Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is it Such a Wonderful Life?

Back in December 1990, on the CBC radio show Prime Time, host and film critic Geoff Pevere and I decided to re-assess the popularity of Frank Capra's Christmas favourite It's a Wonderful Life (1946). We felt that it was ample time to examine why this particular picture had become such a holiday classic. Neither of us actually hated the film; in fact, we thought some of the small town neurosis that David Lynch would expertly dissect years later in Blue Velvet (1986) had its roots in It's a Wonderful Life. But we were baffled that audiences over the years had viewed this movie as an uplifting and heart-tugging affair. To us, there was something much more unsettling lurking in this material, a looming shadow that the picture ultimately sought to avoid. So we decided to head straight for the darkness. Someone should have warned us.

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.

For the uninitiated, It's a Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a genial and generous soul who has lived his whole life in Bedford Falls. Even though he had always longed to see the world, George became a prisoner of his own compulsion to make sacrifices. As a boy, he saved his brother Harry's life after he fell through the ice (leaving George deaf in one ear). Instead of traveling, he fills in at the Bailey Building and Loan Association hoping that Harry will replace him when he graduates. On his own graduation night, while discussing his plans to go abroad, George puts them on hold when his father has a fatal stroke. Things then go from bad to worse when the grossly insensitive Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a majority shareholder in the company, coerces the board of directors to quit giving home loans to the town's poor. George gets them to reject Potter's proposal, but only when he promises to take over the Building and Loan.

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?

George and Mary raise their four kids and WW II breaks out. Only Harry can go abroad to fight since George can't enlist due to his bad ear. (Harry even gets a Medal of Honor.) But things hit rock bottom on Christmas Eve 1946, when Potter secretly steals a huge Building and Loan deposit from George's uncle, then turns and swears out a warrant for George's arrest for bank fraud. When George arrives home and helplessly furious, he takes out his anger on his family before driving off, getting drunk, and then crashing his car into a tree during a  snowstorm. At which point, George decides to commit suicide figuring that his family can collect on his life insurance policy. But he gets rescued by Clarence, a guardian angel looking to earn his wings, who begins to show George what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he hadn't been born. Needless to say, life is perceived as much worse than George could have imagined. (The town is even called Pottersville.) Having been horrified by this alternate reality, George begs God to give him his life back. At which point, the townspeople pull together and come to Bailey's aid. The town is his saviour rather than his nemesis.

Film critic David Thomson, writing in his A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994), describes the movie as "bringing good cheer without quite letting us forget a vision of dread." With his intuitive grasp of It's a Wonderful Life as being a troubling drama, a portentous movie about a man's neurotic need to forfeit his own desires, he goes on to say that happiness here is "pursued by the hounds of living hell" where the American dream that some saw being celebrated was "so close to [being] a nightmare." Thomson, who loved the movie despite its contradictions, would be inspired by It's a Wonderful Life to write a novel called Suspects (1985), where George and Mary turn up (among a cast of other movie characters) with the angry, vigilante Travis Bickle (of Taxi Driver) being one of their offspring. Travis actually gets to act out the rage denied his own father.

Lionel Barrymore as Henry Potter 
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?

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 (see

1 comment:

  1. From David Churchill. I honestly don't remember The Shining comparison, but I think it could work. However, my story of receiving vitriol came about in a film studies class at University of Toronto in 1980. I was asked to do a presentation on the film at the last minute, so I decided to do a contrarian take: I proposed that the whole film took place during the seconds before George Bailey died from drowning and that by end he was dead. Well, did that stir up a shit storm in the class. I only wish I'd pushed it further to back up my argument as Kevin and Geoff did by suggesting this film is in fact a film noir. Maybe then the vitriol may not have been as intense from a group of smart cinesates, but then again, I'd stamped on their sentiment (I sentiment I actually shared and in a small way still do), but I needed a hook at the last minute and that's what I came up with.