Thursday, 21 December 2017

It’s a Wonderful Life… or is it?



‘Frank Capra… in my estimation is the greatest of all American directors, a man so beautiful, so forgiving, so democratic, so damned talented, so full of life and energy that his films patrol the imagination of America today’. John Cassavetes

As you settle down this Christmas to watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, remember that you are not watching a sentimental or light-hearted film, but a film about a desperate man, George Bailey, in irreconcilable conflict with the full range of social, bureaucratic and discursive conventions conspiring to thwart his hopes for self-expression and self-realisation; a film which depicts a ‘wild-eyed’ dreamer relentlessly frustrated and disappointed, who goes from one crisis to the next, suffers one wound after another, until his sense of defeat and estrangement is so great that he wants to kill himself.

This, at least, is the interpretation of It’s a Wonderful Life provided by Raymond Carney in his book, American Visions: The Films of Frank Capra, which touts Capra as a ‘poet of suffering and tragedy’ and aims to rescue his films – which include other classics such as American Madness, Forbidden, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Ladies of Leisure, Lost Horizon, It Happened One Night, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe – from accusations of ‘sentimentality’ ‘corn’ and fatuous celebrations of the American Dream, and establish him in a tradition of artists – such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, William James, Edward Hopper and John Cassavetes – who examine the conflict between what American society offers and what it delivers, the gap between imagination and reality in which alienation exists, who are advocates for the man or woman who dares to dream or desires too much, and defenders of the visionary individual battling against systems, ideologies and cultures out to repress, control or crush passionate impulses and creative energies.

The phone scene (in the above video) gives a good idea of the almost unbearable emotional strain and tension that Capra makes George Bailey endure in It’s a Wonderful Life, the turmoil and suffering that permeate the film and which not even the film’s notoriously ‘happy ending’ can heal.

Indeed, in relation to the ending, Carney says that even though George doesn’t commit suicide and seems to have found renewed reason to live thanks to the love of his family and friends, he has gone through too much to be so easily redeemed or reintegrated into society.

‘Capra wants us to know that George Bailey's life is wonderful – not because his neighbors bail him out with a charity sing-along, and certainly not because of the damnation of his life with the faint praise embodied in Clarence [his guardian angel's] slogan, "No man is a failure who has friends," but because he has seen and suffered more, and more deeply and wonderfully, than any other character in the film.

‘This Cinderella, unlike the one in the fairy tale… is returned to the hearth… [but] with no future possibility of escape and with only the consciousness of what has just been lived through in the preceding dark night of the soul as consolation – [although] that, Capra argues, is enough. The adventure of consciousness that George has lived through in dreamland is greater than any of the romantic adventures he has talked about going on – but it is at the same time only an adventure of consciousness.’