There is no better year to watch Frank Capra’s masterpiece “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I sincerely hope that President Trump screens it again, assuming he has ever seen it.
“It’s A Wonderful Life,” as I wrote last year, “would be an excellent basis for a middle school ethics course. I haven’t seen a better, richer film for that purpose come along since, and I’ve been looking. Despite the many ethics complexities and nuances that the film glosses over or distorts, its basic, core message is crucial to all human beings, and needs to be hammered into our skulls at regular intervals, far more often than once a year.”
But in addition to being a movie about ethics, it is also a movie that is itself a result of an ethical instinct.
Director Frank Capra was already known as Hollywood’s master of celebrating common Americans doing extraordinary things, the nation’s families, the power of love and American exceptionalism. They called his movies “Capra Corn”: “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” “Meet John Doe,” and other critical and box office hits. He spent World War II making inspirational documentaries about the war effort. When the war was over, he sensed the dark mood in much of the nation, despite the exhilaration of victory. Returning soldiers found the culture changed and their emotions raw. Families whose .loved one had died or returned with disabling wounds struggled to believe that their sacrifices were justified. The atom bombs that ended the war also opened up a dangerous new era of paranoia and fear.
The post-war movie that seemed to capture the mood of much of the nation was William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a film my World War II veteran father refused to watch for fear that it would send his mind and memories to dark places he struggled not to go.
Capra had a new production company, and decided that “It’s A Wonderful Life,” based on an idea by author Philip Van Doren Stern. Unable to get his short story published, he had sent it to friends as a 21-page Christmas card. Film producer David Hempstead read it, and bought the movie rights for Capra’s company. The story was just what America needed, Capra reasoned, to restore its belief that what the nation had accomplished was worth the pain, loss and sacrifice, and that the nation itself had led a “wonderful life.” The new film could restore the nation’s flagging optimism, pride and hope.
Capra immediately thought of actor and now war hero James Stewart to play protagonist George Bailey. Three years of flying bombing raids against the Nazis in the US Air Force had left the the 37-year-old suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. He returned home in 1945 to find that everything had changed: his contract with MGM had run out, his agent had retired, and other stars had taken his place. He trusted Capra, even though the story he described sounded depressing. Stewart signed on.
Production finally began on the film in April of 1946, and the cast and crew felt they were making an important movie. Bedford Falls became one of the largest American film sets ever created to that point at four acres, with 75 fake stores and buildings, a three-block main street, and 20 full-grown oak trees. To avoid the traditional problem of fake-looking snow, the special effects department invented a new and more realistic process.
The story also touched the cast, especially Stewart, who was still suffering from the effects of the war and at times was close to quitting. In the scene where George, in a roadside bar, desperate and defeated, is praying to a God he doesn’t believe in. He rubs a trembling hand against his mouth, and starts to cry. The gesture wasn’t in the script, or requested by Capra. It was real.
Stewart explained years later,
“I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. That was not planned at all.”
Stewart felt it was his best performance (it is) and Capra believed he had made his best film. “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made,” he said later. “Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”
But it was a catastrophic flop. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that “the weakness of this picture is the sentimentality of it”, describing George Bailey as “a figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes”. The New Republic’s Manny Farber accused Capra of taking “an easy, simple-minded path that doesn’t give much credit to the intelligence of the audience”. The movie lost money and crippled Capra’s production company. His career never retained its former status, and what he believed was his greatest work was forgotten for decades. Republic Pictures, which owned the film’s copyright, didn’t bother to renew the rights in 1974. It was essentially free to local television channels, and they began showing it constantly.
Well, all you have to do is see it. Capra was right, Stewart was right, the cast and crew were right. It is a classic. The story accomplishes just what Cara intended it to accomplish. In a Times piece about the movie by a self-professed cynic, Wendell Jamieson wrote about seeing the movie for the first time as teen in a classroom showing, and confessed,
It’s something I felt while watching the film all those years ago, but was too embarrassed to reveal.
That last scene, when Harry comes back from the war and says, “To my big brother, George, the richest man in town”? Well, as I sat in that classroom, despite the dreary view of the parking lot; despite the moronic Uncle Billy; despite the too-perfect wife, Mary; and all of George’s lost opportunities, I felt a tingling chill around my neck and behind my ears. Fifteen years old and imagining myself an angry young man, I got all choked up.
And I still do.
Yeah, me too.
In an earlier version of The Guide I described the message of the film this way:
Everyone’s life does touch many others, and everyone has played a part in the chaotic ordering of random occurrences for good. Think about the children who have been born because you somehow were involved in the chain of events that linked their parents. And if you can’t think of something in your life that has a positive impact on someone–although there has to have been one, and probably many—then do something now. It doesn’t take much; sometimes a smile and a kind word is enough. Remembering the lessons of “It’s a Wonderful Life” really can make life more wonderful, and not just for you.
Lets’s try to make what’s left of the holiday season as epiphenal and joyous foreveryone in our lives as it was for George Bailey.
And away we go…