December 25, 2012
It’s A Wonderful Life has screened so often it has become cultural wallpaper, the background noise to tree decorating and on-line discount shopping. When it shifted into the public domain in 1974, television channels could air it without paying fees, and it became program filler for twenty years before subsequent copyright battles (it is now owned by Viacom/Paramount). Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then at least apathy, and It’s A Wonderful Life is treated more like a nostalgia piece than a work of art. That was my ignorant attitude, at least, until I watched it again this past weekend, and for the first time fully appreciated its melancholic rendering of adulthood’s parade of dashed hopes and perpetually delayed dreams. It was Frank Capra’s first narrative feature after four years of making propaganda films for the Army during WWII, and it feels like he imbued it with a life’s worth of disappointments, tagged with a vision of transcending these failures in an ending only Hollywood could provide.
The story for It’s a Wonderful Life was written by Philip Van Doren Stern, who sent it out in a 1943 Christmas card. A Civil War historian and sometime fiction writer, Van Doren Stern started work on his short story, then entitled The Greatest Gift, in 1939, but couldn’t find a publisher, so included it in his’43 holiday mailings. It somehow reached Cary Grant, who brought it to RKO’s attention. RKO bought the rights, and started to prepare a version in which Grant and Gary Cooper would star. After treatments by leftists Dalton Trumbo (blacklisted in 1947) and Clifford Odets (who testified before HUAC) were both rejected (were their versions too downbeat?), RKO sold the story rights to Liberty Films, a newly formed company started by Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and Samuel J. Briskin after their release from WWII service. Liberty would produce and RKO would distribute, with Jimmy Stewart, also freshly released from wartime service, to star. Liberty borrowed $1,540,000 from Bank of America to fund their first production.
Capra began shooting It’s a Wonderful Life in April of 1946, just as William Wyler began production on The Best Years of Our Lives, which dealt with the war’s aftermath more directly. Capra was not interested in memorializing the war. He told Richard Glatzer:
Yes, the war did affect me. I didn’t want to see another cannon go off; I didn’t want to see another bomb blow up. War lost its glamour for me. Just to see those trembling people in London during the Blitz, poor sick old ladies crying, crying in terror…children. There’s got to be something better than bombing old ladies and children. I lost…there’s nothing glamorous about war. I didn’t want to be a war hero, nothing. That’s why I made a movie about an ordinary guy.
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is listed 4F for the war because of his bad left ear. He is an outsider to his age, missing out on WWII as well as the post-war economic boom when he fails to invest in his old school buddy’s plastics business. His only dream is to travel, but with the death of his father and the entire Building and Loan company depending on him, he stays in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls, deferring his adventurous plans year after year. There is one devastating shot when this dream finally dies. George meets his brother Harry at the train station, and learns that Harry will not be taking over his job at the Building and Loan. Stewart’s face collapses in passing, before re-composing enough to congratulate his brother on his marriage and his new life. That expression is Bailey’s private funeral for his future, one now forever bound to be anonymously lower middle class. George is Capra’s ordinary guy, one who sacrifices his own life so his brother can join the stream of history and become the subject of Hollywood hagiographies. But at least in It’s a Wonderful Life, George is the star.
Capra emphasizes George’s subordination, keeping most action in the background while George is oblivious in the fore. As kids, Harry sleds right by George and into a crack in the ice. George has to save him, and loses part of his hearing in the process, setting up his sacrificial role for life. Then there is the school dance, in which George and his girl Mary (Donna Reed) dance without noticing that the gym floor is slowly cracking open, revealing the pool underneath. The rest of the party has noticed and stepped back, but George is again oblivious, and drags Mary along with him into the drink. Capra artfully deploys this water-as-oblivion metaphor throughout, culminating in the snowstorm that marks his decision to jump into the abyss one final time, a potential suicide leap off a bridge.
Disgusted with forever being on the periphery of the American dream, George decides to end it all, which triggers the appearance of Clarence (Henry Travers) the deus ex machina angel. Only through fantasy, through the construction of a George Bailey-less alternate reality, where Bedford Falls becomes a seedy juke-joint town called Pottersville, can his existence be justified. That is, through cinema itself, for what is Clarence if not the director of this nightmare, constructing it with the flick of his finger? His grindhouse version of Bedford Falls has Bailey as agog as a gullible teen at an opening night of Paranormal Activity, wide-eyed with terror. But instead of glorifying Hollywood trickery, what makes It’s A Wonderful Life so unbearably moving is that it urges George to escape artifice and return to banal reality and celebrate what meager joys are left to us here. It is the saddest of happiest endings.