Friday, December 23, 2011

25 Reviews of Christmas #23 - No Man is a failure who watches "It's A Wonderful Life"

We’re in the home stretch of The 25 Reviews of Christmas, and today’s article is probably the meatiest review of the bunch!  For our antepenultimate subject, I’m looking at one of my all-time favorite movies, Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and I’ve written a fairly extensive analysis of the film.  Remember to visit this page at any time for a collection of all 25 Reviews of Christmas articles. 

Enjoy! Review after the jump….

I believe that Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” is one of the greatest American films ever made.  It is certainly the most inspiring.  When I originally saw the film a few years ago, I wrote these words: “[“It’s A Wonderful Life”] wastes not one second in telling its story; there isn’t a moment out of place nor a performance that doesn’t achieve its absolute best.  The film is the most inspiring movie I’ve ever seen, and inspires a staggering array of emotions in the viewer.  Few movies have ever told such an expansive story and then summed it all up in a moment as simple, yet profound, as Clarence’s final message: the words “No one is a failure who has friends” will forever hold a place in my mind and heart.  If you only see it once, the film’s message will stay with you forever.  “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a practically perfect film, and if I were to compile a list of my top ten movies of all time, it would take a spot on there.”

I wrote that three years ago.  Today?  Well, I may love it even more. 

For those of you unfortunate enough to have never experienced “It’s A Wonderful Life,” it begins with a series of prayers, as the people of Bedford Falls ask God to help their friend, George Bailey.  We don’t know who George is just yet, but he’s in trouble, and a lot of people are worried about him.  In heaven, the Angels decide they should indeed do something, and pick Clarence Odbody, Angel Second-Class, to lend George a hand.  But first, Clarence will have to learn all he can about this man, so the majority of “It’s A Wonderful Life” traces the path of George’s life, from a childhood to his difficult times as an adult.    

George is a man with many dreams.  He wants to see the world, go to College, get out of Bedford Falls and build things, like skyscrapers.  But when his father suddenly dies of a stroke, George has to put all of that on the backburner to keep his dad’s Building and Loan business intact and out of the hands of miserly slumlord Mr. Potter.  From there, George’s life is a series of hard decisions; the Building and Loan does good things for the people of Bedford Falls, but it keeps George from achieving his dreams or giving Mary, his loving wife, and their children the things he knows they deserve.  Through it all, though, George remains a good man, and when his business, everything he’s worked for in life, implodes on itself, he contemplates killing himself so his family can have his life insurance.  This is where Clarence comes in; determined to show George how wonderful his life really is, Clarence shows George a vision of what the world would be like if George had never been born. 

Though certain societal elements are clearly outdated (the stereotyped African American maid, Mary’s “terrible” alt-world fate being that she never married), it’s surprising how timely “It’s A Wonderful Life” has become in the year 2011.  Much of the film deals with the role and responsibility of money, as George uses his earnings to help the town while Mr. Potter uses his in an attempt to own the town.  It’s the time-honored tale of greed versus selflessness, and though I would call George’s actions distinctly, quintessentially American, it’s disturbing to consider how far away we’ve drifted from the values of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”    

Today, politicians like to throw around big, sweeping words like “capitalism” and “socialism,” pretending that people fall into one of two black-and-white categories.  Both terms are completely ill-defined.  It seems that capitalism has become all about putting oneself first and never thinking about others, and many call that virtuous.  But that’s not capitalist.  It’s Rand-ian objectivism.  Socialism is even more misinterpreted; anyone examining the relationship between money and power in society and its possible negative effects is declared socialist and villainized.  “It’s A Wonderful Life” presents a truer American ideal.  George Bailey is as much of a self-made man as any great American, a small-business owner working tirelessly to stay afloat in tough times (much of the film is built around the great depression and WWII; 2011 parallels aren’t hard to find).  He is undoubtedly a Capitalist.  But he doesn’t put himself or his finances first; he cares about others, because he, like his father, knows the power of money, and knows that as the man controlling the finances, he can do many good things for his small-town community. 

He exists in the happy middle ground America so desperately needs to rediscover, but modern rhetoric would undoubtedly lambast him as socialist for “spreading the wealth.”  It’s not surprising that the scenes depicting a world without George Bailey look an awful lot like modern day America.  Money is everything; the few with it live in grandeur, those without it in squalor, consumer culture is inescapable, sex is exploited for profiteering, and there’s nobody there to do anything about it because tough times have forced everyone to worry solely about themselves.  We wouldn’t need government debates about fixing the economy, solving unemployment, or revising the tax code if there were more people in the world like George who figured out how to help their fellow men on their own, who see money not as a trophy to be hoarded, but as the day-to-day tool it really is. 

Because of that, George truly does live a wonderful life, though it takes a horrific alternate-reality scenario to make him realize it.  That element is probably the most famous part of the film, but it only comprises the last half hour, if that.  It is indeed an ingenious ending, to see the incredible, wide-ranging impact one man’s life may have upon society; needless to say, it’s one hell of an emotional climax.  But the ending only works as well as it does because the first 90 minutes do such a fabulous job of establishing not just George’s life, but the lives of those around him.  Inspiring though the film may be, the first two acts are pretty bleak as we watch George’s dreams torn apart time and time again; it all works, though, because we love the people of Bedford Falls, and we love George Bailey for making the right decision, if not the easy one, at each and every turn. 

To my mind, the single biggest factor in the film’s success is James Stewart, who I believe gives one of the all-time great American performances as George Bailey.  He has crafted a fully-realized, three-dimensional human being, not just a mere character, and while he can go broad and comedic in many sequences, it’s those moments full of nuance and complexity that make George a real, honest-to-God human being.  Look at the scene where he and Mary listen to their old friend Sam make a business proposition over the phone.  It’s just one long, fixed-angle take without any dialogue from the two leads, but Stewart says it all: George knows he can’t leave the family business, can’t ever get out of Bedford falls, can’t ever travel the world.  In that moment, I believe he truly does love Mary, but he can’t look at her, because she represents everything he’s going to have to give up.  Eventually, the tension breaks.  He drops the phone, grabs Mary by the shoulders and tries to explain what he wants out of life, but he knows it’s too late.  They embrace and share their first kiss.  It is such an incredibly human moment, not a piece of forced romance, and it’s just one example of how much Stewart, so famous for his distinctive voice, could express without words.

Donna Reed deserves equal credit, and though her role isn’t as meaty, it’s impressive what a strong female character Capra crafted within the confines of 1940s Gender roles, with Reed elevating the part even further.  I knew women like her when I was younger; they were far older, of course, but I could easily see Mary growing up to be my Grandmother, for instance.  She isn’t someone without ambitions or complexity; she’s a woman who clearly makes a big impact on those around her and takes pride in being good to others; even if the time period limits her opportunities, her humanity and personality are limitless.  Like Stewart, Reed expresses a lot non-verbally, and the pair share some really tremendous chemistry. 

Their performances, in fact, lie at the heart of my favorite scene in the film; on the day George hits rock-bottom, his business gone bankrupt and a warrant out for his arrest due to accidental fraud, George comes home, trying desperately to cope.  From the moment he enters the house to the moment he exits is, I believe, one of the most powerful sequences ever committed to film.  It’s mesmerizing to watch George slowly but surely fall apart, slipping further and further away from the good man we know as reality sinks in (with a haunting piano loop of “Hark the Herald Angels” in the background, no less).  He says some horrible things (and this is where Reed’s brilliance comes in; her reactions to what he says and does give the scene much of its power), but having watched every step in his life’s journey, we understand why, without necessarily condoning.  George is human.  He’s allowed to slip up every once and a while, especially on a day such as this.  This sequence absolutely breaks my heart, but if it weren’t so powerful, I don’t think George’s reward at the end would be quite as inspiring. 

As for the ending, I don’t feel I have much to say there, as it is the most often discussed portion of the film; I will say that as played by Henry Travers, Clarence is a great character, his impact so strongly felt that it suffices to have his final line – “No man is a failure who has friends” – written, rather than spoken.  And yes, that final scene makes me cry every time.  It isn’t just the town’s generosity; it’s George’s unbridled happiness at finally realizing the true worth of his life. 

And that, I think, is why the film has become a perennial Christmas favorite.  I’ll admit, I’ve always been a little confused why the film is so strongly associated with Christmas – only the last five or ten minutes play up any kind of Yuletide angle – but at this time of year, who wouldn’t want to watch a film celebrating the virtues of charity, goodwill, and a life well lived?  Isn’t that what the season is all about? 

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