In Saturday’s LA Times there is a new look at Frank Capra’s, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a film so associated with Christmas that it only appears on television twice a year, on Christmas Eve and the Saturday before. That he was making a Christmas classic came as news to Capra and RKO:
Oddly enough, the film was unceremoniously released during Christmas week of 1946. Never mind the yuletide flavor, the wintry snowdrifts in Bedford Falls and the holly wreath George Bailey carries slung around his arm — this Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed romance was originally scheduled to open in January 1947. But RKO Studios knew it had something special and rushed it into theaters a few weeks early to meet the deadline for Academy Award consideration that year.
Capra shot much of the film on a specially constructed quaint-town set located at RKO’s ranch in the San Fernando Valley — a site that has long been overtaken by property development. In media interviews at the time, Capra did not portray it as a holiday film. In fact, he said he saw it as a cinematic remedy to combat what he feared was a growing trend toward atheism and to provide hope to the human spirit. In a moment of possible revisionism decades later, Capra said that he also realized that with the holiday season comes an inherent vulnerability in all humans, and that this uplifting tale might just ride on that sentiment.
Capra, an Italian-born filmmaker who gave us such early classics as “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” died in 1991, but not before witnessing “It’s a Wonderful Life” take on iconic wings of sort when television began airing it regularly in the 1970s.
The movie transcended time and soared well beyond his imagination.
“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud … but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
I remember the first time I saw it. A college roommate forced me to sit and watch it on the tiny TV we had in our kitchen. He was shocked I’d not yet seen it. At 19, I thought it was pretty corny, and couldn’t figure out what this sentimental mish-mosh of angels, Charles Dickens and Horatio Alger had to do with us, a couple of Berkeleyites in the mid-1970s.
Maybe the screen was too small. Within a few years, I realized “It’s A Wonderful Life” is simply one of the greatest movies ever made, on every level.
Watching it now, the first thing I look for are the faces. When has any film director captured and choreographed more memorable faces and facial expressions? Capra’s animated representations of people are like an unlikely combination of Norman Rockwell and Max Beckmann. Think of the “Why don’t you kiss her?” guy, or the anguished apothecary.
Then I listen for the dialogue, which, contrary to popular belief, is almost entirely unsentimental, even brutal. You could probably get a little buzz if you knocked back a shot of whiskey every time a character growled, “What’s the matter with you?”
George Bailey to Mr. Potter: “In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider.”
Potter to George Bailey: “Merry Christmas…in jail!”
George Bailey courting the future Mary Bailey: “Now you listen to me. I don’t want any plastics and I don’t want any ground floors. And I don’t want to get married *ever* to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do.”
George Bailey, loving father: “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?”
Truly, this movie earns the sobs it always wins from me at the end. George Bailey doesn’t just think he has a lousy life. In many ways, he does have a lousy life. He’s lucky to be married to Donna Reed at her most beautiful, but otherwise, Potter pretty much nails him in the cigar scene:
George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He’s an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man — who hates his job –– who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man…the smartest one of the crowd, mind you, a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he’s trapped. Yes, sir, trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters. Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?
The whole first half of the movie is nothing but one twist of fate after another that prevents Bailey from living the life he planned for himself. Few people are as definite about their wishes as Bailey is — and none of them come true. That’s the secret of the movie’s power. Confronted with one final twist — his idiot uncle misplacing cash that Potter is going to falsely allege Bailey stole to give to the floozy Violet Bick — he is finally done. Nothing has gone his way, and so much is arrayed against him.
He resists — mightily — the message the angel Clarence tries to teach him. He absolutely denies that, if he hadn’t lived, his brother would be dead, the sailors on his ship would be dead, his mother would be a bitter, impoverished boarding-house keeper, his wife would be a meek “old maid,” and the main street of the town now called Potterville would be one sleazy business after another. It can’t be true he was so important.
In fact, the kindness of one person — even if that person him or herself is desperately unhappy — can make all the difference in each life they touch. Like a drip of acid, that truth finally burns into George Bailey’s brain. This can be a rotten world, but kindness saves it. And when you need it most, the kindness you give comes back to you. This is something I’ve learned myself in the past few years. It’s not a secret — I’ve had my share of serious disasters, and have many times felt powerless over the pulsing flow of events into the rocky shores. But every time — every time! — the kindness of the good people in my life has saved me.
For at least 20 years, I’ve choked up at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” in good years and bad, at the same moment — when George’s face finally registers the truth about life and love that, through his endless frustrations, had eluded him. Then more faces, the amazing and strange people of Bedford Falls, glowing with love as they lift up their fallen brother.