Saturday, December 24, 2011

Film Noir In Denial: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Last Christmas, Kevin Courrier decided to poke holes into one of the holiday season's most sacred of cows: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Long a Yuletide family staple, Courrier insisted that the picture, far from being a warm, embracing of the human spirit, was actually a film noir in denial.

Is it Such a Wonderful Life?

Back in December 1990, on the CBC radio show Prime Time, host and film critic Geoff Pevere and I decided to re-assess the popularity of Frank Capra's Christmas favourite It's a Wonderful Life (1946). We felt that it was ample time to examine why this particular movie had become such a holiday classic. Neither of us actually hated the film, in fact, we thought some of the small town neurosis that David Lynch would expertly dissect years later in Blue Velvet (1986) had its roots in It's a Wonderful Life. But we were baffled that audiences over the years had viewed this movie as an uplifting and heart-tugging affair. To us, there was something much more unsettling lurking in this material, a looming shadow that the picture ultimately sought to avoid. So we decided to head right for the darkness. Someone should have warned us.

Needless to say, the next day after we had questioned the movie's attempt to wear its big heart on its sleeve, listeners were now clamoring to tear our hearts out. One phone message even encouraged Geoff and I to commit suicide (and if we lacked the courage, he would gladly come down to help us out). We were both stunned at the ferocity of the audience reaction. Geoff even leaned over in shock to say to me in our post-mortem the next morning, "Gee, you'd think we'd just killed Santa Claus and dragged his reindeers around the studio." How could such violent responses come from people whose souls were so edified by Capra's corn? Maybe, we figured, because we hit a nerve. To us, it appeared that nobody wanted to see what was so unnerving in this picture, what was right in front of their eyes. It's a Wonderful Life wasn't so full of holiday cheer, it was actually a film noir in a state of denial.

Donna Reed and James Stewart
For the uninitiated, It's a Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a genial and generous soul who has lived his whole life in Bedford Falls. Even though he had always longed to see the world, George became a prisoner of his own compulsion to make sacrifices. As a boy, he saved his brother Harry's life after he fell through the ice (leaving George deaf in one ear). Instead of traveling, he fills in at the Bailey Building and Loan Association hoping that Harry will replace him when he graduates. On his own graduation night, while discussing his plans to go abroad, George puts them on hold when his father has a fatal stroke. Things then go from bad to worse when the grossly insensitive Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a majority shareholder in the company, coerces the board of directors to quit giving home loans to the town's poor. George gets them to reject Potter's proposal, but only when he promises to take over the Building and Loan.

Henry Travers as Clarence

While George believes that his brother will ultimately take over the business, so he can finally depart from Bedford Falls, his sibling gets married instead. George decides to follow Harry's footsteps by getting hitched himself to Mary (Donna Reed), a girl who has loved George for years. Just when they plan to escape for their own honeymoon, though, the Building and Loan goes into a financial crisis that almost leads to its collapse. Only the money George and Mary put aside for their honeymoon can save it. Guess what they do?

While George and Mary are raising their four kids, WW II breaks out. Only Harry can go abroad to fight since George can't enlist due to his bad ear. (Harry even gets a Medal of Honor.) But things hit rock bottom on Christmas Eve 1946, when Potter secretly steals a huge Building and Loan deposit from George's uncle, then turns and swears out a warrant for George's arrest for bank fraud. When George arrives home and helplessly furious, he takes out his anger on his family before driving off, getting drunk, and then crashing his car into a tree during a  snowstorm. At which point, George decides to commit suicide figuring that his family can collect on his life insurance policy. But he gets rescued by Clarence, a guardian angel looking to earn his wings, who begins to show George what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he hadn't been born. Needless to say, life is perceived as much worse than George could have imagined. (The town is even called Pottersville.) Having been horrified by this alternate reality, George begs God to give him his life back. At which point, the townspeople pull together and come to Bailey's aid. The town is his saviour rather than his nemesis.

Film critic David Thomson, writing in his A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994), describes the movie as "bringing good cheer without quite letting us forget a vision of dread." With his intuitive grasp of It's a Wonderful Life as being a troubling drama, a portentous movie about a man's neurotic need to forfeit his own desires, he goes on to say that happiness here is "pursued by the hounds of living hell" where the American dream that some saw being celebrated was "so close to [being] a nightmare." Thomson, who loved the movie despite its contradictions, would be inspired by It's a Wonderful Life to write a novel called Suspects (1985), where George and Mary turn up (among a cast of other movie characters) with the angry, vigilante Travis Bickle (of Taxi Driver) being one of their offspring. Travis gets to act out the rage denied his own father.

What Geoff and I were trying to establish was that George Bailey was not simply a victim of bad luck, or circumstance, but a man who masochistically sabotaged his own dreams to fulfill the dreams of others. But Capra never examines why Bailey is so driven to do so. His anger and despair is clearly fueled more by his own hand than simply the evil intent of Potter. Which is why Capra's complete turn towards redemption at the end is a actually a betrayal of what the story has been setting up. It just does not play successfully as this redeeming story. (David Churchill always thought it was heading to the same conclusion as Stephen King's The Shining.) So why then do people persist in seeing this as the ultimate movie in conveying the Christmas spirit?

Lionel Barrymore as Henry Potter 

First of all, when the film was released it did poorly at the box office. Perhaps all that sentimentality about personal sacrifice didn't go down so well with moviegoers who had just been making enormous sacrifices during the Second World War. It wasn't until the sixties when after It's a Wonderful Life had been all over television did it suddenly achieve its current cult status. Sacrifice fit more snugly into the whole ethos of Kennedy's New Frontier and a newly born counter-culture that was waiting to hate that grubby capitalist Henry Potter. George Baily's selflessness could now be explained away as something noble rather than self-destructive. The ending could even be seen as a victory of small-town parochial humanism over urban greed and licentiousness.

To this day, I think It's a Wonderful Life is a fascinating, schizoid movie, whatever its status at this time of year. Geoff and I didn't set out to devalue it twenty years ago. As critics, we sought more to understand its appeal. Well, we got more than we bargained for when some of the movie's fans offered something a little rougher than holiday cheer and forgiveness. That's fine. People can continue to enjoy the movie every year as their family bonding experience. But don't try and sell me the idea that this is still an inspiring story. It's a Wonderful Life was always a dark American fable, a foreboding tragedy that somehow fantasized itself into the light. 

- originally published on December 23, 2010 in Critics at Large.

— Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier will be doing a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule in December. WithJohn Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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