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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Favorite Revisited: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life is not only the best of all Christmas movies – it’s one of the greatest American films. It’s often mistakenly thought of as a big pile of corny sentimental mush. But as someone who’s allergic to fake sentimentality, I can promise you there is a much more substantive – and dark – achievement in Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece.

I first saw this movie in the best possible way, and I feel very lucky. I was attending USC’s film school, and they were showing a retrospective of Capra movies. USC has connections at the film studios, and they can often get pristine prints from studio vaults. This was way back in the 1970s, kids, before It’s a Wonderful Life had gone into the public domain and become a Christmas staple on every local TV station in the country. And I, a fairly experienced young film buff, had, believe it or not, never heard of this movie! So I went to see it with zero expectations of any kind, and no knowledge at all of the plot. (And also, by the way, it was nowhere near Christmas, and this was L.A. anyway, where it never feels like Christmas.)

What unfolded before my widening eyes was a glistening, gorgeous 35mm print. If you’ve only seen Wonderful Life on television, you’ve only half seen it. It is beautifully crafted – the photography, the editing, the storytelling itself are models of fine workmanship, probably Capra’s very best movie. The cast, from the leads down to just about every supporting role, is nearly perfect. And as the film proceeds, it develops an astonishing emotional pull, as powerful as a freight train, a nuclear missile, an earthquake.

I was 20. As far as I can remember, I had never cried at a movie before. It came upon me out of nowhere in the last scene, when our hero’s brother toasts him as “my big brother George, the richest man in town.” I was overwhelmed with emotion, suddenly sobbing uncontrollably. And it shocked me. What the hell was going on?

It’s a Wonderful Life is about a man driven to despair and attempted suicide. The story begins with others praying for him, on Christmas Eve – and then quickly goes back to trace how he got there. How did George Bailey, popular, sweet-natured, generous, fall so low? We follow him from childhood on, as his big dreams get shot down one by one. Other people get opportunities and success over the years; he stays in his small town, stuck running his family’s modest, struggling business, a savings and loan. And as the story reaches its climax, he’s about to lose even that. The situation turns him into a snarling, bad-tempered Mr. Hyde, yelling at his family and picking fights — and finally wandering out to a bridge near town, standing still, staring down into the water, about to jump.

The secret to the emotional wallop the film packs is that we share in George’s despair. This story takes you to a very deep, dark place. Certainly it’s leavened by humor along the way, and the fact that we see George’s tale as it is being told to his rather goofy guardian angel adds a big dose of whimsy (maybe too big a dose for some). But James Stewart is very skilled at finding the creepy, obsessed souls of nice guys (as he did later to even more stunning effect in Vertigo), and he takes the audience right along with him.

So when the magical conclusion of the film takes us first to an even darker place (a fantasy alternate universe), and then lifts George, and the audience, out of the darkness and into the warm light of family and friends, the effect is extraordinary. This is why it’s one of the most surefire tearjerkers in Hollywood history. And the fact that it makes people cry, and includes Christmas carols, and cute kids, and a banker villain of Dickensian meanness, and a stammering elderly elf of an angel, has led to its reputation as pure cornball. But I don’t see how anyone who watches the movie in its entirety could still feel that way about it.

Also unforgettable is the love story the movie tells between the Stewart character and Donna Reed as Mary, his wife. There’s a particularly memorable scene, brilliant and atypical for Hollywood, where the two, who have been quarreling, end up tangled in the cord of an old-fashioned phone as they listen to a long-distance call, and then suddenly find themselves weeping and kissing passionately, utterly in love. It’s capped by Mary’s mother walking in on them and hissing her disapproval. Stewart and Reed are amazing here. (Unfortunately, Donna Reed also gets the dumbest scene – near the end, when George is shown what the world would have been like without him, and Mary is discovered to have become a mousy, bespectacled librarian. It’s ridiculous and unconvincing, but at least it’s over quickly.)

It’s that climactic, Christmas Carol-derived sequence that most people remember – where the angel convinces George of his life’s value by showing how bad a place the world would have been if he weren’t there. It’s skillfully, even superbly, done, except for the librarian part. But it would be just a gimmicky plot if the emotional tug of what comes before and after were less intense.

There’s a very high-quality DVD available, and NBC now shows a really fine print as well, usually twice during the holidays – though it’s interrupted by dozens of ads. So there’s no need to suffer through the terrible, washed-out prints from the era when the movie’s copyright lapsed. If you haven’t seen this one for a while, give it another look. It may be impossible to watch it through completely fresh eyes, as I was fortunate enough to do 30 years ago. But it’s still a great movie, one that hits you right...there.


Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

I was so happy when that high-quality version finally came out on DVD this year, because it's so hard to find on TV, and I also have to see this classic at least once a year


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