Sunday, December 25, 2011
CANON OF FILM: "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE"
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Francis Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, with additional scenes by Jo Swerling, from the story by Philip van Doren Stern
I always found it somewhat odd that we're supposed to take "It's a Wonderful Life," at face value. That the actions of a man, are what one makes of one's life. One of my favorite themes that I work with when I'm doing my own writing, is the differences between one's thoughts and one's actions. George Bailey (James Stewart) is beloved, and of the highest of honor according to the townsfolk and the people who know and love him. In his mind though, he isn't an altruist or even a highly-respected member of the community; he's a man of quiet desperation, who had the position of respected community member thrust upon him, unwillingly. In his mind, his life had led him to the bridge in the beginning, about to jump, not over the $8,000 he has just lost, but over a lifetime of despair. Let me describe a film to you. First, something bad happens. Then, something even worse happens. Then, something incredibly bad happens and then this and many other bad things continue to happen throughout the entire film, until the end of the movie when it’s really, really bad, something happens that eventually calms the bad thing down and everything ends up better at the end. If you guessed “War of the Worlds,” you wouldn’t be that far off. I guess you’re wondering if I’m actually going to describe what’s probably the most famous and most beloved Christmas film of all-time by comparing it to a disaster film? No, I'm not..., okay, I am going to for a little bit. In fact, I'd say "It's a Wonderful Life," does you one better. Not only is it a disaster film, in the traditional structural sense, but it does all of them one better, as a literal deus ex machima, an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) arrives after all the bad stuff has occurred, he reveals to George a drastic, more desperate, and more horrific example of how horrible the movie could’ve been. We care and feel for the film because the disaster isn't the destruction of people, but instead, the systematic disenfranchisement of one man. It's internal, and it's heartbreaking. That's why the movie holds up so well, even though I think it is an overrated Christmas tradition. Actually, it's bizarre that it became a Christmas movie; it was never intended as such. You can tell by watching it that Christmas is only used as a device to add weight and tension to the film, and it's effective. Despite five Oscar nominations, the film wasn't a hit, and it's copyright was dropped, so TV networks began airing it because it was cheap. (Ironically, it's way more expensive to air a far-less superior, colorize edition of the film, which is copyrighted [It's also the reason I can post a youtube clip of the entire movie on this blog.]) It's interesting how few films like this are made today, and when they are, they're typical panned by being over-sentimental, usually correctly so. I think what attracts people to the movie constantly over these past years is that preciousness of life that’s portrayed in the film; the notion of how one’s life can matter so much no matter how little one’s life may be, which at Christmastime can be a common thought. Is that what makes “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a great film? Hard to say, it’s certainly essential, but it’s greatness is purely emotional, which isn't a bad thing. Should it be on the top of many film lists? Let’s just say there are other Capra films I think are more worthy of this canon, and I’ll probably add those someday. But, in the meantime, "It's a Wonderful Life," is Capra's most universal film. No matter it's faults, it stirs up both extremes of our emotions, the most joyous of highs, and our darkest of lows. For the poet in us, it's soulful; for the rest of us, it's only human.