Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Cinema Bestius: It's a Wonderful Life

This week, George Bailey sees his life through new eyes, and I attempt to see the film through new eyes too!

#41 – It’s a Wonderful Life
In today’s column, the Pope runs headlong into the inevitable brick wall of reviewing classic films. When the film is an unquestionable classic and has been written about for decades, what on earth is there left to say about it? It’s a Wonderful Life is so great, so life affirming, so beloved, and so neatly sums up Frank Capra’s entire career, where does one begin?

The Plot In Brief: George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is a small town lad who dreams of leaving Bedford Falls and doing great things. A series of circumstances and accidents conspire to keep George Bailey right where he started—running his father’s local business, the Building and Loan. Along the way, he weds high-school sweetheart Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) and has four children.

Local rich pain-in-the-ass Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) tries repeatedly to buy the Building and Loan so he can wield all the economic power in Bedford Falls. George refuses to sell. George’s Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces some money, Potter finds and hides the money, and things look dark for the Baileys. How evil is Mr. Potter? The unfortunate lackey who must push him around in his wheelchair never utters a single word in the entire film. Clearly, Potter has cut out his tongue.

At the end of his rope and fearing a scandal, George Bailey wishes aloud that he were dead. Guardian angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) conveniently arrives to show George the grim hellscape of a world into which he had never been born. Did the Pope mention that this film is widely considered a family Christmas classic?
It’s a Wonderful Life is justifiably famous because it is hugely entertaining, emotionally involving, and sweet. In fact, it’s so easy to love that I began to wonder if anyone could actively dislike this film. (“Of course—there are people who hate everything,” I hear my readers all respond, “this is the internet!”) Are there people in this world who automatically discount genuine human emotion, sneer at sweetness, and spit on honest entertainment? You betcha. Let’s meet a few.

“Goat,” writing for the website Ruthless Reviews, opines, “Where to begin? This movie was a colossal flop at the box office, but somehow, decades later, Frank Capra’s effort at man’s inhumanity to a movie is a highly revered Christmas tradition... This movie is drecky, sappy, overly long and a real burden to watch. This wreck of a movie is the very embodiment of America’s gullibility and willingness to adopt sentimental hogwash, regardless of how unwatchable. IMDB (sic) [sic] voters have catapulted this movie to an unimaginable 8.7 out of 10,voting it to be one of the greatest movies of all time. I know, unbelievable.”

Where to begin, indeed? Goat assumes, as some people still do, that box office performance is some indication of quality. It is not, nor has it ever been. Citizen Kane was a bust at the box office. So were innumerable films that lived on to breathe a second life on television and home video. Second, I do not understand the phrase “Frank Capra’s effort at man’s inhumanity to a movie.” I just cannot understand the syntax here, and in the words of Cardinal Patrick Bromley, “You can’t just say words.” I honestly cannot speak to Goat’s charge that the movie “overlong;” I have never found it tedious or plodding. Time is subjective.
Goat also calls the film “drecky,” “sappy,” a “burden to watch,” and “sentimental hogwash.” Well, “dreck” (the Yiddish word for “rubbish” or “trash”) and “hogwash” indicate that Goat finds the film worthless and disposable, which I find telling. Perhaps either Goat is one of those hipster douchebags who snickers and sneers at everything people hold dear just to get a rise out of people, or Goat may be living a life that he fears truly doesn’t matter. Could seeing the story of how much one man’s life means to his family, friends, and community cause Goat to fear, consciously or subconsciously, that it is his own life (not this movie) that is disposable—and, instead of doing something to remedy that sad situation, Goat decided to deride this wonderful film instead? Of course, I could be wrong about this (I’m not the infallible Pope of Goat), but I think I am onto something here.

Andrew Gilchrist, writing for The Guardian, also has a bone to pick with the film. He reminds us, “… there’s that misplaced money. Uncle Billy, who works with George, takes $8,000 in cash along to the bank. That’s the equivalent of about $130,000 today. And he just sort of dodderingly counts it out and then accidentally puts it inside a newspaper and then accidentally puts that newspaper on baddie Mr. Potter’s lap. I mean really? It’s a scene that is as staggeringly unconvincing as it is badly shot, about as believable as George lasso-ing the moon. And the whole film hinges on it. True, up until that point, the fact that Uncle Billy is one loan short of a portfolio has been Very Loudly Telegraphed, but this only makes it worse, transferring the blame to George for trusting such a glaring buffoon with a fortune in cash.”

Many of the film’s critics have a big problem with Uncle Billy losing the money. I think this is problematic for several reasons. Saying that a plot point is unrealistic is a fair criticism, but since Uncle Billy is shown to be absentminded, it makes sense that he might lose something. Is Gilchrist objecting to the idea that George would trust sweet, scatterbrained Uncle Billy with a pile of money? Perhaps—but doesn’t that indicate that Gilchrist has been drawn into the narrative and empathizes with George so much that he can’t stand to see him make this mistake? Perhaps Gilchrist is blaming his frustration on the film, instead of blaming his frustration on the fact that he is human capable of feelings. This reminds me of freshman literature students who dream up absurd ways to “save” Romeo and Juliet’s lives when reading the Shakespeare play because they don’t want it to end tragically. If only Juliet had woken up in time! If only Uncle Billy had not lost the money! Gilchrist is mad at George (or at Uncle Billy) and transfers this anger to the film itself.

But Uncle Billy losing the money is not the problem. The problem is Mr. Potter finding the money and not immediately giving it back. Potter isn’t just a “scurvy little spider,” as George Bailey calls him early in the film; Potter is a thief. If Mr. Potter were a decent person, he would shout, “Hey dumb Billy—you dropped this!” and the film would immediately end. In both of the criticisms cited above, I feel that It’s a Wonderful Life has touched the critic in a way he does not wish to be touched, and the critic is reacting against that. Goat senses sentimentality and genuine human emotion and rejects it like a bad kidney. Gilchrist might actually be so enmeshed in the narrative that a minor plot point drives him to tear his hair in frustration. In both cases, I believe the criticism can serve as a testament to the real power of this film.
Talking about how a film can affect us emotionally is at the heart of any discussion of It’s a Wonderful Life. The middle section of the film—George’s nightmare vision of a world in which he does not exist—accomplishes something so extraordinary that many people don’t see it coming and certainly not in a Christmas movie. One of the Pope’s college professors once called the movie “a film noir wrapped in Christmas paper.” The film’s darker underpinnings have also been discussed endlessly. That we can’t quite shake off the nightmare after the film’s happy ending is one of the qualities that make this a classic film.

No one has ever discussed the bitter pill hiding in this holiday cookie as well as Rich Cohen, writing for Salon.com; he answers any critics’ objections more eloquently than I ever could. Cohen knows what It’s a Wonderful Life is really about: “Look again at the closing frames — shots of Jimmy Stewart staring at his friends. In most, he’s joyful. But in a few, he’s terrified. As I said, this is a terrifying movie. An hour earlier George was ready to kill himself. He has now returned from a death experience [….]

“George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn’t know it. Because he was seeing the world through his eyes — not as it was, but as he was: honest and fair. But (while viewing a world in which he has never been born), George is nothing and nobody. When the angel took him out of his life, he took him out of his consciousness, out from behind his eyes. It was only then that he saw America. Bedford Falls was the fantasy. Pottersville is where we live. If you don’t believe me, examine the dystopia of the Capra movie — the nighttime world of neon bars and drunks and showgirl floozies. Does Bedford Falls feel more like the place you live, or does Pottersville? I live in a place that looks very much like Bedford Falls, but after 10 minutes in line at the bank or in the locker room where the squirts are changing for hockey I know I’m in Pottersville.”
Beyond the usual “Capra-corn,” It’s a Wonderful Life is a chilling indictment of where American life seemed to be headed in 1946. The fact that Capra’s prediction was so on the money is almost beside the point. In addition to the engaging performances, the unique premise, the assured direction, the delightful music, and the heartwarming ending, It’s a Wonderful Life argues to be a more decent person. It argues that doing the right thing is not always easy or full of reward, but reminds us of what life’s true rewards are—family, friends, children, trust, community, and love. I am sure there are higher purposes to art, but I can think of no better ones.

"In nomine Patrici, et Capra, and a Merry Christmas to all, Amen.”


  1. I took some time this morning and read Goat's review as well as about 10 other of his reviews to get some context. I think he just don't like this film, it's that simple. Other reviews seem balanced; he liked 10 Cloverfield Lane except for the ending, liked Creed to an extent, Hateful Eight, The Revenant, Spotlight, Ida, etc... Goat states in the beginning of the It's a Wonderful Life review that he rarely review a film he don't like, so that tells me it's just one of those movies where he needed to get his opinion off of his chest. I don't think 1 negative film review of a beloved movie is indicative of someone who "may be living a life that he fears truly doesn’t matter". If all of the reviews I read from him were negative, that might be more telling, but who knows. In his review for 1951's A Christmas Carol, Goat writes: "This quality work of this excellent version of A Christmas Carol made it the best of the lot, a remarkable achievement for a film this long of tooth. This film was everything that It’s a Wonderful Life was not, and should be the standard bearer for all Christmas classics."

    Btw, I am Goat. :P

    1. HAA! That's...funny, guys. I didn't think it was as bad as you, Chaybee, but I guess...I admit (since admissions are being made)..I'm not that big a Jimmy Stewart fan unless he's involved in a murder. For me that balances him out.

      But the premise of Its A Wonderful Life is amazing, like A Christmas Carol and Groundhog Day. Please someone tell me if you know of similar tales in movies.

    2. Meredith, I am not Goat, I guess that was a bad joke :) I think IAWL is fine.

    3. Check out Vincenzo Natali's Haunter (2013) with Abigail Breslin. It's the Horror version of Groundhog Day. I dug it!

  2. Beautifully said and written, JB. One of the reasons this film's ending works as well as it does is the wholesale darkness that comes beforehand. We're thrust so completely into one man's despair that the finale - a glorious vision of community and charity - is truly a vision of heaven on earth.

    One thing about Uncle Billy losing the money. I think it's telling that Billy decides to get all up in Potter's business and rub his nose in the success of the Bailey family. It's a decidedly uncharitable gesture from normally gentle Billy, and a subtle warning against letting smugness and pride distract us from the bigger picture.

  3. Interesting analysis from both the Pope and Salon guy. I think the film is about the massive impact each of us have on the world around us, even though we often feel like we do not matter. It's easy to feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and this movie argues against that. George really felt he had completely screwed up his life and everyone else's around him. What he didn't realize is he was the guy who was holding that town together. Bedford Falls wasn't a perfect place, but it was a nice place to live and that was due to George. He kept the town from falling off the cliff of Pottersville. He kept that town going and gave everyone hope as they went through the great depression. In the end, George realizes this and sees how truly blessed he is and that he really has had a 'wonderful life'. While much of the film is very dark, I believe the ending is very hopeful. I know it's the simple and optimistic view, but it's how I always viewed it. I love this movie. Capra is easily one of my favorite directors.