Friday, December 19, 2008

A Pitiful, Dreadful Life?

A year ago today I wrote a little piece on one of my favorite films, It's a Wonderful Life, and, for several reasons, wanted to repost it here with some updated thoughts. It's worth noting, for example, that the film is now addressed within the context of the current "don't trust banks" mindset - a popular sentiment that punctuated the Depression-era news of bank failures and farm foreclosures. And while recent critics still praise the movie as one of Capra's best, they've tended to focus uncharacteristic attention on the darker facets of George Bailey's life and character, from abuse during his childhood to the thinly-veiled frustration and rage that surface in his darkest hours. But I think this duality is pretty typical of Capra's protagonists, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Gary Cooper) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Jimmy Stewart), to the later State of the Union, with a brilliant Spencer Tracy. More serious critics may dismiss Capra as "corny," but one can't deny his brilliance as a story-teller, nor dismiss the appeal of It's a Wonderful Life. Moviegoers like to see stories of redemption, in which the "everyman" hero triumphs against long odds.

Obviously much has changed in the year since I wrote the following post, and It's a Wonderful Life continues to attract attention. Even the New York Times has taken up the subject with a couple of articles, including "Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life." My original post from December 19th, 2007, follows:

It's a Wonderful Life
I had originally written a long post in response to a bit written by a friend over at another blog. She raised an interesting point about the direction our society has taken in recent years, a seasonally appropriate theme since it involves Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Sure, jaded critics like to point out how corny Capra could be - hence the derisive term "Capra-corn" - but the director was a great storyteller. Moreover, his populist vision of America reflected a very important element in the national psyche during that period. But, alas, a computer malfunction caused me to lose two-thirds of what had become a rather curmudgeonly post on the effects of sprawl and how it is analogous to the depiction of George Bailey's alternate reality - Pottersville - in the movie. (If you've read this blog for very long, you know how I feel about sprawl!)

Last week I managed to watch bits and pieces of Capra's classic on NBC, making sure I saw that unforgettable ending. It's a Wonderful Life remains one of my favorite Christmas movies, along with Miracle on 34th Street (the original), A Christmas Story, The Bishop's Wife, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (just kidding . . . maybe). And I still manage to shed tears at the end, when they're singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Auld Lang Syne."

Why do I love this movie? First, I've always been a big Jimmy Stewart fan. That "aw shucks," "everyman" quality is perfect in this role. (One also has to admit that Donna Reed was hot as George Bailey's wife.) I also enjoy the contrasting visions of the town, between the quiet, friendly Bedford Falls, and the frenetic, noisy Pottersville. The ugly truth for most of us in America today is that we live in scattered equivalents of Pottersville. So it's nice to think there could be idyllic towns like Bedford Falls in which one has neighbors like George Bailey. Moreover, who wouldn't want to be hailed as the "richest man in town," not by virtue of our bank balance or political influence, but measured by the friends and family one can count on in good times or bad. And finally, one has to enjoy the idea of a "do over" or the opportunity to witness how the world would fare without one's presence, thanks to a visit from Clarence the angel.

Jimmy Stewart always said this was his favorite role in a lengthy film career. I think if one possesses a mere gram of Christmas spirit, it has to be a favorite for many people. With its talk of savings and loans, runs on the bank, and possible suicide, it may prove a little dark for my kids. But having experienced Dickens' Christmas Carol this year, they may soon be ready to discover the joys of Bedford Falls and the Bailey family.

1 comment:

jblack designs said...

Even in my younger years, when it was decidedly not "in" to profess loving this film, I always argued its virtues against the more cynical position.

If today's critics are just now seeing the "darker" sides of George Bailey's life, all I can say is that they just weren't paying attention earlier. It is precisely because of the depth of his character that the film has staying power.

He's no Pollyanna. He's flawed, sometimes angry, impatient, and annoyed. He *is* everyman. At least the everyman we used to extoll. The one who had dreams and wanted to follow them but who realized that when fulfilling those dreams becomes an act of selfishness that's harmful to others, it's time to seek new dreams.

It takes his character a crisis to discover the value that grew from letting go of "my dreams." Perhaps our current crisis will help us move from extolling "me" to better taking care of "we."

I hope so.

Thank you for this post again, Brian. Happy Holidays!