Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It's an Angry Life: Capra's Confounding Holiday Classic

Matt was a little ahead of the calendar in his midNovember rewatch of It's a Wonderful Life. I heartedly agree with the darkness in the film, which I once framed in terms of  its anger,  and love its final joy, along with its depiction of prayer, all things an Irish Catholic knows a bit about. A seasonal repost.

Several years ago Dan Eisenberg of put out a call for a one-day Blog-a-thon, when those things were happening, on It’s a Wonderful Life. He wanted people to either explain what all the fuss is about, or agree that it could be added to Mary and Yale’s Academy of the Overrated, (joining Gustav Mahler, Isak Dinesen, Karl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Vincent Van Gogh, Ingmar Bergman).

Oh, the fuss is well deserved.

I love him, dear Lord. Watch over
him tonight.

Please, God. Something's the matter
with Daddy.

Please bring Daddy back.

It’s a Wonderful Life tells a story that would exist whether Philip Van Doren Stern had ever written his 1943 short story it's based on, “The Greatest Gift,” or not. It’s part of being a sentient person to wonder what would things be like if you weren’t here, either from your death now, or backdating the idea to never being on the planet.

But what raises it up to a great film is its earthiness and common-sense sensibility. It draws situations with just a few strokes that have deep resonance for the experience of the solid middle class after World War II and following generations, like the family dinner scene before the high school graduation dance, the father’s fatigue at working at a job he doesn’t like, and George’s ideas of getting out: “I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world.”

But most importantly, it captures the anger that lies just beneath the surface of so much of “nice” domestic life, a byproduct of all the primal life forces held in a precarious balance for family life to be possible at all.

Jimmy Stewart’s performance is strong throughout, and his anger is particularly convincing in various scenes.

In the phone call scene with Mary he portrays “panic of commitment” without cliché.

Script direction:
George can stand it no longer. He drops the phone with a crash grabs Mary by the shoulders and shakes her. Mary begins to cry.

“Now you listen to me. I don't want any plastics and I don't want any ground floors. And I don't want to get married *ever* to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do.”

He’s angry and his sexual energy is dangerous as he’s drawn to Mary, his lust overwhelming his wanderlust. This is not a sentimental vignette. It is a clear-eyed look at one of the age-old realities of civilization: men don’t particularly want to participate.

George’s anger at Uncle Billy when he discovers the money has been lost is sharp: “Where's that money, you silly stupid old fool? Where's that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison. That's what it means. One of us is going to jail - well, it's not gonna be me.”

When George gets home he isn’t able to tell Mary what’s happened, he can only RAGE against the pedestrian details of his life: the broken banister, the kid banging on the piano, how cold the house is, the teacher who sent ZuZu home sick.

He is a hulking presence, terrorizing the family with his anger:

Mary (in an outburst) “George, why must you torture the children?”

That’s when George runs out of the house and to his appointed destiny with Clarence.

Is Daddy in trouble?

Shall I pray for him?

Yes, Janie, pray very hard.

Me, too?

You too, Tommy.
(on phone)
Hello, Uncle Billy?

George’s sojourn in the universe where he never existed is carefully plotted, and the details are deep. The town is ugly and the people mean and crass. He finds his mother is a harsh, suspicious landlady and Mary a withered, mousy woman. Mr. Gower is a rummy child murderer, his brother is in the cemetery and by extension, all the men in the transport because his brother wasn’t there to save them. The dots are strongly connected, and his actual impact on these lives is clear. Again, I see no mawkish sentiment here.

George’s nightmare is short-lived, as he returns to the bridge and prays to live again: "I want to live again. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again."

The snow returns and he is back to his life. My favorite part is him running through the town; it is the perfect visualization of a feeling of unbridled hope and joy. For the moment, anger—-which is fueled by the maddening details of life and experience-- is banished by the desire for life itself.

I think it is an excellent film. I think if Clarence’s line “Ridiculous of you to think of killing yourself for money,” helps one person gain perspective and stop from hurting themselves when things are grim, then it’s more than an excellent film. And I like its realistic depiction of prayer. It reminds us that we don’t know how grace works, but people have experienced its power, and so it should show up occasionally in our cinema lives in a real way.

Here’s a great gift from Imdb: the whole script is online.


Dan E. said...

I do appreciate how the film treats anger. However, the filming of the scene with Uncle Billy is yet another aspect of what I don't like about the film. We witness it from a distance. George is angry, but we never see his face. We hear his voice, and it is intimidating, but we never get the full experience. By refusing to show George's face, Capra prevents alienating us from George. It's safe filmmaking, and it refuses to challenge the audience in any real way.

M.A.Peel said...

Hi dan. It's true, we aren't deeply alienated from George. Capra would not have had that kind of thought in relation to his audience. Partly the era, part who he was.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

This is a terrific post. These moments of anger expressed or anger repressed tell us so much about George and I think really drive the story. Perhaps not related but also interesting are the couple of moments where George teeters on the edge of a breakdown: once when praying in the bar, and once when he is rejected by his mother who doesn't know him, and he charges toward the camera to escape, running smack into us. We get a good look at him, and it's scary.

peteski said...

I enjoy the read and the angle.

ps. I have never seen the entire thing, I just can't sit thru it. Not a fan of Reaganism and Type 2 Diabetes.

M.A.Peel said...

Hi Jacqueline. Thanks for stopping by. Isn't that one great thing about blogathons--finding new places.

Peteski, has anyone commented to you that your illustrated self looks a lot like Damian Lewis in NBC's Life (which I think is a good thing).

scribbler50 said...

Thanks for this post, M.A., I'm tired of all the annual bashing of this film. What the hell's wrong with a little bit of "feel good"? Especially at Christmas! And you wrote it beautifully. I actually felt the emotions welling up just as they have when I've watched those scenes you described. I don't know what it is (or why) but this movie just gets to me on some level. Every damn year! Call me a sap but I'm sure I'll give it another go this season.
And not for nothin', Jimmy Stewart's performance, which rarely gets talked about because of all the attendant (yea or nay) hoopla, was flat-out brilliant.

Merry Christmas!

M.A.Peel said...

Hi Scrib. Merry, Merry Christmas to you too. I'm glad you like "It's a Wonderful Life."

scribbler50 said...

Just had another thought, M.A., and this promise...

During this upcoming Christmas week when I ring up sales on the register I will not (I repeat, will NOT) say these immortal words when the bell goes off, "Get me, I makin' another angel!" It's only right.

Rest in peace, Sheldon Leonard!

Jean M Bsquared said...

And to think that one of the signs he's really lost it is when he goes off on a teacher. Times have changed.

M.A.Peel said...

Hey Jean, thanks for that perspective. Hope the parents of your students appreciate what a phenomenal person is teaching their kids.