Needless to say, the next day after we had questioned the movie's attempt to wear its big heart on its sleeve, listeners were now clamouring to tear ours out. One phone message even encouraged Geoff and I to commit suicide (and if we lacked the courage, he would gladly come down to help us out). We were both stunned at the ferocity of the audience reaction. Geoff even leaned over during our post-mortem story meeting the next morning to say, "Gee, you'd think we'd just killed Santa Claus and dragged his reindeers around the studio." How could such violent responses come from people whose souls were so edified by Capra's corn? Nobody appeared to want to see what was so unnerving in this picture, what was right in front of their eyes. To us, It's a Wonderful Life wasn't full of holiday cheer, it was actually a film noir in a state of denial.
|Donna Reed and James Stewart|
|Henry Travers as Clarence|
While George believes that his brother will ultimately take over the business, so he can finally depart from Bedford Falls, his sibling gets married instead. George decides to follow Harry's footsteps by getting hitched himself to Mary (Donna Reed), a girl who has loved George for years. Just when they plan to escape for their own honeymoon, though, the Building and Loan goes into a financial crisis that almost leads to its collapse. Only the money George and Mary put aside for their honeymoon can save it. Guess what they do?
What Geoff and I were trying to establish was that George Bailey was not simply a victim of bad luck, or circumstance, but a man who masochistically sabotaged his own dreams to fulfill the dreams of others. But Capra never examines why Bailey is driven to do so. Bailey's anger and despair is fuelled more by his own hand than simply the evil intent of Potter. Which is why Capra's complete turn towards redemption at the end is a actually a betrayal of what the story has been setting up. It just does not play successfully as this redeeming story. (My friend and fellow critic David Churchill always thought it was heading to the same conclusion as Stephen King's The Shining.) So why then do people persist in seeing It's a Wonderful Life as a film inundated with the Christmas spirit?
|Lionel Barrymore as Henry Potter|
First of all, when the film was first released it did poorly at the box office. Perhaps all that sentimentality about personal sacrifice didn't go down so well with those who had just been making enormous sacrifices during the Second World War. It wasn't until the Sixties when after It's a Wonderful Life had been all over television did it suddenly achieve its current cult status. Sacrifice fit more snugly into the whole ethos of Kennedy's New Frontier and a newly born counter-culture that was waiting to hate that grubby capitalist Henry Potter. George Baily's selflessness could be explained away as a noble rebellion rather than something self-destructive. The ending could even be seen as a victory of small-town parochial humanism over urban greed and licentiousness.
To this day, I think It's a Wonderful Life is a fascinating, schizoid movie, whatever its status at this time of year. Geoff and I didn't set out to devalue it twenty years ago. As critics, we sought to understand and account for its appeal. Well, we got more than we bargained for when many of the movie's fans offered something a little rougher than holiday cheer and forgiveness. That's fine. People can continue to enjoy the movie every year as their family bonding experience. But don't try and sell me the idea that this is still an inspiring story. It's a Wonderful Life was always a dark American fable, a foreboding tragedy that somehow fantasized itself into the light.
— Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (seehttp://revuecinema.ca/programs/film-noir).