It's a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra
I want to thank Stellaa for suggesting I write about director Frank Capra's Christmas fantasy, It's a Wonderful Life. I watched it on Christmas Day, for the first time in twenty years.
Film critic David Thomson said It's a Wonderful Life is “a film noir itching to get out.” In 1969 Pauline Kael said that Capra's “softheaded populism was hooted at” in the 1950s, but had come to be appreciated again.
It's a Wonderful Life would be a strange new film if it ended after the first ninety minutes and you took out the angels narrating the story of George Bailey's life against the heavenly backdrop. Instead of Frank Capra, it might have been directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder at his darkest. Audiences could take the title as sarcasm. (Are we sure that some part of Frank Capra didn't mean it that way?)
We would see . . .
. . . the graduation party of the Bedford Falls High class of 1928 as they jitterbug over a swimming pool under the gym floor. The floor opens up and the young people fall into the water. Their elders, rather than warning them about the moving floor, or trying to stop the mechanism that's opening up over the water, jump in after them. These kids shouldn't expect any help from their parents in making their way through life. The Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War with its A-bombs—they're on their own.
Class of 1928: dancing near the brink
The way I remembered the movie, every time George was about to leave Bedford Falls and start his own life he was trapped by circumstances into staying. But that's not the way it happened. He always turns back against the advice of his friends and family.
He won't leave because he's afraid.
Uncle Billy tells him not to worry that Potter's about to put the Building and Loan out of business. George should go study and build the great things he's dreaming of. But instead George stays and keeps his father's business open.
Run on the bank
Just as he's about to go on his honeymoon trip with Mary there's a run on the banks and George uses the money he's saved up to keep the Building and Loan afloat. (Mary offers their money; does she have a premonition that she shouldn't be alone with George? Maybe Fassbinder didn't write this new version of the film we're watching—maybe it was Patricia Highsmith and George is going to take the name Ripley and leave dead bodies behind him as he takes his revenge on Bedford Falls.)
The character I feel most sorry for is Violet, played by Gloria Grahame. Everyone has thought she was the town tramp ever since she flipped her blond hair on Main Street one day and said, “This old thing? I only wear this when I don't care how I look.” All because she liked George since childhood and wanted him to notice her.
George helps Violet
Saint George gives Violet money so she can go to New York and start over. But somehow everyone in town hears about it. Does George really want to help Violet or is it his image as a do-gooder he's promoting? Or does he just want people to think the rumors about him and Violet are true?
As we come to the end of this re-edited version of It's a Wonderful Life, George has hit bottom. He's given up the mask of the man who willingly martyred himself for the people of his home town.
George screams at Uncle Billy, who was careless with the deposit money. “Do you know what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison! . . . One of us is going to prison and it's not gonna be me!”
This is the moment when Jimmy Stewart the actor turned from the boy hero Jefferson Smith of Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington into the violent predator Scottie Ferguson in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
Donna Reed as Mary: the girl he should have left behind?
And . . .
. . . this is where our new version of this Christmas classic ends. With George about to kill himself—not because he's going to be thrown into jail (they won't do that to George Bailey), but because he can't lie to himself any more.
If he had trusted his dreams, maybe George would have built bigger paradises than Bedford Falls. Maybe he would have touched more people, improved more lives.
George hits bottom
In Frank Capra's film, the angel Clarence shows George what the world would have been like if he'd never been born, but not what it would have been like if George had simply left that small pathetic town.
What is the angel hiding?
Does the happiness of everyone in Bedford Falls depend on George Bailey's existence, as the conclusion to Capra's film seems to say? Maybe we all think we're the star in our own movie, but George Bailey thinks he is God in his.
There's something about this film. I don't know if I think it's good or bad. I don't know if I like it or not. But I'm sure it's not the story of a wonderful life, no matter how it ends.