Sunday, August 21, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 20
Writer: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra (adaptation), Jo Swerling (additional scenes), Philip Van Doren Stern (original story)
Director: Frank Capra
Star: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore

Of all those sad little feelings that slowly eat away at your soul, regret is possibly the worst. Not only does it make you wish you be anyplace else and anyone other than the person you truly are, but it makes it impossible to look ahead because you cannot accept the choices of the past. George Bailey (James Stewart) is a man of many regrets, the kind that seem small at first but snowball (not a pun, I promise) to the point where we doubt if he can ever truly be happy.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is co-writer/director Frank Capra’s best film, a near-perfect meshing of his quirky characters and underlying optimism with the outside world’s cynicism. From heaven’s point-of-view, we watch George grow up, take over the family business, get married and come to the brink of losing everything one snowy Christmas Eve. A guardian angel (second class) named Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent to stop George from committing suicide and, when George screams that he wishes he had never been born, Clarence grants the wish.

I’ve often stated that the majority of Capra’s films (see my articles on “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” or watch “Platinum Blonde,” “American Madness,” “You Can’t Take It With You”…etc.) have the opposite problem of most mainstream films. Instead of having a great first and third act and faltering during the second act, Capra’s films present us with uneven, hard-to-follow first acts and abrupt, almost non-endings. His movies really come to life in the second act, where he allows his main characters to become human by juxtaposing their personalities to the eccentric world around them. Here the problem is gone, with a charming opening, a real build and an ending that lasts just long enough to bring tears but doesn’t linger too long to get schmaltzy.

There are moments and characters here that are completely Capra. Look at the sequence where the pool opens up beneath George and his future wife Mary (Donna Reed, never lovelier). Now I don’t buy for a minute that a small town like Bedford Falls would have enough money to build a swimming pool under the gym, or that George and Mary wouldn’t realize the floor underneath them is moving, but since the performances are so endearing and because we know this is a Capra movie, we go with it. Then there’s the none-too-bright uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) who keeps crows and squirrels around the office, though no one ever complains about the mess.

There’s also a scene in the movie that is one of the sexiest in the history of film, though the characters barely touch. Mary’s beau has called her long distance and George somehow gets on the call as well. He and Mary stand next to one another, almost touching as they hold the phone, trying to keep the conversation going but unable to concentrate on anything other than one another. It’s beautifully done and a reminder to filmmakers in this “Friends With Benefits”/”No Strings Attached” era that sometimes the sexiest thing you can do is to keep it subtle.

Stewart’s previous collaborations with Capra resulted in pretty good movies, but his characters in “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” are the unfortunately the blandest things in those movies. Luckily, in “It’s a Wonderful Life” the character of George is a beautifully realized three-dimensional protagonist, quirky, opinionated, charming and never, ever bland. If he were, the movie wouldn’t work and we wouldn’t accept the dark places George goes at the end of the second act. For me, it’s Stewart’s best performance in a career of great performances.

Every time I see the movie I’m always shocked by how dark it is. We remember the cute moments, like the swimming pool or when Mary gets trapped naked in a flower bush. What we may forget is that, seconds later, George learns his father has just had a stroke. There’s a moment where an old friend invites George and Mary overseas for a vacation, and he laughs it off, smiling brightly while declining. As soon as the friends leave he kicks his car violently, showing just how bitter he is that he never got to achieve his dream of leaving Bedford Falls. The film’s most emotionally shattering moment, and perhaps the high point of Stewart’s acting career, is George alone in a bar praying to God to help him before he kills himself.

Yes, the sequence in the alternate Bedford Falls (renamed Pottersville) feel a little overdone and George’s endless declaration that “this can’t be real!” feels like a beat repeated much too often, but this could be because the trope has been repeated thousands of times, from “Popular” to the Muppets, that it can’t but feel a little familiar and obvious.

The real magic comes when he’s returned to his life. When seemingly every person in town comes to George’s house to donate money, we’ve reached one of the most emotional moments ever put on film. It never fails to move me deeply and bring a tear to my eye.

Like all of Capra’s films, “It’s a Wonderful Life” doesn’t seem to age. In fact, the movie doesn’t feel like it has a specific time or place at all. When it was first released, parts of it must have seemed old-fashioned…I’m thinking specifically of the Dickens-like Mr. Potter…but today his bid to take over the entire town seems more than modern, as does the recession and tough times the town faces. Other moments that seemed up-to-the-second then have become old-fashioned for us today, but the blending of these elements makes it feel universal, able to speak to every generation equally. What a gift.

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

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