Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Capra's Old Cinematic Christmas Chestnut, Redux

By Steve Evans

It’s a Wonderful Life remains the greatest of Christmas films. If this seems like a predictable choice, that’s only because it’s the correct choice, though not for the reasons most people might consider.

I don't accept the widely-held criticism of this 1946 Frank Capra film as sentimental, feel-good “Capra-corn,” as his films were so often dismissed. Sure, there’s a (relatively) happy ending. George Bailey learns what life would have been like if he had never been born. He finds salvation in the form of a kindly angel and neighbors who come forward to pay it back. George reunites with his children and his impossibly patient wife, the luminous Donna Reed.

Cue: church bells and Auld Lang Syne.

Most viewers remember and cherish this happy, populist ending, and with good reason: it follows a long middle act of crushed dreams, financial ruination and attempted suicide. It’s a Wonderful Life is a dark film, as bleak as any noir, redeemed only by the artificiality of that famous ending. I admire Capra for clinging to such a kindly philosophy, but I respect the film for putting George Bailey into a crucible of life lessons from which there are no easy answers – even if Capra provides one, anyway, at the conclusion. That ending is essential. Whether we believe it is another matter. More on that in a moment.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film and a classic Christmas movie because of the little grace notes we can discover if we read between the lines.

Bailey is a man whose dreams are systematically shut down through his own efforts to do the right thing as evolving circumstances demand. There is no chance for college, world travel, a brilliant career in architecture. There is only the little world of Bedford Falls. Even if George decides that his small town is good enough, that can scarcely reconcile a life of struggle against big business, as exemplified by the bitter and utterly vile Mr. Potter, who goes unpunished.

I believe George and Mr. Potter are two sides of the same coin. Potter represents what George might have become had his better nature not prevailed. Potter’s scheming ways provide the catalyst that enables George to emerge as a decent man concerned for his community, even at the expense of his own life’s dreams. A hero needs a worthy villain. That’s part of the basic equilibrium of the universe. George might have even defeated Potter (although we would have had no movie) if absentminded Uncle Billy had not been such a schmuck.

Like George himself, It’s a Wonderful Life encourages us to embrace our better nature, to place the needs of the many before the needs of the few, or the one. This was the essence of Capra’s politics. To convey this message to a nation returning from the horrors of World War II forced the director to craft a Machiavellian screenplay that would compel his characters to move in the precise directions he wanted them to take. This story is coiled as tightly as a steel spring. A whiff of inevitability, of fate, hangs over It’s a Wonderful Life. The omniscient narrator, God Himself, tells us as much near the beginning of the picture.

Capra crafted a message movie for the ages, so carefully constructed that the mechanism reveals itself only after many viewings. It is this:

Like the observation of Christmas itself, the climax of his movie is not at all about life as it is, but the way many people desperately want it to be. Without that sweet, romanticized ending, It’s a Wonderful Life would be unbearable -- though it would more closely approximate the truth. So, can we believe it?

In the end, if we choose to accept Capra's message, we do so purely on the basis of faith. If that's not in the spirit of Christmas, then no other film ever could be.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Cinema Uprising values comments and feedback from readers. Although we cannot reply to every message, we do read comments and take your thoughts into consideration as we continuously produce fresh content.