Sunday, December 22, 2013

Another wonderful replay for It's A Wonderful Life

Folks have once again e-mailed to ask that I reprise my analysis of "It's a Wonderful Life" - which, like my list of the Smartest Horror Movies ever made, has become a kind of Hub Review classic.  And as I'm always glad to revisit this wonderful film, here it is for those of you who missed it the first few times -

I took last Saturday night "off," as it were, and let the performing arts fend for themselves - and instead curled up at home before the TV. And to my happy surprise, I found It's a Wonderful Life (at left) had begun its holiday rotation. It's by now a commonplace, of course, that Shakespeare seems to map to every age; and maybe great films do, too. For certainly Frank Capra's last masterpiece qualifies as great, and certainly in today's hard times it seems more resonant than ever.

Of course to some, the movie's sentimental message makes it a tough sell - and I won't make apologies for the angels and twinkly stars that overlay much of Life; Capra lays it on pretty thick in spots. But I've often noticed that the movie's skeptics always miss the hard core beneath the soft surface of what used to be called "Capra-corn."

For there's a worldliness at the bottom of Capra's vision that you won't find at the multiplex today - not even in the best from Spielberg or Pixar. Indeed, Capra regularly trades in situations we just wouldn't tolerate in family entertainment anymore. Consider that It's a Wonderful Life opens with a little boy who, playing with no adult supervision, almost drowns in a frozen pond - his brother saves him, but as a result loses his hearing in one ear. This is disturbing enough, but then a drunk (and heart-broken) druggist boxes that boy on his injured ear until it bleeds (while he wails in pain); in Spielberg, retribution would be swift: such a character would be eaten by a dinosaur or shark. Yet in Capra's movie, it's natural that innocents are left unprotected, and suffer as a result - and that people who under some circumstances can be terribly cruel are also redeemable, and even perhaps basically gentle and good (that druggist, Mr. Gower, becomes one of the hero's closest friends).

In fact throughout It's a Wonderful Life, a highly un-sentimental view of existence prevails, beneath the sticky-sweet fairy tale of angels getting their wings. People cut ethical corners left and right (like hero George Bailey's brother Harry, who leaves him stuck with the family building-and-loan), and are constantly tempted by the blandishments of money and sex (like Gloria Grahame's Violet, at top,who's always on the edge of slipping from "bad girl" status to something worse). Or they're simply weak, like George's Uncle Billy (the great Thomas Mitchell), who fumbles through life, making messes of things, then drinks to console himself. The seemingly bucolic Bedford Falls is really no kind of utopia - something serious is always at stake there, and someone or something is always hanging in the moral balance.

Of course the movie also constantly reminds us that people can surprise you. The callow Harry becomes a war hero - just as Mr. Gower turns out to be a saint - and even Violet thinks better of her ways. The movie's conceit is that there's a kind of moral force field in town that keeps nudging people back on, or at least near to, the straight and narrow (and which draws its power from the sacrifices of people like George). Thus no one in It's a Wonderful Life is precisely, or only, what they seem to be; they're always capable of far better, and far worse.

The dark side of Life - George in crisis.
Even the idealistic George himself (Jimmy Stewart, at right) isn't what he at first appears. The townsfolk always seem delighted with him, but every time I see It's a Wonderful Life, I'm struck by the anger and frustration roiling around in Stewart's performance. All George wants to do is escape from Bedford Falls, and he's often furious when over and over again, his moral duties frustrate that desire. And yet in that very frustration, he eventually finds something - well, wonderful (and so do we).

Which leads me to something else intrinsic to the movie that you won't find today at the multiplex: the admission that moral action demands sacrifice. The sentimental, consumerist bromides of our age insist you can become rich by being virtuous - which easily bleeds into the sleazier insinuation that riches operate as their own moral validation. But Capra (pardon my French) calls bullshit on all that. Morality has its rewards, the director tells us - and great ones - but they're not physical or financial. George saves his brother only by losing half his hearing; and he and Mary only preserve the building and loan by giving up their honeymoon. Being good will cost you something. 

All this, of course, speaks to a kind of moral scope (and sense of everyday moral danger) that's all but lost to us today. And it's hard not to feel that this moral dimension is tied to something else that's striking about It's a Wonderful Life: the fact that it offers the most sophisticated view of economic life ever committed to American film.  Indeed, the famous "bank run" scene (below) is so complex that - even though its developing situation is described quite accurately and explicitly as it unfolds - everyone I've ever spoken to about it essentially mis-remembers it (the Bailey Building and Loan isn't actually in any trouble, for instance, even though most people imagine that's the case - the crisis has been precipitated by a bank run down the street).

Some viewers have watched this scene and claimed the moral points it scores are false, assuming that the Bailey Building and Loan must have been involved in the kind of high-risk mortgages that contributed to the Great Recession of 2008. But nothing could be further from the truth. First, as I stated earlier, the Bailey Building and Loan is presented as solvent (Uncle Billy only locks its doors because a different bank, in full melt-down, has demanded its liquid assets on short notice, sparking a panic). And we understand that while the Bailey collection policy has involved flexibility in hard times, its customers aren't deadbeats. Indeed, George Bailey certainly hasn't off-loaded his debts in the derivatives market, because he knows his customers - whose character has sometimes operated as their collateral.

All of this is alien to the economy of the millennium, where there is no connection between the person who takes out a loan and the people who "own" it.  But wait, it gets worse (if you're a libertarian, that is): George Bailey bails out the Building and Loan (note the pun in his surname) by giving Ayn Rand the swift kick in the *ss she deserves, and offering up his own assets - he and Mary's honeymoon nest-egg - to cover the day's cash demands. He also makes a slew of promises and statements that are perfectly illegal, and swings the entire deal without ever consulting his Board. The whole scene is a short course in how when the bottom falls out of a market, only personal commitment can assuage the ensuing panic. And thus George holds the building and loan together - but only by ignoring both his legal "responsibilities" and the mores of the free market.

Which is no surprise to anyone who has spent time in real life, as opposed to Second Life, and knows the "invisible hand of the market" must always be guided from self-destruction by another invisible hand - that of the community. But if the people like George Bailey who gave that guidance were to vanish, then there would be no salvation possible - which is why we are living the film's final nightmare vision of the world as it would be without him. The new main street of casinos, honky-tonks and pawn shops that George faces there plays today as amusingly hysterical - but is it so far from the truth?  Indeed, isn't that precisely what Massachusetts is turning into even as we speak? To be blunt, to today's viewers, "Pottersville" is no hypothetical dystopia - indeed, it looks utterly familiar; it's a Las-Vegas vision many people promote every day with a straight face. Only look at the faces you find there - this is when It's a Wonderful Life becomes far more frightening than its ultimate source, A Christmas Carol.  In the world as run by Ebeneezer Scrooge, Mr. Gower is humiliated and utterly abject - desperate and dazed, he even chuckles along with his own abuse; Ma Bailey runs her flophouse with a face like a hatchet and eyes like a vulture; and we see poor Violet, screaming at the top of her lungs, as she is thrown out into the street for lewd behavior.

Of course maybe all this seems more poignant now because we're so lost as a nation, so unable to even envision what we must do to prevail over our current crisis. When It's a Wonderful Life was first enshrined on cable, the Reagan Republicans had only just begun to tear at the social fabric - and the movie's liberal platitudes sounded amusingly quaint. Now, of course, free market theory is triumphant, and It's a Wonderful Life has quickly morphed from corny Hallmark card to sad memento of a paradise lost. For there are no George Baileys left to save us from Mr. Potter, and we all live in Pottersville now.


  1. A very great film that, thankfully, is being rescued from the erroneous perception that it is a Hallmark card of quaint Americana. The darkness that pervades the film, most notably in Jimmy Stewart's remarkably nuanced performance, is truly chilling (in a way that makes it a companion piece--at least in my mind--to Thorton Wilder's "Our Town."), and would be out of place in today's Hollywood. Oh, we can stand to see all kinds of physical carnage and have a jolly old time of it, but to witness a man driven to hatred of his family and of himself due to frustrated ambitions is a pill too bitter for contemporary audiences to swallow. I'm so glad you called out the Bank Run scene in particular, for it is masterful. Would that the current (or any) President could allay our economic fears and rally us to support one another the way George Bailey implores his friends and neighbors not to sell out to Potter. But then today, Potter would probably be given the benefit of the doubt. After all, if he's that rich, he must have done something right, something worth emulating.