Roger Ebert ends his review of It’s a Wonderful Life with a story. “At a seminar with some film students in the 1970s [Frank Capra] was asked if there were still a way to make movies about the kinds of values and ideals found in the Capra films. ‘Well, if there isn’t,’ he said, ‘we might as well give up.’” But the fact is most American films really might as well give up, because they learned the wrong lessons from Capra. Lesser talents have made “feel-good movie” a dirty word. Capra didn’t make feel-good movies. He knew that feeling wouldn’t last unless he made you feel bad first.
I’ve said this before, but lightheartedness in media is like light itself. It won’t stand out if there’s no darkness around it, and the sappy shit we endure this time every year, if not daily, is the result of assholes waving around a flashlight on a sunny day and thinking anyone will give a fuck. They’re not total incompetents for the most part. They know drama is conflict. But they give us conflicts so unthreatening they do nothing but kill time until the ending.
This kind of storytelling isn’t inherently worthless. Sometimes you just want to float along with an easygoing fantasy without anything too perturbing to shake you out of it. I’ll admit to enjoying the occasional feel-good movie, even if most of them have to be aimed at children to overcome my adult cynicism. But It’s a Wonderful Life is something different. It’s not just an accident of copyright law that it’s endured so long by making cheap fodder for local stations. The phrase “local stations” might as well be Martian to most people my age and younger, but It’s a Wonderful Life is still here.
By now, dozens if not hundreds have critics have explained why by correcting the half-formed cultural image of It’s a Wonderful Life as nothing but Christmas cheer from beginning to end. But it bears repeating, because the tension between Capra’s light and dark, optimism and cynicism, is what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so wonderful.
We’re hardly out of the first reel before Capra busts out a perfect little mini-tragedy over the course of five minutes. Little George Bailey finds his boss Mr. Gower isn’t himself and learns the reason when he spots a telegram that his son has died of the Spanish flu. Gower’s so overcome with emotion and alcohol he almost sends a child capsules full of poison before George confronts him. Most Wonderful Life wannabes are pure fantasy. But this scene is all too real. As Gower, silent star and Capra favorite H.B. Warner is a frighteningly uncontrolled, wetfaced mess, able to convey drunkenness and grief and rage all at once, any one of these things about to knock him down like a house of cards any second. When he beats George until he bleeds for failing to deliver the poison pills, you can almost feel it. That brutal unsentimentality sells the sentiment when George tells Gower he knows the truth about both his son and the capsules and the two of them break down crying together. Bobbie Anderson as George is no slouch either — the way his voice cracks as he says, “There was something wrong in those capsules” has haunted me since I first saw it fifteen years ago.
Once George grows up and the main plot gets moving, it moves in a direction few other movies would. We’ve all heard a million stories about the small-town boy who leaves it all behind to follow his dreams. But how many are there where he’s rewarded for sacrificing those dreams over and over again? In a way, we’ve attached a moral virtue to selflessness since It’s a Wonderful Life came out — not always for the worse since so many people have their selfhood so eroded it can only be moral to stand up and say enough. For all that, the morality Capra offers sticks with me. It helps that he acknowledges the alternative. George’s constant sacrifice isn’t easy — in a very literal way, it almost kills him. He finds self-actualization just as seductive as any of us, or else there’d be no story. Capra knows the audience will resist his moral, so he argues as persuasively as he can against the self-centered model of success in favor of his own, based not on what a man has but what he gives others. “No man is a failure who has friends.”
In other words, George is a saint, and we might not believe in him if Jimmy Stewart didn’t make him so human. Stewart was a man ahead of his time. He seems to be working in a whole other school of acting from his costars, a naturalistic one that wouldn’t become mainstream for over a decade. All his stammering and backtracking and hemming and hawing is easy to parody, and it got him typecast as nervous, awkward characters, but he understood that’s just how people really talk — not just anxious people, but even the most collected, even, let’s say, someone who got tagged as “The Great Communicator.”
As for George, he’s not good because he wants to be. In fact, it takes divine intervention before he can realize that’s what he is. He just doesn’t know any other way. More than that, he’s frighteningly fallible. Like Capra’s Mr. Deeds, there’s a violent darkness under his cornpone charm. (And remember that scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington where Stewart goes around punching people for a solid minute? We may have to call this a Capra trademark.)
Unlike Mr. Deeds, though, It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t soft-pedal that violence or its effects. When he hits rock bottom and takes it out on his family, including his little children, it’s heartrending. The same naturalism Stewart applies to his speech patterns makes his violence horribly real. John Mulaney has a bit where he paraphrases the scene of George discovering Uncle Billy has lost the $7000 with a lot more profanity and physical violence. But even though the Hays Code wouldn’t let him say anything stronger than “Silly, stupid fool,” Stewart invests it with the same venom as any foulmouthed HBO character.
There’s a moment in George’s meltdown so subtly devastating I didn’t catch it until this, my fourth or fifth viewing — he trashes a table full of blueprints and miniature buildings, the last vestiges of his childhood dream of becoming an architect. But even that isn’t as powerful as the moment he first comes home, sobbing and clutching his oblivious little boy like he knows he’ll never see him again, or begging, first loudly then softly “I want to live again.” And yet, even at his lowest, even when he’s about to kill himself, George’s core selflessness remains, something Clarence exploits by jumping off before he can. George forgets all about drowning himself to save another man from drowning.
And then, in the sequence that’s such an outsized part of It’s a Wonderful Life’s cultural footprint it’s easy to forget how short it is, Clarence shows George what it would be like if he’d never been born. And no wonder it’s stuck in so many minds. It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t “the most terrifying movie ever” as Rich Cohen claims on Salon, but the nightmare world of Pottersville comes close. I mentioned Capra’s balance of light and dark a minute ago. Well, he makes that literal in his delineation of Bedford Falls and Pottersville, where the streets are as shadowy as any noir. Especially in the bonechilling scene where George walks into his house and finds it abandoned and falling apart, the frame is dark to the point of obscurity, cinching the impression of a nightmare where your dream-image is just visible through the dark of the night.
It may seem odd the high concept of the movie doesn’t kick in until it’s almost over, but it’s the exact right decision. After getting to know Bedford Falls for the past hour and a half, we can share George’s horror at the overwhelming wrongness of Pottersville. Special credit to Beulah Bondi’s astonishing transformation in her one scene as the alternative Ma Bailey, so embittered it’s hard to believe it’s even the same actress, let alone the same character. Credit too, to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, with its eerie chorale that sounds almost, but not quite, human.
The Pottersville sequence also raises the question of just what “values and ideals” you’ll find here. If there’s one reason we can’t make movies like this anymore, it’s because a good chunk of the American population has been forcibly disillusioned about the traditionalist all-white enclaves Capra mythologizes here — and because the rest of the country has fetishized this vision so violently, both in intensity and in consequences. The suburbs that have become the center of that vision didn’t quite exist as we know them in 1946, but you can see them being born in Bailey Park. Significantly, our first impression of Pottersville is a Black jazz pianist — the only Black presence in Bedford Falls is a few unnamed extras and (sigh) a sassy maid.
Capra’s racial vision is complicated by its contradictions. He explicitly sets himself against the racist animus behind modern conservatism — Potter’s the one who slurs the Italian immigrants (still just barely “white” in 1946) as “garlic eaters” and Bailey’s the one who fights for them. And why shouldn’t Capra side with Italian immigrants? He was one himself. This doesn’t absolve him though: it would be far from the first time a racial minority courted the majority by sniping at the next lowest group on the pecking order.
The film’s politics are further complicated by Capra’s firm stance in favor of New Deal progressivism, with most of the then-(and now-)current conservative talking points ending up in Potter’s mouth. It’s both surprising and unsurprising that this classic piece of Americana got the notice of the FBI as potential communist propaganda. Whatever the title might say, It’s a Wonderful Life does a lot to expose the ways life in America is anything but, as a corrupt economic system that refuses to let even one of George’s good deeds go unpunished. You could argue Capra is saying the system would work fine if it weren’t for a few bad men like Mr. Potter (George’s millionaire buddy Sam Wainwright comes out looking pretty good). But Capra himself argues far more explicitly that this country would be even crueler if it weren’t for good men like George. And they are few and far between indeed.
And I can’t let this article go by without mentioning Lionel Barrymore’s fantastic performance as Mr. Potter. He relishes every line just as much as Potter relishes making people suffer, with his unique regional inflections burrowing each one into your memory in much the same way as Frank Morgan does in The Wizard of Oz.
I also can’t afford to forget the moments of infectious joy the movie offers even before things come out right. George and Mary’s makeshift honeymoon, where Capra uses darkness to a wholly opposite effect from the Pottersville sequence. Or the high school dance, a throwback to Capra’s screwball-comedy roots where the snappy dialogue makes the mischief-making pair — one of them played by Alfalfa from The Little Rascals! — into fully-realized characters in just a few seconds. Dorothy Parker punched up the script, and I have to wonder if her legendary wit went into this scene — “Did you know there’s a swimming pool under this floor? And did you know that button behind you causes this floor to open up? And did you further know that George Bailey is dancing right over that crack?”
These scenes are so unforgettable it’s easy to see why they’ve defined It’s a Wonderful Life’s place in the popular imagination more than its darkness. But take away either one, and the other would cease to function. Now that is a Christmas miracle.
It’s a Wonderful Life is streaming on Amazon Prime