Monday, December 21, 2009

He Made Me Watch It ~ It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

On a cold Saturday evening, Carlos and I snuggled on the sofa had some mint Hot Cocoa (with some peppermint Schnapps for some added warmth) and watched It's a Wonderful Life (1946). After my 29 year + semi-voluntary boycott, I now join a legion of people who have watched and enjoyed this film. I am now one of many, rather than one of few.

I was very impressed by Jimmy Stewart's multi-dimensional performance as reluctant townie George Bailey. He certainly had his regular aw-shucks demeanor and it suited the character really well, but you see Bailey go through a wide range of emotions, from hopefulness, disappointment, love, anger, frustration, hopelessness, etc. And I have a tremendous soft spot for Jimmy Stewart. He is one of a serious of male actors who I look up to as fatherly figures. If Jimmy Stewart is crying on screen, I am crying off screen. George Bailey's desire to travel the world gets eclipsed by his responsibilities to his father's business and to his hometown of Bedford Falls. If Bailey leaves the town, the evil Potter (played by the completely unrecognizable Lionel Barrymore), will take over. We can't take the good out of the town and leave it to the evil. Oh no siree. And while Bailey's accomplishments probably eclipse that failure in his life, I still feel sad for him. Part of me really wants to see Bailey escape Bedford Falls and travel the world because people should allowed to live out their dreams. This film, and Capra's message, certainly is about the merit of the individual but in the end, Bailey had to sacrifice himself for his community. Bailey is a 1940's Jude Fawley if you ask me.

With really important films, especially ones that have an impact on myself and/or on others, I always go back to my inner Derrida. I want to deconstruct the film just the way he would. So I asked myself, "what makes It's a Wonderful Life so effective?". And my answer: opposites. Throughout the film, we see George Bailey and all the good he does for everyone in Bedford Falls. It isn't just enough to see it. We need to feel it too. So let's throw in a villain. Mr. Potter, the evil, greedy business magnate who is trying to take over Bedford Falls with his iron fist and cold heart. You put Mr. Potter side-by-side with George Bailey and Bailey looks a positive saint, even more so than he already did. Now you could have the film continue with just Mr. Potter battling George Bailey and you would have your standard run-of-the-mill good guy versus bad guy story. The clincher is the addition of the angel. And it's not just the angel himself. It's what the angel shows Bailey, but more important what is shown to us as the audience. We see Bedford Falls as it would exist WITHOUT George Bailey. Deconstructionism teaches us that the presence of something is intrinsically linked to it's absence. We really appreciate something when we understand it's absence as well as it's presence. It's a difficult concept to explain but once you comprehend it, it sticks with you for life and you can never shake it. We get the important of George Bailey in Bedford Falls because not only we see it but we see what life in the town would be like without him.

So what was my personal reaction to the film? I enjoyed it immensely and was very moved by it but I am okay with only watching it once in a great while. Maybe that's why this is such a Christmas classic. Once a year is probably enough for some folks. I hurt a lot for Jimmy Stewart/George Bailey and winced, cringed and hid my face in my hands/blanket at every moment of dramatic tension. It was a difficult film to watch. Carlos kept reassuring me that everything was going to be okay but it didn't help when I saw him get emotional. By the end of the film I had tears streaming down my face. Maybe it was for the best that I hadn't watched this film at the Brattle theatre.  It's always embarassing to have one's tear-soaked face exposed by the bright lights that turn on when the end credits roll.

What touched me (or bothered me) the most about this film is the kindness factor. The kindness that Bailey showed the town and the kindness the town showed back to him. Kindness is rare these days. I find that many kindnesses go unrewarded. While you shouldn't be kind to get a reward, the joy should be enough, the quality of one's life is immensely improved by acts of kindness. On some days, when I'm down and out and really need a hug or a kind word said to me, I come up empty. All I really get in return is people wanting sympathy for their own problems and not seeing that I have many of my own. Maybe people are too self-centered these days. Or maybe, just maybe I'll have my George Bailey moment one day. We'll see.

Now that I've thoroughly depressed you (or angered you, whichever), I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas!

P.S. Why did no one tell me Gloria Grahame was in this film?!


  1. i'm so glad you finally saw it raquelle! i think your personal connection is a wonderful thing, not embarrassing at all! and you've done a great analysis of it as well. you should read robert ray's analysis of it in a certain tendency of the hollywood cinema, 1930-1980. it completely turned my viewing of the film on its head. i think you've inspired me to post the beginnings of a write up i did on it a few years ago.

  2. Good write up, Raquelle, and a good analysis of the film and just what makes it work. To me, what makes it a great film is how all the ingedients blend seamlessly to manipulate our emotions. Believe me, if you had seen it in the theater, you would not have been the only one with teary eyes when the lights came up. This is one of the few films I know that can make every grown person I know cry like a baby.

  3. Capra was very skilled at combining sentimentality and an optimistic view of working class people. He used this technique in many of his films. Disney used this same technique in many of his films too.

    Capra fit in nicely with the type of films Hollywood produced during the WWII era - films that showed Americans as good hearted and willing to sacrafice for the Good of all.

    After the war ended Capra-type films were mostly shelved as more realistic approaches were used. (Yes, I know, there's exceptions Sound of Music comes to mind.)

    Personally, I cannot stand this film, it's fingernails on the blackboard, filled with typical Capra induced overacting, cliched sentimentality ... and good guys are swell and good and pure of heart even if temptation is near.

  4. I've seen this movie more times than I can count, and every single time I'm surprised to see that Gloria Grahame is in it. It's probably because I'm used to seeing her in crime movies. Maybe that's why no one else ever mentions her?

  5. Hi there- great post! I'm always looking for people writing about It's A Wonderful Life... I wrote a song called George Bailey that I'd love to share with you guys. You can listen on my website or watch the youtube video below.

    Thanks and happy holidays!
    Carolyn Sills

  6. Yay! I love this film. I also love Gloria Grahame. I've posted about her, you should check it out! :) Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas :)

  7. I adore It's a Wonderful Life! Fabulous actors, a story that touches particularly close to home, and fun fashion (see Gloria Grahame). I need her poofy tinsel-looking hat!

  8. Thanks for your great post. It's interesting to me to read the analysis of someone who is seeing it for the first time.
    Presence/absence ... hmm. I always liked that it stopped snowing as soon as Clarence announced George was never born.
    Sure maybe some overacting, but Jimmy Stewart was wonderful in this.
    Kindness: another blog I read (can't find it now of course) discussed how the internet in general and blogging in particular seemed to make people mean, meaner than usual.
    I send you a random act of kindness!

  9. Ok, I think I was thinking of this post:

  10. I personally think It's a Wonderful Life has one of the greatest climaxes of all time. It has been imitated and parodied since, but at the time it was starkly original--show a man what the world would be without him! It also occurred to me that in some respects It's a Wonderful Life is A Christmas Carol in reverse--instead of mean, miserly Scrooge who needs to be taught the holiday spirit, it's kind, generous George Bailey. It's still one of my favourite films of all time.

  11. I've been sort of boycotting this too :| I really want to see it after reading this!!

  12. Meredith - Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll have to check it out.

    Pjowens- The Brattle was pretty packed so I can envision a swarm of teary-eyed people stumbling out of the theatre. :-)

    Bill - So I take it you don't like it? Didn't you say that you wished George Bailey jumped off the bridge? ha ha

    KC - I guess everyone takes it for granted that Gloria Grahame is in that movie so no one got around to telling me!

    Carolyn - Thanks for the links.

    Amanda - Gloria Grahame's outfits were awesome!

    Viridian - I can see how blogging can bring out the bad in people. I sometimes see that in myself, but I honestly want to be as kind as I can to everyone. I appreciate your kind words. Thank you.

    Mercurie - I can see why it's one of your favorites. You always have an appreciation for greatness and I admire that about you.

    Sarah - End the boycott! Don't wait as long as I did!

  13. The thing I like most about the movie is that George makes conscious decisions every step of the way to make sacrifices for others. He's not always aware he's doing it, and, being no saint, he doesn't do it willing and with a light heart. It kills him to have to confront Mr. Gower the druggist to keep him from accidentally poisoning a customer with the wrong prescription.

    It kills him to give up his college money to his younger brother (whose life he already saved earlier in the film). It kills him to have to give up all hope of leaving his small town to find adventure out in the big world when his father dies, and there is nobody else to run the Building and Loan, upon which so many in town depend.

    When Christmas comes, he is (the way many people are this time of year) at rock bottom, depressed and panicked not just because of the mistake in the books and the thought of disgrace and jail time looming over his head, but because of the simple fact that he has always been a dreamer who, because he has an enormous sense of responsibility to people around him, has been spinning his wheels his whole life.

    In the million or so takeoffs on this movie, the importance one has in the lives of others is always shown as a coincidental thing, a matter of serendipity. But that's not the message in the original movie. George doesn't coincidentally make the lives of people around him better just by being himself.

    Each step of the way, he makes a conscious choice that affects the lives of others. This movie is one that speaks especially to all those worn out caregivers out there, all those best friends who've given up time and patience to help a chum through a rough spot, all those bell ringers standing in the freezing cold only to get sick just in time for Christmas. All those people who gave up a better job in a big city to stay home and take care of the old folks, or the kid brother.

    This is a movie for people who do the right thing and, like George, feel pretty lousy about it until something happens to make us realize we're glad we did it.

    Oh, by the way, Gloria Grahame is in this movie.

  14. i love that film. i love how it shows that all the while George was chasing dreams elsewhere and being miserable when he decided to give them up, in the end he realized he was a happy man. the same thing happens to James Cagney in the Strawberry Blonde but in a much different way of course. but i think the most lasting effect this film has had on me is that no matter what movie i see Henry Travers in i HAVE to say "Why look it's CLARENCE!" in my best Jimmy Stewart voice ;)

    btw does anyone remember the skit from SNL where Dana Carvey played George Bailey? in the skit the uncle (Phil Hartman)remembered where he left the money and they all go to Mr Potter's (John lovitz of course!) and beat the crap out of him. it's funny!!

  15. I gave you an award at my blog :)

    And happy holidays!

  16. I've just watched this for the third time in as many years - before that, I hadn't consciously boycotted it but just hadn't got round to seeing it. I love it and think it is a wonderful performance by James Stewart - enjoyed your posting and liked Mercurie's comment about it being A Christmas Carol in reverse. Hope you are enjoying the holidays.:)

  17. Who could think so much hand-wringing could surround this film?

    But it's like the purists say, "George Bailey is the reason for the season."


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