Friday, 24 December 2010

Reel Retrospective: It's a Wonderful Life (1946): The Richest Man In Town

As the festive season draws in, here's a reminder of a film (my second favourite of all-time, after The Shawshank Redemption) that redefined the way we look at Christmas. Just as Charles Dickens altered our perceptions with his landmark story A Christmas Carol (oft-filmed itself), when famed humanist director Frank Capra decided to spin the story of George Bailey, he crafted a masterpiece for the ages. It's a Wonderful Life is sometimes dismissed as sugary hogwash (indeed the film's antagonist Mr Potter may have described it as such) but the magic of the film is in the way it extracts perhaps the greatest moral ever seen in cinema from a story about a decent man contemplating suicide. Out of the bleakness comes an evergreen story that hasn't aged a day since the film's release in 1946...


Two of the close-ups in It's a Wonderful Life simply rip the heart out of the viewer. Both occur fairly late into the story, when businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) is plumbing the agonising depths of despair, having misplaced a sum of money vital to the survival of his Building and Loan, the ball and chain that has seen him tethered to his hometown of Bedford Falls. His gut-wrenching fragility as he frantically clutches his child to his chest is heightened in a scene later on where, out of sheer desperation, he verbally prays to God in his local bar. In the latter case, he is rewarded with little more than a punch in the face from the husband of his daughter's teacher whom he earlier insulted on the phone. 'That's what you get for praying', he caustically remarks.

George's cynicism and self-loathing gets a reprieve however when, on the verge of suicide, he plunges into an icy river to rescue an angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers). It transpires Clarence is not just an angel but George's own guardian angel, who has been sent to remind George of his very wonderful life. By showing him what life would have been like had he not been born, George is reminded of his importance in the world, importance he had previously taken for granted. In a neat twist on the Dickensian fable, Clarence's quest is used as a framing device during Capra's film; at the start he is instructed in the history of George's life, and it is through this framework that we come to understand the tormented everyman.

As portrayed by James Stewart, arguably the Golden Age's finest exponent of human decency, George becomes the most vital, believable and sympathetic protagonist ever seen in a motion picture. We trace his wonderful life from the start, when he saves his brother from drowning in a frozen lake, to his marriage to childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) to his eventual financial struggles. Along the way, he is forced to give up his dreams of travelling and is locked in an eternal struggle with the odious Dickensian villain Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore). But it is only when Clarence reveals the 'black hole' left behind in Bailey's absence that he realises what a plethora of riches he has bestowed on those around him.

It's a simple home-truth but a magnificent one at that, one that is rife with tremendous compassion and which transforms the cinematic tapestry into a joyous meditation on basic human decency. No actor was ever better at conveying the complexity of such straightforward emotions than Stewart, and Stewart never did better work than here, able to move from light comedy to melancholia to freewheeling joy in such a breathless fashion that more acute empathy for a central character was never felt again in a film. Capra's Italian-American eye again benefits the underdog and the everyman, observing small-town America with just the right amount of gentle humour and, eventually, overwhelming pathos.

It's also a darker film than is commonly suggested, making George's final push for redemption one of the most magical, gut-wrenching journeys seen on the big-screen. After all, it is about a man contemplating suicide and the circumstances that have brought him to such a position. Stewart, bringing his World War II experience to bear on the role, somehow makes the simple struggle to remain a good man the most gripping story of all. Throughout, we will George to fight against the darkness and bitterness within him, desperately wanting to cry out that he needn't yield to life's cruelty.

And it is George's eventual moment of revelation that culminates in perhaps the most magnificently moving moment in cinema. Faced with the bleak horror of a world in which he never existed, George finds Bedford Falls has been transformed into Pottersville; his brother Harry was unable to save the lives of comrades on a transport in WWII (because George wasn't there to save Harry as a child); his wife is a spinster; and his mother doesn't recognise him. It's an existential nightmare of the worst kind, and George realises the richness of his life needn't be measured in the money stored at the Building and Loan. Capra's deft handling of the film's moral tone however is never that glib or trite, the haunting black and white photography poised delicately between sadness and potential catharsis.

And when the catharsis does come, it is impossible for the viewer to leave feeling less enriched than George does. So careful has Capra's application of emotional texture been, and so involving have been the performances of Stewart and his co-stars, that the film taps into a vein of wonder guaranteed to evoke floods of tears. But they're not sickly, sentimental tears; they're genuine ones, evoked by genuine emotion and the closest thing cinema has got to genuine characters. It's a fabulous moment when George charges home simply appreciating the reality of his life (even if that means going to jail) but the coup de grace comes in the final 10 minutes.

Those are possibly the most inspiring and uplifting ever witnessed in a film, as George is reminded of his status as 'The richest man in town' by an assortment of colleagues, friends and family who each contribute money to bail him out of his troubles. Miraculously, it's never corny, just a celebration of love, courage and genuine emotion. As Auld Lang Syne reverberates on the heart-strings and Stewart comes to realise the magnitude of his apparently insignificant life, it's impossible not to be moved. It's not just reactions to the script rippling across the actor's face: it's the well-spring of humanity that has come bubbling up to wash over the audience. Never again would cinema work such wonders. If only every time a bell rings, we got a film as good as this ...

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