' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

The first time I watched the holiday staple "It's A Wonderful Life" in totality, its infamous ending, nowadays just a Youtube search away, hit me like the last verse of Springsteen's "Racing in the Street" (in the gut, and then in the gut again). I'd heard the line "Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings", like, 500 times but until you hear an oft-repated cinematic chestnut in its full context you often aren't actually hearing it. I'd never heard it until then, and when I did, my heart leapt as my eyes watered. God, it was glorious. It was also 1999. I was young and foolish and idealistic. Now I'm old and an idiot and my idealism is long gone and I, like so many others, wonder if this conclusion is merely a fruit basket of bunkum. Every year when NBC fires up its once-a-night showing and Jimmy Stewart comes to and the snow starts to fall I can't help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, he'll reach that You Are Now In Bedford Falls sign and about-face and run all the way to - ah hell, I dunno, Apple River? I mean, otherwise isn't he just Truman Burbank without the soundstage?


I thought of all this in June when I was in Denison, Iowa and standing outside the W.A. McHenry House where Donna Reed's Academy Award is on display. She earned that Oscar for her greatest role, Alma Burke in "From Here To Eternity", but, rest assured, the street signs in that little town don't bear the words "From Here To Eternity." They bear the words "It's A Wonderful Life." There's a reason they bus people to the Donna Reed Theatre there every December to see Frank Capra's classic and not the other one even though it too has a relation to the month of December. And that's because the 1946 Christmastime favorite ultimately opts for a gauzy, sentimental belief in barbecues & ball games (coinage: Neil McCauley) America whereas "From Here To Eternity" finds her (and Deborah Kerr) staring off into the great unknown.

That ending and its jolly glow, as many a revisionist piece has lobbyed since its release, clouds the film's dark, raging heart. After all, George Bailey may have a wife and kids and a house but, shit, he wanted to see the world. He wanted to get out of Bedford Falls and have adventures. He wanted to live like a hero, like his brother, but he never did. Christopher Nolan may have employed the Dylan Thomas poem for his recent "Interstellar", but I feel as if "It's A Wonderful Life" and its protagonist's meltdown is a better example of its verbiage: "And you, my father, there on the sad height / Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night." Rest assured, George isn't about to go gently. He's about to hurl himself off that bridge.

Of course, that's simply surface level. If you want to get more meta you could take the reading of Mark Harris's from his recent book "Five Came Back" in which he ties the plight of George Bailey directly to the film's auteur, and how Frank Capra felt marginalized and slighted in Hollywood after returning from WWII. Thus, he made parable for himself about himself, granting himself victory in the end. Ye gods. Even that reading, however, ties back to the furious anger rollicking on the edge of so many frames of this Yuletide classic. Capra was as pissed as George Bailey at the place he called home, lashing out in his own sentimentalized way, and so angered with its at-the-time lukewarm reception he, more or less, gave up on making movies. He'd had it.


The end, when George comes back around after a case of celestial intervention to realize what he truly has is set to that old NYE staple "Auld Lang Syne." To this day, I can't get over how melancholy that song makes me feel, and that melancholia goes hand-in-hand not only with December 31st but the entire holiday season. I suppose this is tied to going home, seeing old friends and memories of Christmas past springing up like so many twinkling lights strung on rooftops. You remember not just where you're from but who you were, where you wanted to go, what you wanted to do, who you wanted to be, and you hear the echoes of that old dude from "It's A Wonderful Life" admonishing George in a refrain so ancient but so true....."Youth is wasted on the wrong people."

It's funny, in that long-ago hoopla regarding film colorization, "It's A Wonderful Life" was one of the movies that found itself under threat of alteration. I don't mean to suggest Capra's film should have been colorized, not at all, because that's sacrilege, but to merely wonder about a properly black & white "It's A Wonderful Life" until that final scene. Think of another stone-cold classic, "The Wizard of Oz", and the way it used monochrome and Technicolor, the former to represent dreary old Kansas and the latter to represent a magical faraway land. Yes, yes, sure, sure, there's no place like home and all that, but as acclaimed author Terry McMillan once noted: "the land of Oz wasn't such a bad place to be stuck in. It beat the farm in Kansas."

What if the first two hours and ten minutes of Capra's classic chronicled all its regret, anguish and self-pity in haunting black & white and then, when fate is reversed and George's will to live is returned, it suddenly gives way to color? Would it not work in some bastardized way to also bastardize the very myth it embodies? These are things, the movie is telling us, that create "a wonderful life" - spouse, children, hearth, home, card table flush with cash. Ah, but if these things don't create "a wonderful life", what then? So you look around, you say a toast, you sing "Auld Lang Syne", you choose to believe with all your might, and hope and pray the fantasy doesn't crumble.

1 comment:

alleyesonscreen.me said...

You know, Nick, if you wrote a book about your opinions and critiques on movies, I'd totally buy it. This comment is totally related to this post, btw. I just love reading your posts.