarence. Here the film takes a more fictitious hue, as Clarence shows George what life would’ve been like without him had he never existed.
The ensuing scenes remind us of that old Dickens classic ‘A Christmas Carol’, where Ebenezer Scrooge is shown his past, present and future, in an attempt to awaken his true self and make a pathway for redemption. George Bailey is also given a similar lesson by supernatural forces, determined to ‘save his soul’, so to speak. Also a Christmas favourite, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ reminds us of what it is to be fortunate enough to have the love of family and friends and the importance of sacrifice and selflessness.
Technically the film has some unique moments, the use of freeze frame and close up shots treat us to a peek into the characters very souls, the special effects are as good as can be expected for a film of its age. Colour versions have been released over the years, however I believe it is best viewed in black and white. When I was a child, I thought that the whole world was in black and white before the invention of colour in the 1960’s. Some films benefit from this original presentation, as they play to our sense of nostalgia for a simpler and more innocent time.
I believe that even the hardest heart, would fail to be secretly melted by the emotional ending to the film, wherein we see the local community rally together, to save George from disaster by contributing cash donations and well wishes. The children run to their father with open arms and a wealth of affection. His ‘princess’ looks on lovingly, happy in her husbands happiness. I personally fought back the tears until I could escape from the Arts Building and release the floodgates in private! Sometimes the difference between the emotional feeling of happiness and sadness in zero. Both have equal power to wring our hearts out. The film hits the spot in this respect; although we will always know sacrifice, disappointment and struggling, we will always have love, empathy and kindness, if we are lucky enough to have friends and family. Love, awe, respect, veneration will fill your heart after seeing ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, and Walt Whitman knew how much it was a wonderful life. All those years before any of us were even born, he had the reverence to sing his prose across time, directly to Frank Capra’s heart and ours in turn.