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It’s A Wonderful Life

06 Dec

It’s A Wonderful Life – Directed by Frank Capra. Comedy/Drama. A home-town man teeters suicidally rather than bankrupting himself and his fellow townsfolk. 130 minutes Black and White 1946.

* * * * *

Clint Eastwood remarked how violent James Stewart was in the Anthony Mann Westerns he made in his late middle age. But they are nothing to compare with the rudeness, insolence, insult, and threat he delivers in this supposedly down-home performance of a would-be suicide learning about the life he has lived before it is too late. The insanity with which he throttles the foolish Thomas Mitchell is terrifying. He is violently mean to his children (as indeed one must be at Christmas to have a really meaningful Yule.) But the picture as a Christmas Classic probably looms as large as it does for the same reason that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol does – because of the Scrooginess of Stewart, as George Bailey, followed by the ghastly death-threat visions before he mends his ways. Jimmy Stewart is remarkable in the role, and except for the final scene of the sanctimonious, Deus ex-macchina rescue by the townsfolk of Bedford Falls, where there is something wrong with his singing and his smile, we have a great performance by a master of his craft. It is said that the film was not successful in its day, but I’m not so sure. I saw it when it came out, and I remember it vividly. And both it and Stewart and Capra were nominated for Oscars that year. Or perhaps there is not something wrong with that final smile. Perhaps what I see behind it is a hangover of his own nasty brush with the afterlife. Stewart had been away at war, one of the first big stars to enlist, and he bravely piloted more bombing missions over Europe than was good for any mortal man. Everyone was changed by The War, and what changed most in Hollywood was the virtual inability of its male stars to play comedy any more. Tyrone Power had been marvelous in light comedy; so had Henry Fonda; so had Stewart; George Stevens never directed another one, and screwball comedy never really returned. They came back from The War changed men. Solutions now weren’t so easy as they once were in Capra’s great, good-hearted comedies of the 30s. Capra never made a convincing comedy after World War II, and his career petered out. Here however he is in the last chapter of his topmost form. Every scene is beautifully written, every scene is perfectly begun, played, ended, and edited. Like Normal Rockwell’s paintings, what is illustrated here – and It’s A Wonderful Life is essentially a genre painting and an illustration – is the value of the truth of American community, which is that we must get along with people quite different from ourselves in personal style, race, and national derivation, and that to do so is to survive by the only means possible for survival: love. Love is what needs to survive. And love is what survives us. To make the illustration clear Capra does exactly what Rockwell does: he makes his humans almost caricatures. Like Rockwell, Capra’s characters live in gawky motion, and their gesture is strategized in the direction of endearing folly. All this is still true of America and Americans. Forgetting love’s survival through cooperation and public service and remembering it again is our national drama. This is what makes It’s A Wonderful Life the one film of Capra’s that will not date. To force the illustration, Capra has cast the story perfectly: first with Lionel Barrymore, the perennial Scrooge of radio in those days, as the meanie Mr. Potts, and he eats the role alive. Then with Ward Bond as the cop, Beulah Bondi as the mom, Donna Reed as the feisty wife, Gloria Graham as the town gal of questionable morals, Henry Travers as The Angel Clarence, Frank Faylen as the cabbie, Sheldon Leonard as the bartender, and a huge heterogeneous cast of townsfolk. It’s A Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie.

 
 
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