Friday, December 20, 2013

It's A Wonderful Life (1946)


It's a Wonderful Life, originally a box office flop, has now been part of the American Christmas movie repertoire for decades. My husband owned a VHS copy when I first met him and after we were married it became our custom to watch it at least once during the Christmas season. We are always struck by the emphasis on the preciousness of a single human life. George Bailey, who thinks himself a failure, is granted the gift of seeing what the world would be like if he had never been born; it is not a pretty sight. One life touches so many others, even in a backwater town like Bedford Falls. Although most of the characters appear to be Protestant, there are many Catholic elements in the secular film. The power of intercessory prayer, the mediation of the angels and saints, are central themes. Yes, I know that departed souls never become "angels." Clarence calls himself one and is trying to "win his wings;" we always saw him as one of the Holy Souls on the brink of Paradise. He is sent to earth through the mediation of "Joseph" who I always assume is St. Joseph, patron of fathers. Frank Capra was an Italian Catholic, after all. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times:
In media interviews at the time, Capra did not portray it as a holiday film. In fact, he said he saw it as a cinematic remedy to combat what he feared was a growing trend toward atheism and to provide hope to the human spirit. In a moment of possible revisionism decades later, Capra said that he also realized that with the holiday season comes an inherent vulnerability in all humans, and that this uplifting tale might just ride on that sentiment.
The town of "Bedford Falls" where the film takes place could be any number of towns in Pennsylvania that we have known, and James Stewart, who played George Bailey, thought so, too, saying:
Two months had been spent creating the town of Bedford Falls, New York. For the winter scenes, the special effects department invented a new kind of realistic snow instead of using the traditional white cornflakes. As one of largest American movie sets ever made until then, Bedford Falls had 75 stores and buildings on four acres with a three block main street lined with 20 full grown oak trees.
Bedford Falls, New York as shown in 'It's a Wonderful Life'
As I walked down that shady street the morning we started work, it reminded me of my hometown, Indiana, Pennsylvania.

The very ordinariness of the town, all the mundane, everyday actions, the hidden tears and disappointments and heartbreaks, as well as the joys, and even the petals from a small girl's rose, are shown as being the elements which go into making a "wonderful life," rather than great deeds and worldly successes. George Bailey had to give up all his youthful dreams of setting the world on fire in order to save the family business. Because he is man who loves justice and hates iniquity, he must stand up to the local tyrant on behalf of the poor of the town. An unfortunate turn of events leaves him frustrated and despairing. He is about to take his own life but is stopped by an act of Divine intervention.

Donna Reed is radiant as Mary, George's wife and his saving grace, who asks her children to pray for their father. She is an ordinary girl who becomes an ordinary wife; in spite of hardships she never loses her dignity or her hope. As for the other characters, they are what make it a most enjoyable film; it is bursting with unsophisticated but colorful personalities, just as in certain small towns I have known. As James Stewart himself would later say:
Today I've heard the filmed called 'an American cultural phenomenon.' Well, maybe so, but it seems to me there is nothing phenomenal about the movie itself. It's simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life.
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12 comments:

il laboratorio said...

i have always thiught that the background was Mormon, expecially that sort of transformation of souls in angels....

Linda said...

Thank you for a fascinating post on a movie I never tire of and always remember when I am feeling down.

Dymphna said...

I always wished that poor George could've gotten out of Bedford Falls.

de Brantigny........................ said...

My sister Diane is a lover of this film. She was once asked the trivia question what movies were playing at the theater when Geoge ran by...

Do you know?

Richard

elena maria vidal said...

Yes! "The Bells of St. Mary's."

Seamus said...

Unfortunately, when the movie shows the "Potterville" that would have replaced Bedford Falls if George Bailey had not lived, it looks disturbingly like the U.S. as it is today.

The young fogey said...

My friend Charley explains what turned around the film's reputation from failure to Christmas classic: it went out of copyright around 1974 so all the independent TV stations in the US started showing it before Christmas... just when people were starting to rebuild their lives after the late-'60s disaster so nostalgia was socially acceptable again (you also had the half-mocking, half-tribute Sha Na Na, actually from the late '60s, and the film American Graffiti and its sort-of spinoff, 'Happy Days', good in its first year but bad ever after).

There were also the Italian Catholics who owned and worked at Martini's bar (Nick's in Pottersville with a nasty Nick).

I remembered what was on the marquee.

The film that gets to me more than this one, partly because it's not historical/nostalgic so it seems more real, is its more recent retelling that inverts it ('Pottersville' is the real world) and also owes a lot to A Christmas Carol, Nic Cage and Téa Leoni in The Family Man. The Scrooge spends a lot of time living what might have been with the woman he left behind long ago. Except for the plot device of an undercover angel and a cross in electric lights at night in the background of one scene, there's no religion in it. I think like It's a Wonderful Life it's implicitly Christian.

elena maria vidal said...

Very interesting connections! I'll have to watch The Family Man!

Charleybrown said...

Love this film, it's such a classic! I love the fact that they still do air some of these religious movies every year!

Georgette said...

Interesting that modern viewers consider this movie "religious", isn't it? At one time, all American literature and movies were simply reflections of the contemporary culture--faith was simply included in a matter of fact way, with no particular theological/philosophical statement necessarily being implied. It simply was what it was, as we were what we were.

This is so completely opposite, of course, to today. Modern film makers and popular authors have become so over-sensitive to any fallout from atheist critics that they dare not even imply faith, else they bare the wrath of the full blown allergic reaction of the antagonistic, religiously intolerant who comprise the majority of teh media today. Never mind that the majority of Americans are Christian, and taht this is still a Christian society and culture. The intolerant anti-Christian minority is what controls what is acceptable.

Flambeaux said...

While my mother and step-father adore this film, I've never enjoyed it. I find it too cloying and schmaltzy, rather like the film version of a Norman Rockwell painting.

But de gustibus. :D

I much prefer A Christmas Carol, either the George C. Scott or the Patrick Stewart. And, now that we have no TV and I'm reading Dickens' novella to my children at bedtime this year, I've come to prefer the text, and our time together, to even the best film adaptation.

May the rest of your Advent be fruitful! And thanks for running this oasis of sanity in the Pottersville of teh Intarwebz.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you so much, Flambeaux!