This week’s Flick of the Week takes with Donna Reed from her Oscar winning role as Alma 'Lorene' Burke in From Here to Eternity to the movie role she is probably most famous for, Mary Hatch), in Frank Capra’s absolute classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
I must say right off the bat that It’s a Wonderful Life is in my all-time Top 5 favourite movies. In reality there are probably about 8 or 9 films in that Top 5, but this one would never be pushed out. I love it on many levels and have done since I first saw it as a 20 year old in 1992.
It was a film I had read about, but never come across. Unlike America, where it is a staple of TV at Christmas time, in Australia it is rarely seen, and does not hold any grip on our culture in the way it does in America. I came across a video copy for sale in Woolworths for bugger all (literally – I think it was $4.99, which even back then was easily spent for a student surviving on Austudy). I was living in a flat at the time, and my flatmate was out that Friday night and no one else was all that interested in watching an old 1946 black and white flick, and so I watched it on my own.
This turned out to be a good thing because by the end of the film I was an absolute wreck. I don’t mean a little bit misty eyed, or just blinking away a few tears. I mean bawling my eyes out and going through two hankies. Such a state is generally not best displayed in front of friends when you’re 20 and struggling to maintain some level of coolness (a struggle I pretty well lost I must say).
The film concerns George Bailey (James Stewart) and his life in the small town of Bedford Falls. It follows his life from childhood to adulthood. We see others leave the town and go on to better fortunes and what George believes are better lives, while George himself – although the smartest one in his class – is left behind. Along the way he gets married (to Mary Hatch) and things are comfortable if boring, until the fateful day where his life seemingly falls apart and then due to divine intervention (Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class) he gets to see the world as it would have been had he never lived.
For those who have not seen it I won’t give away the ending suffice to say this is a Frank Capra film and Capraesque is not an adjective used to describe films with unhappy endings.
Other Frank Capra films such as Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Mr Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take it With You, It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace, rightfully sit high up in the American film canon, but this one I think easily outshines them. It was also Capra’s last great film, which is odd given he was only 49 at the time and would live till 1991.
But while Capra is a masterful director, and the screenplay – based on a short story by Philip van Doren Stern – which included uncredited work from left wingers, Dorothy Porter, Clifford Oddets and Dalton Trumbo is just about the best tale ever of the little man fighting against the rich and powerful, the film is carried to great heights by one man – James Stewart.
Filmed in 1946, this was Stewart's first film role after serving in the American Army as a bomber pilot during WWII. Some actors’ roles in the war may have been elevated a bit by studio publicity, but with Stewart there was no need to pad. He joined the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbour (he was33 at the time), flew 20 combat missions over Europe, won the Distinguish Flying Cross twice and finished the war as a Major. He was also a lifelong conservative – and an early supporter of Ronald Reagan. Despite this – and showing politics is not the be all of life he was also best friends with Henry Fonda who was of the complete opposite political view.
That Stewart was such a conservative is rather surprising when you see him in this role. Far from being a paean to the great American Dream – where hard work and honesty will see you succeed – here we see George working hard, being honest, finding some small measure of success, but being grossly dissatisfied with it all. Some of this is his own choosing – he turns down an offer to get in “on the ground floor’ of the plastics industry run by his old school friend Sam Wainwright – but mostly it is because he feels trapped into doing that honest, hard working, proper thing. He stays while his brother goes. He stays while Sam Wainwright goes. Sure at the end (ok bit of a spoiler) he is declared the richest man in town, but the reality is that has happened in spite of his best efforts – and is in no way a monetary sense either. George wanted to leave – he wanted to do “great things”. He tells his father his attitude to this supposedly perfect example of small town America that is Bedford Falls, and his father’s small business running the Bailey “Building and Loan” (a type of Building Society):
George Bailey: Oh, now Pop, I couldn't. I couldn't face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office... Oh, I'm sorry Pop, I didn't mean that, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe... I'd go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.
Pa Bailey: You know, George, I feel that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It's deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we're helping him get those things in our shabby little office.
George Bailey: I know, Dad. I wish I felt... But I've been hoarding pennies like a miser in order to... Most of my friends have already finished college. I just feel like if I don't get away, I'd bust.
George’s tale is not the tale of American capitalism succeeding; more it is the tale that shows success is not found through chasing financial riches but the riches of friends and family.
The great thing about Stewart's performance is we see him as Jimmy Stewart, all around good guy, but then we see him “bust”. On the day when it all goes wrong – $8,000 from the Building and Loan has been lost by George's uncle (though George takes the blame) – we see George Bailey get angry at his kids, his wife, his kid’s teacher. And at no stage does Stewart give the audience a little nod to let them know it’ll be ok – that he’s just pretending. We see the pent up rage of a man who has been wanting to get out of this crummy town being let loose and it ain’t pretty.
When the angel does arrive, George is cynical and contemptuous. The first thing he does is take him to a bar (bear in mind this is Christmas Eve!). The scorn and anger in his performance only dissipates when he discovers that his wish to never have been born means his wife Mary does not know him.
I think Stewart’s performance is the greatest leading-acting role in any Hollywood film. Better than any by Bogart, or Grant, or Clift or Brando, or Hoffmann or Nicholson or Pacino or De Niro. Heck it’s better than Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption! He truly runs the gamut of emotion from A to Z and back. We see him young and cocky. We see him assertive and bold. We see him loving, caring, and kind. We see him angry, hurt, and truly at the end of his rope.
Here is a scene of George arguing with the town richest man Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) over the value of the Building and Loan. It displays the brash force behind Stewart's performance perfectly:
Now compare that scene to one later in the film when George goes to Potter after the $8,000 has been lost:
I cried when I watched this film (and still do – though I have seen it many, many times) not because of the cutesy things like his daughter telling us that “teacher says every time a bell rings and angel gets its wings”, but because the journey George Bailey takes was one I could relate to oddly even as a 20 year old. That desperate desire to do something with my life, that want to shake the dust of the small town in which I grew up of the shoes of my feet. That knowing knowledge that were I George I would probably make the same choices he does.
This film has become so ubiquitous to American culture that it has been parodied in The Simpsons and South Park and just about anything else that wants to take a stab at American culture. And while I am cynical of media and politics and manipulative films, this one destroys my cynicism because it comes from such an honest core. It is not all saccharine and angels. It is actually a film of frustration and greed and struggle. It is that basis that makes the ending so magnificent.
When the film was released it was moderately successful. It made back its budget, was nominated for 5 Oscars – including Best Picture, Actor and Director. It didn’t win any. Now I suggest it would win the lot, and a few more besides.
A great film.
Previous Flicks of the Week:
From Here to Eternity – Burt Lancaster
Sweet Smell of Success – Elmer Bernstein
The Great Escape – Richard Attenborough
Elizabeth – Geoffrey Rush
Pirates of the Caribbean – Johnny Depp
Platoon – Willem Dafoe
Inside Man – Clive Owen
Gosford Park – Robert Altman
The Player – Tim Robbins
Bull Durham – Kevin Costner
Field of Dreams – Ray Liotta
Goodfellas – Samuel L Jackson
Pulp Fiction – Frank Whaley
Swimming with Sharks – Kevin Spacey
Working Girl – Sigourney Weaver
Aliens – Bill Paxton
Apollo 13 – Ron Howard
American Graffiti – Richard Dreyfus
The Graduate – Dustin Hoffmann
All the President’s Men – Jason Robards
Once Upon a Time in the West – Henry Fonda
Mister Roberts – Jack Lemmon
Some Like it Hot – Billy Wilder
Witness for the Prosecution – Marlene Dietrich
Touch of Evil – Orson Welles
The Third Man – Trevor Howard
Brief Encounter - David Lean
Lawrence of Arabia – Claude Reins
Casablanca – Humphrey Bogart
The Big Sleep – Howard Hawks
His Girl Friday – Cary Grant
Charade – John Williams
Schindler’s List – Liam Neeson
Love Actually – Emma Thompson
Sense and Sensibility – Ang Lee
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Michelle Yeoh
Tomorrow Never Dies – Pierce Brosnan
The Thomas Crown Affair – Renee Russo
In the Line of Fire – Clint Eastwood
Where Eagles Dare – Richard Burton
Zulu – Stanley Baker
The Guns of Navarone – Peter Yates
Breaking Away – Dennis Quaid
The Right Stuff – Ed Harris
The Rock – Sean Connery
The Longest Day – Richard Beymer
West Side Story – Ernest Lehmann
North By Northwest - The first one