By Rosalie Tirella
We’ve all watched this Christmas classic…some years we’re more attentive than others. This year I am paying very close attention:
The movie IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was released in 1947 and was directed by the Italian-American great, Frank Capra. It begins with prayers for protagonist George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart. The prayers are whispered to God in the depth of a winter’s night right before Christmas. They’re murmured by George’s wife, whispered by his mother and his long-time friends, blurted out by his distraught little children. They are praying for George’s life. He’s in trouble, he’s done something terribly wrong, he sees no way out of his terrible trap and despairs. …He plans to kill himself – alluding to his life insurance policy, he says, “I’m worth more dead than alive!” – thus throwing away, as the head angel explains, God’s greatest gift: life. His life.
Enter “Clarence,” George’s dimwitted guardian angel – wingless, clueless, hanging on to the original copy of Tom Sawyer and extolling Mark Twain’s “new” novel, he’s more goofball than godsend. But as anachronistic as he is, Clarence is the perfect angel for George: he’s as innocent and open to life as a child. He will help George realize IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Plus, it’s the assignment that could earn him his angel wings! Finally! It’s been a few centuries already!
The childhood scenes of this movie are quaint and show that George Bailey is outstanding, even as a little boy. He has a strong moral code, he’s wiser and more sensitive than his friends. He saves his kid brother from drowning in a frozen pond, bravely dives into the frigid waters and loses his hearing in one ear as he rescues his kid brother. In another heart-wrenching scene the young George saves another life when he refuses to deliver the prescription pills that druggist Mr. Gower mistakenly fills with … poison. Mr. Gower has been drinking, upset at the telegram he just received: his son, a soldier in the US Army (it’s pre-World War II ) has just died of influenza. When Gower gets the telephone call that the pills weren’t delivered to the customer by delivery-boy George, an enraged, inebriated, violent Mr. Gower slaps George in the face over and over again. It’s a harrowing, realistic scene: the enraged old man pulling the child into a back room to do the unspeakable: physically abuse him. George, around 12 years old, begs Gower to stop hitting him, his “bad ear” is bleeding. He screams: The pills were poison! “Poison, I tell you!” Gower breaks open a capsule and gingerly places a finger in it and brings a smidgen of the white powder to his tongue to taste. He immediately realizes he put the wrong chemical in the capsule – and George has saved his life (ruined biz, possible jail time for the unintentional death of the customer) – and the customer’s life.
George does the noble thing again after his father dies of a stroke. He yearns to go to college, travel, leave his hum drum hometown, Bedford Falls, behind him … but he knows evil banker Mr. Potter will suck up his late dad’s Bailey Building and Loan Company and the tone and future of the entire town will change, for the worst. So George stays in Bedford Falls to shepherd the family business through a crisis. … He does the right thing again.
George’s life isn’t all self-sacrifice. He meets and falls in love with the pretty Mary (Donna Reed) who takes one look at the tall and lanky Stewart, with his beautiful open face and wide toothy smile and … knows … she will marry him, give birth to his children, live with him in love forever and ever in Bedford Falls.
The screenplay may sound a bit preachy to you, but the actors and Capra make it all magical. James Stewart exudes warmth and romance and moral stamina. He’s sexy and earthy, too. The mid-20th century American man. Heroic. Beautiful. When he walks Mary home from the high school dance he is flirty and fun – and deeply romantic. My favorite lines of the movie? Spoken by Stewart: You want the moon, Mary? I’ll lasso the moon for you! And you’ll swallow it and moonbeams will shoot out of your face, your hair and your fingertips … Mary and George are looking into each other’s eyes as George speaks his American every man poetry. We feel his dreamscape … You can watch that scene a million times, and every time you’ll be slayed by it.
Stewart was Capra’s (and director Alfred Hitchcock’s) Every Man. In IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE George is you and me. Just regular peeps. He doesn’t go on to do great things, become an astronaut and swim among the stars, become a Carl Sandburg and write Chicago. He doesn’t become a scientist who creates the polio vaccine. He’s rejected by the army because of his bad ear and holds rubber tire drives in town. At one point he declares: “We’re broke!” Yet, like all of us, he’s given the opportunity to carve out a life, a most excellent life consisting of family, friends, community, love of spouse and children. Mundane – but it’s where we meet God!
The close up of George’s face when the Building and Loan’s board of directors head tells him: IF YOU LEAVE, GEORGE, THEY’LL VOTE WITH POTTER!!! Heartbreaking! You see, writ large on George’s face, the guilt. The awareness. The entrapment. The responsibility, never ending. George knows his window of opportunity grows smaller by the minute, and yet, as his life becomes more circumscribed, George becomes truly heroic.
Give Capra credit: Everything in Bedford Falls and George’s life is so earthbound, so touching … his chat with his mom when she encourages him to “call on” Mary even though she’s dating the loud mouthed, coarse Sam Wainwright … such a sweet scene, as she points her son in the “right direction” and sends him on his way, with a gentle push, to Mary’s house.
Mary is home from college and waiting for her beloved. But George is balky: she’ll become just another tie that binds, another symbol of his inability to escape Bedford Falls, to realize his dreams of becoming a great architect, traveling the world as a free spirited explorer. But then the phone call happens. Boyfriend Sam Wainwright calls his gal back home (with a blond dame smooching his flabby cheek in Indiana), and Mary tells George to join the conversation about investing in plastics made out of soybeans. As George and Mary share the receiver end of the 1920s telephone, plastics is the last thing on George’s mind! The two young adults are literally face to face over the telephone receiver in a tight closeup but softly focused … dreamy looking. You see George smelling Mary’s hair, staring at her big brown eyes, eating up with his eyes the curve of her forehead, the tip of her nose, the waves of her chestnut hair. His lips long to touch hers! It’s a love scene, not a telephone conversation! Finally, George drops the phone, shakes Mary up and down begging No! No! No! all the while covering her face with passionate kisses – and accepting the inevitable. They marry a few weeks later.
Of course, their honeymoon to Paris and Barcelona is kaput after George takes their honeymoon money and uses it to stop a run on the Bailey Building and Loan. George loses the trip to Europe but saves his late father’s business and dream. It is so cute, the way Stewart and the other good do bees at the building and loan dance around their counter with their last one dollar bill after closing up for the day at 5 p m. On the nose!
Another great Capra scene: Bert and Ernie coordinating George’s ride home to his honeymoon where Mary waits for him, their new old Victorian … The guys singing in the rain, the bit of sleight of hand as Bert’s “tip” is rain water from George’s fedora. They serenade the newlyweds and Ernie smooches Bert. Funny. Sweet.
Some call it Capra-corn. As in corny or cornball. I call it dreaming, art, magical filmmaking … wrapping harsh life in fairy tale to entertain, to point the viewer in the right direction: LIFE. BE OPEN TO YOUR WONDERFUL LIFE.
Of course, the evil Mr. Potter almost ruins it all when he flings George to the nadir of his professional life. Potter keeps – steals – the thousands of dollars George’s distracted Uncle Billy plans to deposit in their bank account but stupidly leaves in Potter’s newspaper. Potter takes the money, George faces disgrace, jail, loss of EVERYTHING. HE WANTS TO ESCAPE HIS LIFE OF TRIAL AND TROUBLES. HE WANTS TO DIVE INTO THE RIVER ON A SNOWY NIGHT HOPING TO LEAVE IT ALL… But then Clarence the angel appears and dives into the river first. Good hearted, noble George rips his coat off and dives in after him to save the hapless little angel …
Then the film grows darker as a depressed George is led through the Bedford Falls that might have been if he never existed. Uncle Billy is in an asylum, Mary is an old maid, his mom is the rough hewn owner of a decrepit boarding house, the adorable Bedford Falls is an ugly, pornographic POTTERSVILLE.
Stewart is tremendous as a George looking at life without George. It’s frightening. It’s surreal. Not at all corn ball.
But then George declares I WANNA LIVE! TAKE ME BACK, CLARENCE, TAKE ME BACK. I WANT TO SEE MY WIFE AND KIDS, CLARENCE.
And just like that George is dropped back into his all too human Bedford Falls life. HE IS ECSTATIC! HE SHOUTS YAY! as he runs by the old movie house, the old oak tree, Mr. Potter sitting behind his ugly desk in his ugly office. A Wonderful Life, if we stop to think about it!
George and his beloved Uncle Billy