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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » It's A Wonderful Life
It's A Wonderful Life
Paramount // Unrated // November 13, 2007
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Review by DVD Savant | posted November 12, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The perennial Christmas favorite It's a Wonderful Life is much more complex than the average film blanc, that mostly lighthearted subgenre postulating a cheery afterlife and the blessings of a protective, optimistic universe. The miraculous tale of George Bailey can't quite reconcile its faith in goodness with an equally profound, incompatible feeling of impending personal catastrophe. Frank Capra recognized this as his most personal film but even he seems not to have come to grip with its full implications, at least not in interviews. The movie has become such a cherished icon that few recognize its Jekyll-Hyde split between forces both blanc and noir.

Savant received a lot of attention from a speculative article he wrote in 1998 entitled It's A Wonderful Recut?. I still haven't done the research to prove or disprove all or part of my 'theory' that Capra's movie began as a straight story with no flashback, and was editorially reworked.

Synopsis:

Alerted that small town businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) is about to commit suicide, heaven's powers-that-be dispatch the inexperienced Angel Second Class Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers). Having abandoned his dreams to face the realities of the Depression, family responsibility and civic good will, George finds himself at the center of an ignominious scandal, with only the premium on his life insurance to provide for his family. George tells Clarence that he'd be better off dead, a statement that inspires a lesson-teaching stroke of genius: Clarence shows Bailey what his town would be like if he had never been born.

It's a Wonderful Life's first wave of popular revival occurred in the early 1970s when it fell into the Public Domain. The unusually long film suddenly showed up at odd times on local TV stations, often mutilated beyond recognition. I remember seeing one airing that began after the 'heavenly' introduction of the flashback, and another that cut out the flashback entirely. UCLA had one of the surviving 35mm prints, all of which had been slashed for reissue on double bills. The scene showing the Martini family moving into their new home was missing, along with a big chunk of the nightmare flashback including George Bailey's attempt to talk to his mother. UCLA's associate professor Bob Epstein popularized a 35mm restoration of the film at a memorable showing at the County Museum of Art, synchronizing 35mm and 16mm projectors to re-integrate the film in one go, a feat of projection skill. Epstein later took up collections in UCLA classes to help pay to protect the film's original negative. "Shall we rent an expensive film to project in class, or can we see something from the Archive's holdings, and donate the funds for the restoration instead? "

By 1976 new restored repertory 35mm prints were circulating, and the buzz was that a great American classic had been rediscovered. By the early 1980s bad Public Domain prints were shown so frequently on TV that people were sick of it. Then the copyright was re-established through an expensive legal maneuver involving the movie's score, or perhaps the original Philip Van Doren Stern story. Since 1990 or so the film has been properly taken care of and no longer wears out its welcome through overexposure. Like The Wizard of Oz, it shows up almost every year on network television.

We 1970s film students embraced It's a Wonderful Life; it was the magic movie that taught us there was value in cinema beyond violent cynicism and hopelessness. It may be Capra's best sentimental film and it softens his often-disturbing Populist themes into a useful philosophy. The message of George Bailey's story has flaws yet provides interesting food for thought for anybody trying to make choices about life -- whether to have a family, how to cope with adversity, how to relate to a world where nice people seldom come out on top. The good and generous George Bailey tries to avoid becoming 'warped and frustrated', as he likes to describe his nemesis Mr. Potter. Is the world a cynical and corrupt place, where only simpletons adopt a positive outlook?

It's a Wonderful Life was met with a great many lousy notices, from respected critics (even James Agee) that found it too saccharine for words. Yes, a few of the movie's demonstrations of love and joy get a bit thick, but most are honestly earned. Capra's heavenly Angels aren't omnipotent: Clarence can influence Bailey but can't solve his problems for him. Capra's biggest shortcoming is his assignment of human worth in relation to one's position on the playbill. Mary and George are deeply caring people with real problems, and the audience is asked to give the highest priority to their needs and welfare. We also sympathize with the rich supporting players, like the alcoholic Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and George's Mother (Beulah Bondi), a widow. But when Capra needs conflict he reaches for villains like the belligerent Mr. Welch, who belts George on New Years' Eve. Anyone not a blind booster of George Bailey is written as a jerk, like Charles Lane's rent collector or Charles Halton's grumpy bank examiner ("I guess people do those things"). Capra seems to think that George needs a wicked nemesis, and creates the Simon Legree-like Henry Potter, "The Meanest Man in Town." Rather than admit that the world is a complicated place with shades-of-gray contradictions and conflicting powers, Capra lets Potter personify all Evil. Mustn't muddy George Bailey's subjective dilemma with realistic problems.  1

The film's real problem is generic to the film blanc: why do heavenly forces choose George Bailey as an object of intercession? Suicide can't be the only reason heaven gets involved down here. Plenty of George's neighbors have bad problems, too. Maybe Ernie the taxi driver has an alcoholic wife? Doesn't heaven care about Violet Bick's reputation? The person who could really use an attitude adjustment is Henry Potter, which leads us right back to Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Do all of these people have personal Angels, which they just ignore? Is Bedford Falls like Berlin in Wings of Desire, crowded with invisible Angels?

All of these questions fall away when we get to Capra's brilliant stroke, the Nightmare Alternate Reality sequence. Potter has transformed Bedford Falls into Pottersville, a soulless place of unhappy people where every storefront is a bar or a dime-a-dance hall. If Potter's so powerful, why does he bother with such a small town? Because George Bailey was not there to hold the Savings & Loan together, the city has been sold down the river. Was that Bailey's fated mission in life? If he'd innocently gone to Samarkand, or if the S&L had folded by accident, Bedford falls would be doomed anyway. Is every American town a potential Sodom or Gomorrah? It's a Wonderful Life holds George personally accountable for the general ills of society.

What the nightmare sequence really demonstrates is that the complacent world of family values and wholesome living is a thin veneer. One slip-up and Bedford Falls becomes Sin City, where families are crushed by poverty, cops shoot first and bitter old women like Mrs. Bailey no longer mourn sons that drowned or died in childbirth. George's story is egocentric (a personal Angel, what a status symbol!) and also highly subjective. George stumbles from his mother's porch into a horror close-up of frozen-faced doom ... facing the existential nightmare of his own non-existence. When George stumbles into the graveyard, he retraces the steps into the tomb of souls in Fritz Lang's Destiny. George thought that suicide would be the answer, but it's really a trap; Clarence has drawn him into a mind-warp of psychological dislocation. George argues to hold onto his own personality, which Clarence calmly tells him no longer exists. In fact, it never existed. George isn't even a ghost: he's nothing.

It's a Wonderful Life is a film blanc and its Alternate Reality scene is a self-contained film noir nightmare. Capra hated the noir outlook, but his evocation of it is brilliant, better than noirs with much more violence. George Bailey is already 'backed into a dark corner', fighting desperately for his existential soul. It's great, great stuff.

This sequence is a significant development in Capra's career, and the state of American films in 1946. In his autobiography Capra writes himself blue in the face condemning the trend of negative movies about misery and murder, cruelty and violence. He even quotes the nasty 'lady down the staircase' killing in Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death. Capra is complaining specifically about film noir, although the term doesn't exist yet. His own Liberty Films buddy William Wyler won Best Picture in 1946 with The Best Years of Our Lives, a sentimental-tough picture with a few similarities to It's a Wonderful Life. Its characters are impacted much more profoundly by the war. Instead of "Every time a bell rings, an Angel gets his Wings," Wyler ends his picture with, "You know what it'll be like, don't you Peggy? It may take years to get anywhere. We'll have no money. No decent place to live. We'll have to work, get kicked around." After It's a Wonderful Life Capra's films seemed increasingly out of touch with American trends. We get the feeling that he was so turned off by the downbeat content of postwar movies, he stopped watching them.

But It's a Wonderful Life is a showcase of Capra's performance-enhancing direction, and expertly judged moods and tone shifts. James Stewart's acting ranges from his typical grandstanding (those debate-champion emotional tirades against Potter) to uncommon sensitivity. One of Stewart's most impressive scenes is a simple unbroken shot when George finds out that his brother Harry isn't going to take over the Savings & Loan. George's face darkens in close-up, and as he starts to walk he looks as murderous as one of his cowboy heroes in the Anthony Mann westerns to come. The shot just tracks with Stewart as this look fades. George finds a smile, and asks Harry's new wife for more details on the situation. George has the ability to put his own problems aside, to put other people's feelings first. That's why we like him. On the other hand, if we show our true selves under pressure, George's contrary behavior on Christmas Eve may be more serious than a bad attitude. At his worst, George screams at his children and explodes in destructive rage. It's a Wonderful Life is more complicated than it looks.

The film's only unforgivable moment is in the nightmare, when George confronts Mary Bailey. Because George wasn't there Mary has become a spinster librarian, frigid and timid. This scene has got to be the ultimate expression of blind male ego, to think that one's wife wouldn't have found someone else had things been different. The only reason a vivacious woman like Mary would stay single would be if she wanted to, and nothing short of shock treatment could turn Mary into such a neurotic mouse. This raises questions about Clarence's nightmare vision of Pottersville. Is it really what would have happened if George had not been born, or has Clarence rigged a cheap illusion of what he wants George to think would have happened? Does Heaven Lie?

Old movies can elicit a 'phantom' nostalgia, a longing for a lost reality when we all lived in neat houses with picket fences and the uglier problems of modern living just didn't seem to exist. If a war came along, there were no doubts about its purpose or merit. It's a Wonderful Life may reinforce this fantasy, but it also expresses a strange mix of doubts and fears. The film's stated message -- "No man is a failure who has friends" -- is greeting card-lite, the kind of wisdom we wish could change our lives. But we know that it's not that simple. It's a Wonderful Life knows that it's not that simple too, and it expresses the conflict in its strange contrasts of attitude. How odd that a 'sappy Christmas tale' should be so profound.  2


Paramount's 2-Disc Collector's Set DVD of It's a Wonderful Life is a beautiful encoding of the film besting by far the 1998 Republic disc. Paramount released a 60th Anniversary Edition disc almost exactly one year ago to the day, but I don't know if the encoding is the same. The touted difference is the second disc with its colorized version.

The B&W transfer on the newer Paramount disc is simply splendid. A digital cleanup has been eliminated scratches and other flaws from what was already a good looking disc, and the digital enhancement doesn't seem to have damaged the image or exaggerated the outlines between light and dark areas. The audio is as beefy as ever, even though the disc is not THX Certified.

The extras quickly remind us that It's a Wonderful Life's status as a sacred family favorite has somehow exempted it from critical discussion; people that love it are warm & fuzzy, and those harboring reservations are miserable Grinches. The Making of It's a Wonderful Life from 1990 is an adoring tribute hosted by Tom Bosley, who stands by a holiday hearth to explain the wonderful story of the film's genesis. For A Personal Remembrance (1991), Frank Capra Jr. introduces interview clips of his father and Jimmy Stewart offering personal thoughts on the picture.

To illustrate what happens when a movie becomes 'sacred', the docu repeats many uncorroborated bits of trivia. The most blatant is the claim that James Stewart and Donna Reed's first kiss by the telephone was a difficult scene, done so well on the first take that Capra said it was unrepeatable and no more takes were made. To begin with, there are two angles on the kiss -- but they could have been running at the same time. Look at the film's trailer on the disc, and you'll see an extended angle on Stewart's mini-tantrum before the kiss. Part of the audio is a very different reading, proving that the 'one take' story was publicity hogwash. At least half of Hollywood history is composed of apocryphal baloney like this, thanks to the feel-good publicity blurb mentality.

The docu also stresses that Capra rewrote the earlier unsatisfactory screenplay drafts, and barely mentions that the final screenplay was the work of Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, superb writers who surely did 'Robert Riskin' duty on the film: writing a gem of a movie for which Capra would take the credit. The 'print the legend' mindset of Hollywood nostalgia guarantees that It's a Wonderful Life will forever be seen as Capra's sole inspiration.

The shows do cover the fact that the film was not a big hit when new, but no discussion is made of the fact that Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens' independent experiment Liberty Films was doomed by corporate tax laws that favored established giants and clobbered smaller outfits. No mention is made either of the fact that Capra felt late in production that he had bitten off more than he could chew by both producing and directing. In his autobiography Capra confesses that he and James Stewart thought they had a complete disaster on their hands, a movie that plain didn't play. Considering the charming film that resulted, this puzzling 'disaster' story initiated the curiosity that led to Savant's It's A Wonderful Recut? theory. Was It's a Wonderful Life originally a straight narrative, with no flashback? Was the 'heavenly' opening a restructuring to introduce the film's fantastic element from the very beginning?


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It's a Wonderful Life (2-Disc Collector's Set) rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent the B&W transfer, that is. Savant did not sample the colorized version
Sound: Excellent English Mono, French Mono, English subtitles
Supplements: Tom Bosley-hosted show The Making of IAWL, Frank Capra Jr. hosted featurette A Personal Remembrance, original Trailer
Packaging: Two discs in a keep case in a card sleeve.
Reviewed: November 11, 2007

Footnotes:

1. This isn't Capra's fault, of course; in 1946 any hint that American Life had systemic flaws would be discouraged in a mainstream film. But Capra's earlier Depression era movies had a bad habit of solving society's problems with simpleminded heroics. George Bailey seems to be Bedford Falls' one and only responsible citizen, and he has to be kept isolated. Capra needs to humiliate him and then bring him back up again, like his Longfellow Deeds, Jefferson Smith and John Doe. But of the four, only George Bailey's redemption seems real.

It would be fun to write a version of It's a Wonderful Life from Henry Potter's point of view. Potter only wants to bring order and frugality to a messy, mongrelized population and that upstart pipsqueak Bailey keeps gumming up the works.

Other character sketches are so rich they seem to indicate lives outside the movie proper. What was the sordid truth behind poor Violet Bick's reputation? Did Uncle Billy's transgressions drive his brother Peter to an early death? Just what did Miss Davis (Ellen Corby) need the $17.30 for? While George was propping up Bedford Falls, did the notorious playboy Sam Wainwright run Harry Bailey for congress on his war record, and warp American values by passing legislation favoring the plastics industry?

And what about Mr. Welch (Stanley Andrews), the unhappy husband of George's kids' schoolteacher, Mrs. Welch? Mr. Welch hits George for making his wife cry. He's the villain of the moment, but imagine a one-act play about life at the Welch family. They have no kids; she's underpaid and he's out of work. They're trying to be cheerful on Christmas Eve when an unreasonable parent accuses Mrs. Welch of endangering a student, Zuzu. Mrs. Welch breaks down in tears. Mr. Welch stomps out to get drunk. It sounds like something from James Joyce.
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2. Latter-day fantasies with philosophies similar to, and sometimes improving on It's a Wonderful Life are Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day and Joe vs. The Volcano. I kid you not.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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