Feature: "It's A Wonderful Film"
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It's A Wonderful Film

By D. Scott Apel

It's A Wonderful Life (1946; various; unrated; B&W; 2:05-2:09)

"Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." -John Lennon

Of all the Christmas rituals which have developed in America over the decades, one of the most recent -- and most unexpected -- is annual screenings of Frank Capra's fantasy film, It's A Wonderful Life. High drama and "Capra"-corn; sincere sentiment and shallow schmaltz; upbeat Christmas story and dark fantasy -- It's A Wonderful Life is all of these, and more than the sum of its parts, as it transcends every one of these pigeonholes. It is, for many, the quintessential American movie, and the perfect holiday film. "Of all the 80 films I've made, it's my favorite," Jimmy Stewart often said about Life, and his recent passing only adds an additional depth of poignancy to the film.

At the end of 1945, Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart had both just returned from World War II -- and both returned sobered, with a darker view of humanity. Searching for a project to re-establish himself in Hollywood, Capra formed his own production company and optioned a property entitled "The Greatest Gift": a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, originally written on a Christmas card. Capra conscripted Stewart with only the barest germ of a script -- a script which went through at least three major rewrites, including one by playwright Clifford Odets (whose contributions include the character "Zuzu") and later-blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Although Stewart was Capra's first and only choice for the role of George Bailey, the original story was first optioned by Cary Grant as a potential vehicle for himself. Imagine how different the movie would have been had he played George, or had Capra himself cast any of the other actors he considered for supporting roles, such as Jean Arthur or Olivia DeHavilland, his first and second choices for Mary; or Claude Rains or Vincent Price as Potter; or Walter Brennan, Frank (The Wizard of Oz) Morgan or W.C. Fields as Uncle Billy. (Capra also considered Thomas "Uncle Billy" Mitchell for the role of Potter.)

In hindsight (and by considering the alternatives) it's easy to see how perfect the casting really is: no matter how small his part, each actor seems tailor-made for his or her role. But this should come as no surprise to Capra fans; as he frequently stated, "There are no bad actors. There are only bad directors."

Ironically, the history of the film echoes the arc of the story. Just like George Bailey began his life, Capra began the project with the highest of hopes. He had every expectation that the film would be a popular and critical success, and perhaps even sweep the Oscars. But disappointment began the day of its release and refused to relent. Generally favorable reviews were not enough to encourage more than mediocre box office returns, for starters. And of its five Oscar nominations, Life won none, losing the "Big Three" -- best picture, actor and director -- to William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, a film which seemed to capture the spirit of post-war America more closely with its realism than Capra had managed with his fantasy. Capra was crushed.

Yet over the years people continued writing to him about the movie, emphasizing how much it had touched them. Capra himself admitted screening his favorite film for friends every Christmas Eve. And then, Capra wrote in his biography, "I woke up one Christmas morning, and the whole world was watching It's A Wonderful Life." Just as George Bailey's local community came to his rescue when they discovered he was in trouble, so did the community of America rally around Life, elevating Capra's forgotten classic to its current status as part of our national yuletide ritual.

The reasons are many and varied, and include everything from the most practical factors to the film's enduring elements. In the simplest terms, we can credit economics. Capra overlooked renewing the copyright on the film, which placed it in the public domain in 1973. The fact any TV station could obtain a copy cheaply and pay no royalties, no matter how often they aired it, led to virtually ubiquitous broadcasts nationwide every December. By 1980, cheap copies on video were widely available as well.

But economics alone is not enough to explain the movie's enduring appeal; it is just one detail that assisted in bringing the film back into vogue. Life could just as easily have died from overexposure if viewers hadn't realized that we liked repeated viewings; that we got something from the film every time we watched it -- and that it was a joy to watch. As television resurrected The Wizard of Oz from obscurity and re-established it as a classic fantasy to a new generation and a wide audience, so did repeated TV screenings play a pivotal role in Life's revival.

It's A Wonderful Life, all right: George Bailey has a loving, devoted wife, three precious kids, his own business and the respect of the Bedford Falls community. It's a perfect mid-American, Norman Rockwell idyll. And George Bailey hates it with a passion. He had bigger plans: Shaking the dust of that crummy little town off his feet and seeing the world! Building things! But his damned wonderful life kept getting in the way...

Heartbreaking and heartwarming, funny and poignant, Life is in fact an epic saga: the biography of an archetypal American, from birth through mid-life crisis to the beginnings of wisdom. It's a rich, complex tapestry, interweaving a single life with those of everyone who comes in contact with it -- and reminding us that if you pull a single thread, the entire tapestry unravels.

Life is not, however, the simple story it appears on the surface. It is filled with ambiguity and unsettling ideas. It's a romantic comedy about suicide, for instance, and "bankruptcy and scandal and prison." It's a tragedy about a good man's unjust undoing. Even its intended message -- "Count your blessings" -- insinuates a sobering, cautionary coda as the end of the sentence: "...because things could be worse."

As a social statement, the film poses the primary American paradox: Since we all strive to better our lot, even living the most idyllic American dream life can somehow leave us unsatisfied; frustrated in our aspirations to have more, to do more, to be somebody. George Bailey is a mirror of America: Even over a gulf of half a century, we can still look at him and see a reflection of ourselves -- and our essential dilemma. "George Bailey" has in fact become a legendary character in 20th century American culture. Through our identification with him and his trials, we can see a reflection of our own wonderful, horrible lives -- and maybe gain some insight into the true American values.

At its heart, Life is the story of a personality at war with itself. Luckily for George Bailey, his vast capacity for frustration is exceeded by his nearly infinite capacity for compassion. "People are seeking spiritual and moral reassurance," Frank Capra said about this film, "and if the movies can't supply this, they will be serving no worthwhile purpose."

Is it any wonder, then, that this film has remained a ray of hope in a cynical world, and a painless lesson in the true spirit of the holiday season?

D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.

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December 24, 1997