20 December 2010

It's A Wonderful Film, Thoughts on a Holiday Classic

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is a seasonal favorite principally for its sentimental message about the importance of appreciating the life you have. But is great -- I mean truly great -- cinema as repeat viewings reveal. Here are some of my observations from my most recent screening.

We all see movies through are own prisms. I increasingly see IAWL as an anti-capitalist diatribe and for that I love it. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) --an overweight Dick Cheney -- seeks to gobble up everything is his path and damn the consequences to the hoi polloi.  He can be likened to a voracious monster devouring obstructions in the relentless drive to be feed. Potter consumes money in all its forms. In Potter's world there is no room for sentiment. He is the ultimate man of business. As George Bailey (James Stewart) says to him: "Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be." Potter is Wal-Mart....

To save George and counter the machinations of Potter it requires the efforts of Clarence (Henry Travers). As Clarence is an angel what we have here is a case of divine intervention. There exists a powerful belief in angels in many religions and cultures, even among those who do not except the notion of a sole deity. They serve as a link to another world while providing protection and guidance. Part of the charm of IAWL is that Clarence is no winged cherub. Instead he is a bumbling older chap who totes about a copy of Tom Sawyer. I've never had not known anyone who has had a moment's hesitation in accepting Clarence as an angel. Our imaginations are perfectly open to this man being a representative of heaven. I can't help but think that somehow this speaks well of us....

My goodness Stewart and Barrymore give boffo performances. Stewart could have played George Bailey as an everyman and audiences would have been perfectly happy. But George is a very well defined character. He is at once personally ambitious and deeply committed to his community to the point of being self sacrificing. He is, in short, torn. George longs to travel the globe and build. But he is an integral part of a town that he loves as it loves him. Stewart is often remembered for featuring in an extraordinary array of classic films. Less remembered is that he was so much a part of what made these films indelible through his powerful acting. This is evident in IAWL where he captures the incredible dichotomy of George's inner turmoil. It is an emotional and enthralling performance. Seemingly less complicated is the role of Potter, but another actor could have mucked it up by turning him into a cartoon character. This is Barrymore and he manages to make Potter evil incarnate and still frighteningly real. Every syllable, every slight head movement is given weight and adds to the depth of his performance. Potter, as played by Barrymore, is all the more horrible because he is flesh and blood....

You can pick up a lot of early/mid 20th century history from IAWL. The Roaring Twenties, the Depression, the war boom, scrap drives, the Charleston, bank runs, bank closures to name but a few references. There is also a very rich slice of Americana. This is a very American film, as were most of Capra's movies from the mid 1930's on. It is rich in detail of American life and also the big issues. There is a juxtaposition of evil and good, with the good personified by honest working men, more than willing to give the next guy a hand....

IAWL has one of the greater supporting casts you'll ever hope to meet. Ward Bond (who was in more classic Hollywood films then anyone I can name) along with Frank Faylen formed the original Bert and Ernie. H.B. Warner was Mr. Gower and did a lot with a small but key role. Thomas Mitchell was Uncle Billy and confirmed his place -- in my humble opinion -- as the greatest supporting actor of his time. Gloria Grahame, Beulah Bondi, the aforementioned Travers, Sheldon Leonard and the ubiquitous Charles Lane featured....

Yes I've thus far excluded mention of Donna Reed. At the risk of sowing marital discord in my own humble home I'll say that among other things, in IAWL she was a real dish. Reed did not have an a great career in film but prospered mightily on TV. She was, to be honest, a somewhat limited actress. However she was a perfect Mary Bailey. We did not need broad strokes from her. The story called for Mary to be a loving wife who'd wanted George for a husband since childhood. Reed's career started just as the great female roles were become a thing of the past. Frankly I doubt she could have handled them. But she was letter perfect for the TV show that bore her name. In other words she was the ideal actress to play the post war American housewife. But I close by returning to the original comment in this paragraph because I can't get it out of my mind -- she was a real dish....

2 comments:

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hear, hear. I especially like your observation on Clarence, in all his bumbling and innocence, being accepted readily as an angel. I also admire the way the film takes us through several decades and seems to make a statement on each era.

Meredith said...

Describing Mr. Potter as 'an overweight Dick Cheney' is such an apt and hilarious observation. I agree with all your points and truly love this film for all its small details and depth that often get overlooked. One of my favorites is when there's a run on bailey building and loan and on his desk sits his briefcase and a model home divided by the raven (I think it's a raven, at any rate) that perfectly represents his dilemma and the incompatibility between his dreams and his realities. All the little details in Mr. Potter's office that make it perfectly macabre.. there's so much to chew on. I'd never thought about your observations about Clarence's believability before which is great and very true!