Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Movie Review: It's a Wonderful Life

It's February 26 as I post this and thus a fitting time to write about one of the greatest movies of all time.  Many people think of It's a Wonderful Life as a Christmas movie.  The categorization of "Christmas movie," which is inevitable, is problematic on two fronts.  First, even the best movies have a hard time transcending this category and being recognized as generally great movies.  Secondly, it enshrines Christmas-themed mediocrity and turns it into mandatory yearly viewing based on "tradition."  Luckily, my family does not like any truly terrible Christmas movies, but there are some I have gotten tired of.  A third and positive quality of the "Christmas movie" categorization, on the other hand, is that it forces Americans to watch a number of old, black and white movies, something that most Americans rarely do in any other context.  There's something sentimental about the holiday that draws modern audiences back to the classics.  It's a Wonderful Life is perhaps the most widely seen movie by Americans.  It is most known for its positive, but also challenging, message about the value of every human life.  It also presents a dark view of man's capabilities.  It's message is universal, but its context is very American, utilizing the experience of one man to look at American history.  It is also a movie which to some extent deals with culture and economics and has potential political implications.  The black and white cinematography and aesthetics of the movie are fantastic.  The characters and performances are amazing.  Lastly, the way in which Frank Capra, who was raised Catholic, deals with the supernatural is not always theologically correct by the Catholic church's standards.  This observation is peripheral, but it interests me.  All in all, It's a Wonderful Life is absolutely one of the greatest movies of all time.

It's a Wonderful Life is a strangely uplifting movie.  Many remember the joyous ending, but some are drawn to look upon another reality of the story.  What drove George Bailey to suicide?  You could say it was the missing eight thousand dollars, but that was merely the straw that broke the camel's back.  George Bailey is a failure of sorts.  Every grand thing he set out to do at the beginning of the movie ended in failure.  Every single dream of his youth ended in failure.  By the end of the movie, this is still true.  George Bailey lived a life of service to others and compromise of his own desires.  This movie clashes with modern values because he doesn't succeed at anything he wanted to and it is a celebration of a life humbly lived.  George Bailey raises a family that loves him, is a loving husband, and continues the modest business of his father that was contributing to the common good.  In a modern movie, there would more likely be some contrived adventure that saves George from his mundane life, but here, an angel shows up and we still don't get easy answers.  Unlike many modern movies, which are meant to be a distraction from life, this is a movie that actually attempts to give meaning to life.  I feel that the current trend of escapism implicitly mocks everyday life.  Hollywood acts as though our lives are so soul-crushingly mundane that we would just kill ourselves if we didn't have their mind-numbing distractions to take our minds off the void.  This movie confronts the void and shows its powerlessness.  George Bailey's transformation is purely internal and involves looking at his life with new eyes.  He found victory in in the midst of his failures.  The humble good he had done and the meaningful friendships he had forged, among other things, were the value of his life.  This triumph of working class values, believe it or not, has left some people cold, but not me.  The eight-thousand dollars, of course, is merely an afterthought, just icing on the cake.

Those who claim this movie is pure sentiment are not paying attention to all the details.  This movie has a very strong dark side.  Many people note that unlike in Frank Capra's other movies, this world had gotten so dark that only the thing that could save it was the conceit of an angel showing up.  In all his other films, order was restored within the realm of the movie without a miraculous divine intervention, although it could be argued that in some of his other films, good won by a cop-out.  Also, the scenes of Pottersville are as dark as any film noir.  On the one hand, they show us the positive difference that George Bailey has made, but on the other hand, they show that the entire town was one man away from hell in a handbasket.  Lastly, as many people have noted, as far as we know, Mr. Potter gets away with his dastardly deed.  Saturday Night Live famously made an alternate ending sketch where Potter gets his comeuppance.  Thankfully, nothing like this was actually in the movie.  By movie's end, Potter is so peripheral.  The movie is about George's inner journey.  Having Potter randomly get caught just to please the audience would have distracted from the message of the movie.

It's a Wonderful Life, while dealing with universal values, is also a very American movie.  It is a chronicle of decades of American history through the eyes of one man.  It's a Citizen Kane of the everyman.  I can only imagine how powerful it must have been to see this movie when it came out and the time period it portrayed was more relevant.  As a young boy, we see George is reading issues of the relatively new National Geographic Magazine.  As a young adult, George and Mary are dancing the Charleston, a popular dance of the 1920's, at a school dance when Alfalfa opens up the floor.  On the day of their wedding, there is a bank run that suggests the beginning of the Great Depression.  As the story reaches the present, we see the Baileys live through World War II and finally Harry is awarded the medal of honor, a crowning achievement on the worst day of George's life.  All of these events would have been very relevant to a 1946 audience.  The movie does an incredible job of seamlessly working these broad historical events into its personal narrative.

It's a Wonderful Life is a movie that is very much about economic and social issues.  Many see it through a political lens or desire to use it politically.  In many ways, it is an American institution, like the Constitution or the Bible.  Few will attack it outright, but everyone is looking to put their radically different spin on it.  Many people have claimed this is a socialist movie.  While Potter is definitely a capitalist villain who drove George's father to the grave, to say that the only alternative to a broken capitalist system is socialism shows an ignorant, binary mindset.  This is a movie that involves the divine and celebrates the value of the family and private property.  The building and loan exists so that families can own their own homes to raise up their children in.  This seems much closer to Catholic teaching, the church of Capra's youth, than communism or socialism.  It definitely seems to be a serious argument for community banking.  I like French film historian John Raeburn's approach to Capra's work:
"There is a strong libertarian streak in Capra's films, a distrust of power wherever it occurs and in whomever it is invested. Young people are won over by the fact that his heroes are uninterested in wealth and are characterized by vigorous ... individualism, a zest for experience, and a keen sense of political and social justice. ... Capra's heroes, in short, are ideal types, created in the image of a powerful national myth."
This is arguably a one-sided approach from the other end, but it seems much closer to the truth.  Lastly, George Bailey is able to succeed in the end without the government getting involved.  In the decidedly left-wing social justice movies that I know of, the hero is crushed by the capitalist system, not merely challenged.  Usually the outcome of a movie like this is a strong indicator of the politics of its creators.

The characters and performances in this movie are fantastic.  Jimmy Stewart gives arguably the best performance of his career.  George Bailey is at once the ultimate everyman and a very distinct and memorable character.  It's such an iconic performance with all sorts of passion, but it also doesn't lose it's realism.  A character that often gets short shrift is Donna Reed as Mary.  To me, and I know some feel the opposite, she takes what could have been just a bland, supportive housewife and knocks it out of the park.  So often women are consigned to playing the supportive spouse or love interest who only exists to signify the heterosexuality, husband-ness and fatherhood of the male lead.  She exists only in relation to the man and not as a real, distinct person.  Occasionally, this is reversed, as when Tim McGraw played the castrated husband in The Blind Side.  Mary Bailey is a passionate woman with an adventurous spirit.  That's why she's a stay-at-home mom.  She realizes the beautiful adventure of raising a family and she is tough enough for the challengess.  She's a very self-aware character.  She accepts the mundane life that George rejects and by the end, he is raised up to her level.  She's also the catalyst for getting eight thousand dollars.  While no one is as dynamic as main character George, Mary is more than just a pretty face fulfilling a role.  Thomas Mitchell as uncle Billy is fantastic.  It must have taken an actor of much humility to play such a pathetic, tragic and absentminded character.  All the other performances are uniformly great.  Most of the characters, like George, are types that also feel realistic.  They are less dynamic than George, but they realistically follow through with their roles.  It's such an incredible cast.

It is sometimes hard to explain the greatness of classical directors like Frank Capra and John Ford.  They are not known for their "artsy" style or self-reflexive aesthetics.  Capra was against such obvious flourishes.  Nevertheless, his frame is always bursting with beauty and natural creativity.  Think of the beginning of It's a Wonderful Life.  How does one visually show angels in heaven?  There were ways of achieving this at the time that would have been more than a little corny, but they went with an abstract route which is so clever and beautiful in it's simplicity.  Next we are treated to the freeze frame of George, something on the avant-garde side at the time, but motivated by the story.  In every shot we are enveloped in the beautiful black and white cinematography which is put to its most powerful effect during the Pottersville scenes.  The visuals are aesthetic on their own if you really think about it, but ultimately, form is rightly married to content.  I've seen small portions of the colorized version of this movie.  There's no reason to watch it all.  It's atrocious!  The bright pastels are so ugly and they draw the eye to the most inconsequential elements on the screen.  Black and white is truly a humanist medium suited to classical drama.  All of our attention is drawn to the faces on screen, even if a frame is busy.  It's pretty safe to say that even if the movie had initially been shot in color, they would not have made it look anything like the current colorized version.

As a Catholic, I'm going to be anal and clear up some theological mistakes made by this movie.  I'm not even sure that correctness on these nitpicking accounts would actually make the movie better.  Capra's Catholicism, which I can't find if he adhered to it his entire life, seems to have shaped a lot of the values in this movie, but not the theology of it.  First off, dead people do not become angels.  Angels are a separate class of being.  They are purely spiritual whereas human are both spiritual and corporeal.  Secondly, Clarence is mentioned as having the faith of a child, but when you are in heaven looking upon the face of Truth, you don't need faith.  Also, why does Clarence have a book?  Lastly, I've never heard the bell thing from anyone of any religious persuasion outside this movie.

Ultimately, It's a Wonderful Life is the sort of movie where if there was only one copy left on the planet, you would die saving it from a fire.  It's contribution to humanity is just that serious, not to mention the art of cinema.  I can't praise this movie enough.

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