It's a Wonderful Life

(Frank Capra, USA, 1946)


In the final two-part episode of the once-great television soap Dallas, JR considers committing suicide. Suddenly, enigmatic and suave Joel Grey from Cabaret (1972) – and Dancer in the Dark (2000) – appears at JR's poolside, imploring him to think again.

Just as JR starts calling the cops in order to have this intruder evicted, so that he can get back to the business of self-destruction, reality shifts into a twilight zone. Due to Grey's supernatural intervention, the stage is now set – JR will see what his family, his friends, his whole world would have been like if he had never been born. Does this premise sound familiar?

A segment of Steven Spielberg's television series Amazing Stories concerned a nerdy teenage boy addicted to horror movies – especially Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Tentative contact with a girl his age at the front door of his home proves disastrous, so this lad wishes to the night sky that life could be as predictable and uncomplicated as a movie. Transported to a magical movie theatre, he gets his wish but (as is usual in Amazing Stories) soon regrets it.

Costumed in Janet Leigh's dress and a blonde wig, he finds himself trapped in a black and white nightmare, inevitably dodging the vicious knife of Norman Bates. Finally, he prays to have his old, real life back. Suddenly deposited once again outside the strange theatre which is now just a derelict wreck, the enlightened boy races home joyfully, as a comet streaks across the sky and the camera closes in on the poster for the last film that screened at this local theatre: Frank Capra's 1946 Hollywood classic It's a Wonderful Life.

It's hard to escape the memory of Capra's film. It is salutary to remind oneself that this movie was not always considered a classic; its popular and critical status, as is often the case, was constructed by the film industry and film lovers over a long historical haul. But especially since the early 1980s – the beginning of the Spielbergian feel good era – it has become the fetish-movie from Hollywood's touted "golden era". The heroes and heroines of contemporary entertainment films, from Gremlins (1984) to Look Who's Talking (1989) are often caught watching it – always on a television set, often at Christmas time, sometimes dubbed into a foreign language or woefully colourised – and they laugh, hug, dance, fight back a tear, and wistfully reflect on (as is said in Munchies [1987]) such "really good old movies", and what it is they stand for that we have today lost.

Naturally, there are other old movies (like Casablanca [1942] or An Affair to Remember [1957]) which receive the same kind of affectionate recycling; but perhaps none has been subjected to quite this amount of obsessive citation. One result of this feverish process of homage is that, in certain moments and places, It's a Wonderful Life gets reduced merely to a title, a still, a vaguely jolly and uplifting emotion: thus we see Jimmy Stewart clutching his kids next to the Christmas tree on the cover of a new magazine, floating surreally above a full-colour plate of food, and inside there's the inevitable caption: "It's a Wonderful Life with Chile Pepper!"

This is perhaps an innocent enough (and certainly inevitable) pop appropriation. But, like any fetish-object, Capra's film tends to come to us today in fragmented, overdetermined little bits. In a perfectly postmodern anecdote, writer-producer-director John Hughes, the commercially calculating maestro of New Hollywood, confesses that his life was changed and his destiny formed the day he first encountered Capra's art – in an edited series of highlights from his films compiled for a television special. Capraesque thus joins Hitchcockian in the long list of essentially meaningless media buzzwords.

It's a Wonderful Life doesn't always come back to us so completely devastated and short-changed – it still is a great and complexly structured film, with the power to move and engage any viewer. But, having passed from the humble state of being just a film to becoming a ruthlessly commodified Event, Icon or Classic of pop culture, it's unarguable that the film arrives freighted with enormous, pre-fabricated significance. People see it today for the first time already primed as to what it is and what it means.

Capra's film thus expresses, first and foremost, the innocent vision of an innocent America. It speaks to us as the original and the best feel-good movie about personal redemption, about learning to see what really is wonderful about daily life. It prophesies the New Age philosophy of (as Dennis Wood calls it) Possibilism: life can always be changed for the better, if you can picture it at its absolute best. (The reverse side of the Possibilist coin is the cautionary creed pedalled each week by Amazing Stories: don't wish too hard for anything selfish or perverse, or it'll come true and you will destroy the harmony of the universe.)

Yet, as references to Capra's classic multiply, an awful truth makes itself horribly evident. We find ourselves achingly further and further away from the world depicted in the film – or, more crucially, the world that was able to invent and realise the film. It's a Wonderful Life is today everywhere ubiquitous, but it cannot be successfully remade – which is why no one tries directly to do so, not even Spielberg or Hughes, those pop operators whose entire movie careers appear to have been generated from a hazy, misbegotten, Capraesque reverie.

What is there about It's a Wonderful Life which is so resistant to modern appropriation, so foreign to our modern sensibility – and which thus makes it such an intense object of nostalgia? Not so innocent or naïve as some might believe, the film in fact carries off an incredible ideological balancing act. At one level, it is quite simply the biggest, most persuasive apology for the status quo (or The American Dream) ever dreamt up by Western mass culture. Since he was a boy, George Bailey (James Stewart) has longed to travel, to be a free spirit, a hero – to "lasso the moon". But the cruel course of destiny keeps putting him back in his humble, everyman place – first as the proprietor of his father's Buildings and Loans company, then as a husband and father. George helps pull his home town, Bedford Falls, through wars and financial crashes. But finally – when the theft of his company's money by the vicious corporate scrooge Potter (Lionel Barrymore) topples, in his heart and mind, the entire, fragile edifice of his life – George contemplates suicide.

So the film must go into bat to convince George – and us – that sticking with normality is worth it, after all. To this end, Capra pulls out of the hat not only a guardian angel, but finally that famous vision of a veritable hell – what the world would be like if George had never been born: Potter in charge, the town a sleazy hellhole, his wife (Donna Reed) a fearful old maid working at the local library (which is perhaps the one detail in the film which temporarily blows the good faith of contemporary viewers). Of course, the essential theorem of the film – placing the status quo momentarily in question in order to massively restore our faith in it – is a cleverly, precisely calculated risk: the American Dream, whatever its problems, has to be preferable to the hysterical American Nightmare with which Capra scares us. It's a Wonderful Life is an exercise in subtle, conservative persuasion – like any set of dominant ideological values which tries to keep its individual human subjects quelled and happy.

Yet, for this persuasion to work at all, Capra must first concede a little – a dangerously tantalising inch indeed – to the opposite side of the argument. The film has to bring itself to contemplate the terrible thought that, in accepting home and family and small town, George has unnecessarily sacrificed ambition, libido, romance and adventure. As the film well knows and acknowledges, these more anti-social drives are (especially for guys like George Bailey) also an integral part of Western society – comprising at least half of what Hollywood itself, like all the entertainment industries of popular culture, peddles so well and efficiently.

So It's a Wonderful Life is built on a human and social paradox. It is the felt tension between the two poles of the film's argument – the need to affirm the status quo and the drive to reject or destroy it – that gives it greatness and power. Crucial to the film are its violent, compelling scenes of George's impotent, frustrated rage – uncertain whether to hit or embrace his wife-to-be, smashing up his home, yelling at his kids. Of all Hollywood's male stars, perhaps James Stewart was the best choice to express psychotic anger building up underneath an outwardly easy going, all-American exterior – a role he perfected in Westerns and thrillers throughout the 1950s. The film still works for us today because, at some level, it acknowledges an impossible, irreconcilable contradiction between the social order and individual human desires – and then overrides that contradiction with an avalanche of sentiment, special pleading and pure, showbiz élan.

Even within those contemporary movies that make fawning, nostalgic appeals to It's a Wonderful Life, characters disagree over its real meaning. In Nora Ephron's This is My Life (1992), Dan Aykroyd tries to console Julie Kavner, who is experiencing an awful contradiction between her role as a mother of two children and her desire for a career as a stand-up comedian, by advancing the following cultural critique.

Dan: You ever see It's a Wonderful Life?
Julie: Sure.
Dan: It's about this guy who has dreams, he wants to travel, he wants to build bridges. But in the end we're supposed to believe that he's better off because he never did any of it? Well, that's all crap. It's crap.

Kavner fires back with a counter-analysis along more old-fashioned, humanistic lines.

Julie: That's not what that movie is saying. It's saying, if a person stays home, they can make an enormous difference in the people's lives who are near to them. If it weren't for Jimmy Stewart, his brother would have died. The pharmacist would have gone to jail. His children... [she starts to cry] ... he never ever would have had his children! His children never would have been born!

To cap off this learned exchange, Aykroyd responds to Kavner's moment of anguished self-recognition with a supreme expression of the interpretive fuzziness which is at the heart of both contemporary pop culture and its daily consumption.

Dan: What pharmacist?

MORE Capra: It Happened One Night

© Adrian Martin December 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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