Lives of the Ain’ts: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

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It’s A Wonderful Life has screened so often it has become cultural wallpaper, the background noise to tree decorating and on-line discount shopping. When it shifted into the public domain in 1974, television channels could air it without paying fees, and it became program filler for twenty years before subsequent copyright battles (it is now owned by Viacom/Paramount). Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then at least apathy, and It’s A Wonderful Life  is treated more like a nostalgia piece than a work of art. That was my ignorant attitude, at least, until I watched it again this past weekend, and for the first time fully appreciated its melancholic rendering of adulthood’s parade of dashed hopes and perpetually delayed dreams. It was Frank Capra’s  first narrative feature after four years of making propaganda films for the Army during WWII, and it feels like he imbued it with a life’s worth of disappointments, tagged with a vision of transcending these failures in an ending only Hollywood could provide.

wonderfulThe story for It’s a Wonderful Life was written by Philip Van Doren Stern, who sent it out in a 1943 Christmas card. A Civil War historian and sometime fiction writer, Van Doren Stern started work on his short story, then entitled The Greatest Gift, in 1939, but couldn’t find a publisher, so included it in his’43  holiday mailings. It somehow reached Cary Grant, who brought it to RKO’s attention. RKO bought the rights, and started to prepare a version in which Grant and Gary Cooper would star. After treatments by leftists Dalton Trumbo (blacklisted in 1947) and Clifford Odets (who testified before HUAC) were both rejected (were their versions too downbeat?), RKO sold the story rights to Liberty Films, a newly formed company started by Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and Samuel J. Briskin after their release from WWII service. Liberty would produce and RKO would distribute, with Jimmy Stewart, also freshly released from wartime service, to star. Liberty borrowed $1,540,000 from Bank of America to fund their first production.

Capra began shooting It’s a Wonderful Life in April of 1946, just as William Wyler began production on The Best Years of Our Lives, which dealt with the war’s aftermath more directly. Capra was not interested in memorializing the war. He told Richard Glatzer:

Yes, the war did affect me. I didn’t want to see another cannon go off; I didn’t want to see another bomb blow up. War lost its glamour for me. Just to see those trembling people in London during the Blitz, poor sick old ladies crying, crying in terror…children. There’s got to be something better than bombing old ladies and children. I lost…there’s nothing glamorous about war. I didn’t want to be a war hero, nothing. That’s why I made a movie about an ordinary guy.

George Bailey(Jimmy Stewart) is listed 4F for the war because of his bad left ear. He is an outsider to his age, missing out on WWII as wonderful3well as the post-war economic boom when he fails to invest in his old school buddy’s plastics business. His only dream is to travel, but with the death of his father and the entire Building and Loan company depending on him, he stays in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls, deferring his adventurous plans year after year. There is one devastating shot when this dream finally dies. George meets his brother Harry at the train station, and learns that Harry will not be taking over his job at the Building and Loan. Stewart’s face collapses in passing, before re-composing enough to congratulate his brother on his marriage and his new life. That expression is Bailey’s private funeral for his future, one now forever bound to be anonymously lower middle class. George is Capra’s ordinary guy, one who sacrifices his own life so his brother can join the stream of history and become the subject of Hollywood hagiographies. But at least in It’s a Wonderful Life, George is the star.

Capra emphasizes George’s subordination, keeping most action in the background while George is oblivious in the fore. As kids, Harry sleds right by George and into a crack in the ice. George has to save him, and loses part of his hearing in the process, setting up his sacrificial role for life. Then there is the school dance, in which George and his girl Mary (Donna Reed) dance without noticing that the gym floor is slowly cracking open, revealing the pool underneath. The rest of the party has noticed and stepped back, but George is again oblivious, and drags Mary along with him into the drink. Capra artfully deploys this water-as-oblivion metaphor throughout, culminating in the snowstorm that marks his decision to jump into the abyss one final time, a potential suicide leap off a bridge.

wonderful7Disgusted with forever being on the periphery of the American dream, George decides to end it all, which triggers the appearance of Clarence (Henry Travers) the deus ex machina angel. Only through fantasy, through the construction of a George Bailey-less alternate reality, where Bedford Falls becomes a seedy juke-joint town called Pottersville, can his existence be justified. That is, through cinema itself, for what is Clarence if not the director of this nightmare, constructing it with the flick of his finger?  His grindhouse version of Bedford Falls has Bailey as agog as a gullible teen at an opening night of Paranormal Activity, wide-eyed with terror. But instead of glorifying Hollywood trickery, what makes It’s A Wonderful Life so unbearably moving is that it urges George to escape artifice and return to banal reality and celebrate what meager joys are left to us here.  It is the saddest of happiest endings.

24 Responses Lives of the Ain’ts: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Posted By filmgeekwatching : December 25, 2012 10:06 am

I actually I wathed this on a plane once and I did not like it atll. However this film grew slowly of me because of that topic of extensilisim and appreciating the community around you…I am thinking of rewatching it again

Posted By filmgeekwatching : December 25, 2012 10:06 am

I actually I wathed this on a plane once and I did not like it atll. However this film grew slowly of me because of that topic of extensilisim and appreciating the community around you…I am thinking of rewatching it again

Posted By Gene : December 25, 2012 10:54 am

I don’t doubt that this is a classic and one of Capra’s better films. Unfortunately, at one point many holidays ago this film was everywhere on television. Everywhere. Wherever there was a channel it was being shown day and night. I can no longer even see a moment of the film without feeling nauseous. It’s a shame to do that to a film that should be (and is) highly regarded.

Posted By Gene : December 25, 2012 10:54 am

I don’t doubt that this is a classic and one of Capra’s better films. Unfortunately, at one point many holidays ago this film was everywhere on television. Everywhere. Wherever there was a channel it was being shown day and night. I can no longer even see a moment of the film without feeling nauseous. It’s a shame to do that to a film that should be (and is) highly regarded.

Posted By Pamela : December 25, 2012 12:17 pm

This is great. I love your reading. I, too, watched this movie this year for the first time in decades–actually, twice–and I was pleasantly surprised with how whole the picture is with character and sentiment. There are so many rich moments. Like when Stewart has those heavy, smitten eyes on Donna Reed in the yard out front. And then the old man yells at them for not kissing! Those eyes remind me of another holiday movie with Stewart (that happened to air last night in fact on TCM), THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. There’s that last scene when his eyes fall on Margaret Sullivan, heavy and sweet. The two movies share this marvelous thing, the uncanny way Stewart puts us square in the moment, as if what we’re experiencing were real.

An anecdote you’ll appreciate: Before this year, I knew IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE best from its excerpt in Joe Dante’s GREMLINS (1984). There’s a scene where the mom is prepping food in the kitchen, Jimmy Stewart is hollering “Merry Christmas” onscreen in the background, I think she rolls her eyes. Dante! Always with his finger on the pop culture zeitgeist.

Posted By Pamela : December 25, 2012 12:17 pm

This is great. I love your reading. I, too, watched this movie this year for the first time in decades–actually, twice–and I was pleasantly surprised with how whole the picture is with character and sentiment. There are so many rich moments. Like when Stewart has those heavy, smitten eyes on Donna Reed in the yard out front. And then the old man yells at them for not kissing! Those eyes remind me of another holiday movie with Stewart (that happened to air last night in fact on TCM), THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. There’s that last scene when his eyes fall on Margaret Sullivan, heavy and sweet. The two movies share this marvelous thing, the uncanny way Stewart puts us square in the moment, as if what we’re experiencing were real.

An anecdote you’ll appreciate: Before this year, I knew IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE best from its excerpt in Joe Dante’s GREMLINS (1984). There’s a scene where the mom is prepping food in the kitchen, Jimmy Stewart is hollering “Merry Christmas” onscreen in the background, I think she rolls her eyes. Dante! Always with his finger on the pop culture zeitgeist.

Posted By B Piper : December 25, 2012 1:53 pm

Years ago (many years ago, alas) when I was in high school a girl I was dating told me about this great Christmas movie she and her sister had stumbled upon on TV one night. She couldn’t remember the name but we finally caught up with it a while later. It was (of course) IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE pre-ubiquity. I’m very glad I saw it for the first time without preconceptions. It’s a terrific movie, and like much of Capra’s work much darker than his reputation would suggest.

Posted By B Piper : December 25, 2012 1:53 pm

Years ago (many years ago, alas) when I was in high school a girl I was dating told me about this great Christmas movie she and her sister had stumbled upon on TV one night. She couldn’t remember the name but we finally caught up with it a while later. It was (of course) IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE pre-ubiquity. I’m very glad I saw it for the first time without preconceptions. It’s a terrific movie, and like much of Capra’s work much darker than his reputation would suggest.

Posted By Doug : December 25, 2012 2:57 pm

Mr. Sweeney, your post is aces, with the best line I have read in a while: “His grindhouse version of Bedford Falls has Bailey as agog as a gullible teen at an opening night of Paranormal Activity, wide-eyed with terror.”
Well done! I have not seen this movie in one sitting in many years-maybe it’s time to watch it again. Merry Christmas.

Posted By Doug : December 25, 2012 2:57 pm

Mr. Sweeney, your post is aces, with the best line I have read in a while: “His grindhouse version of Bedford Falls has Bailey as agog as a gullible teen at an opening night of Paranormal Activity, wide-eyed with terror.”
Well done! I have not seen this movie in one sitting in many years-maybe it’s time to watch it again. Merry Christmas.

Posted By Arthur : December 25, 2012 4:17 pm

The town would have become “Pottersville,” reminiscent of Potter’s Field where impoverished people are buried unceremoniously.

With the series of scenes showing the possible future, it would appear that this story was, in part, inspired by Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Posted By Arthur : December 25, 2012 4:17 pm

The town would have become “Pottersville,” reminiscent of Potter’s Field where impoverished people are buried unceremoniously.

With the series of scenes showing the possible future, it would appear that this story was, in part, inspired by Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Posted By Peter Denman : December 25, 2012 8:16 pm

I don’t see any trace of sadness in this happy ending, and feel that the point has been missed. The almost-concluding line which gives the point of the whole thing, from Capra’s point of view, is “No man is a failure who has friends”. Surely Capra didn’t mean for viewers to think of friendship as ‘banal’ or to be described as a ‘meager joy’. His point is that friendship has great value which makes life wonderful, not banal.

Posted By Peter Denman : December 25, 2012 8:16 pm

I don’t see any trace of sadness in this happy ending, and feel that the point has been missed. The almost-concluding line which gives the point of the whole thing, from Capra’s point of view, is “No man is a failure who has friends”. Surely Capra didn’t mean for viewers to think of friendship as ‘banal’ or to be described as a ‘meager joy’. His point is that friendship has great value which makes life wonderful, not banal.

Posted By markmayerson : December 25, 2012 10:57 pm

This film is about a mid-life crisis and a nervous breakdown. George Bailey has to face the fact that his dreams will never come true. Life has defeated him and he is trapped. His only compensation is the love others have for him, and while that solves his immediate problem, it doesn’t alter his ongoing situation.

The film forces George Bailey to accept his lot in life and to see himself for who he really is. While some see this film as sentimentally uplifting, it is really about the death of hope and the lowering of expectations.

Posted By markmayerson : December 25, 2012 10:57 pm

This film is about a mid-life crisis and a nervous breakdown. George Bailey has to face the fact that his dreams will never come true. Life has defeated him and he is trapped. His only compensation is the love others have for him, and while that solves his immediate problem, it doesn’t alter his ongoing situation.

The film forces George Bailey to accept his lot in life and to see himself for who he really is. While some see this film as sentimentally uplifting, it is really about the death of hope and the lowering of expectations.

Posted By Keelsetter : December 26, 2012 1:27 am

Nicely done, sir!

Weird to think that SOUTH PARK also found its success via a similar route as a Christmas card (albeit as a short video) – but one of the first to go viral.

Posted By Keelsetter : December 26, 2012 1:27 am

Nicely done, sir!

Weird to think that SOUTH PARK also found its success via a similar route as a Christmas card (albeit as a short video) – but one of the first to go viral.

Posted By robbushblog : December 26, 2012 1:32 am

My favorite movie of all-time. Thanks.

Posted By robbushblog : December 26, 2012 1:32 am

My favorite movie of all-time. Thanks.

Posted By Jenni : December 28, 2012 11:16 am

I have always enjoyed this film, as it does show a man what his “world” would’ve been like if he had never existed. Putting that aside, I rewatched it, and the scenes where George has come home, he knows there is a large amount of missing money and the bank officials will be coming to talk to him, he is stressed to the max and then takes it all out on Mary, the kids, and Zuzu’s teacher-all of that makes me want to hide my face behind a pillow and not watch! Lastly, the comedy King of Queens, one Christmas season, had a funny side story about the father-in-law, Jerry Stiller, having never seen It’s a Wonderful Life. The son-in-law, Kevin James, rents the movie for Stiller to watch it. Later, he asks Stiller how did he like the movie and Stiller replied that Bedford Falls was a dull place to live and he liked Pottersville better, a real, swinging place!

Posted By Jenni : December 28, 2012 11:16 am

I have always enjoyed this film, as it does show a man what his “world” would’ve been like if he had never existed. Putting that aside, I rewatched it, and the scenes where George has come home, he knows there is a large amount of missing money and the bank officials will be coming to talk to him, he is stressed to the max and then takes it all out on Mary, the kids, and Zuzu’s teacher-all of that makes me want to hide my face behind a pillow and not watch! Lastly, the comedy King of Queens, one Christmas season, had a funny side story about the father-in-law, Jerry Stiller, having never seen It’s a Wonderful Life. The son-in-law, Kevin James, rents the movie for Stiller to watch it. Later, he asks Stiller how did he like the movie and Stiller replied that Bedford Falls was a dull place to live and he liked Pottersville better, a real, swinging place!

Posted By Qalice : January 2, 2013 8:51 pm

I can’t agree with you that the movie is about George Bailey accepting meager joys, because I don’t think Frank Capra ever made such a movie. But I do love the Saturday Night Live skit in which the mob at George’s house realizes that Mr. Potter took the money — so they go to his house and beat him to death.

Posted By Qalice : January 2, 2013 8:51 pm

I can’t agree with you that the movie is about George Bailey accepting meager joys, because I don’t think Frank Capra ever made such a movie. But I do love the Saturday Night Live skit in which the mob at George’s house realizes that Mr. Potter took the money — so they go to his house and beat him to death.

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