On Christmas Eve of 1981, at the Coolidge Corner Movie Theatre in Brookline Massachusetts, during a crucial moment in the last reel of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the film broke. A collective moan rose from the audience, and before any wiseguys had the chance to start cussing out the projectionist, a lone voice softly began singing a Christmas carol. By the second verse, everyone in the theatre was singing.
What is it about Frank Capra’s movie that infuses such a tall measure of holiday spirit into just about anybody who happens upon it? I’ve been trying to figure that one out since I first saw it, in the mid-seventies, at The Movie House in Seattle’s University District. Although plenty of movies had let their mark on me by this time in my life, I had never felt such euphoria upon walking into the city streets after watching a movie. Apparently, just about everybody else in the country felt something similar, as “It’s A Wonderful Life” soon became, not simply a holiday tradition, but almost a national holiday in itself.
Some of this was due to the film being in the public domain, meaning that any television station could broadcast it without paying a licensing fee. By the 1980’s one could find multiple showings all through December on just about every UHF channel on the dial. Surprisingly, this only added to the popularity of its theatrical engagements, which drew sell-out crowds who knew the movie by heart.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a fairy tale in modern industrial drag, with James Stewart playing George Bailey, a cross between Cinderella and Jack the Giant Killer. A young man with a thirst for adventure, he finds himself confined to a dull, small town that is oppressed by Mr. Potter, the money-grubbing Ogre who controls everything except the measly Savings and Loan owned by Bailey’s father. When his father dies, Potter will have that too, unless George becomes a martyr to its continued, independent survival. Such dedication eventually results in an attempted suicide and its magical aftermath, which includes a nightmarish vision of a future America that wasn’t that long in coming (Phil Karlson’s 1955 “The Phenix City Story” plays like a nihilistic sequel to the Capra film).
The social realism is such an overwhelming aspect of the film that we don’t immediately identify it as a fairy tale. Yet all of the ingredients are in plain view. Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) is the princess with the magical castle, Clarence (Harry Travers) the bumbling fairy godmother, and Potter (Lionel Barrymore) the ogre, the dragon, the devil, or whatever other personification of negation you choose to accept. Most of the minor characters also have their fairy tale parallels, but are more significantly used as representative symbols of humanity in dual images of good and evil.
Capra’s simultaneous telling of the story on both realistic and fantastic levels draws the audience into a realm of sociological mysticism in which optimism and pragmatism vie for primacy in the heart of the viewer. One of the director’s most effective means of manipulating the audience is by maintaining a pace so pleasurably frenetic that it like being hooked up to an adrenaline drip. Then, at key emotional points, he freezes the action, cutting off the pleasure drug, delivering a sucker punch to the gut that stops us cold.
The most significant such moment comes after George, one beat from proposing marriage to Mary, grabs her and shakes her and tells her he wants nothing to do with marriage. Mary’s reaction is shown in a static shot lasting only a few seconds, but it counters the joy of complicity the audience has shared in the rush of the preceding crescendo of romantic eroticism that rightly should have led to his proposal. Everything deflates with Mary’s reaction to the realization that none of this is gong to happen, but Capra pulls out of this flat despair in a single motion as George breaks down and pulls her close to him, and the next thing we are shown is their wedding.
Capra has been unfairly demeaned as a cornball, yet where are the cornfields from which such corn has sprung? Certainly not Moscow, although that might be the key to this conservative’s dismissal in radical circles, where it might have been decided that someone who was not a Communist lacked the political pedigree to so expose the dangers of unbridled Capitalism. Rather than deal with the issues brought up in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as well as the more despairing “Meet John Doe,” in which a man chooses suicide over demagoguery, the savage attack on the two-party system in “State of the Union,” not to mention the social humiliation of the naïve Mr. Deeds and the political education of Mr. Smith. In Capra’s America, it is possible to carve out a wonderful life in a not-so wonderful world, but it is seldom the life one would have chosen if given a choice.