Saturday, December 24, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra’s masterpiece, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” has become one of the most popular films of all time. Nevertheless, film critics seem obligated to dismiss it as an exercise in sentimentality. They overlook the fact that most “sentimental” films of that or any era are almost impossible to watch today. Critics rarely discuss the film on its merits as a film and tend to overlook Capra’s mastery of the film medium.

Even the most hard hearted critic will be hard pressed to keep the tears from flowing especially at the finale. Why can’t they recognize that it’s not just sentimentality but that it takes a real craftsman to elicit such a universal response? Capra regarded this as the greatest work of his illustrious career, and so too did its star, Jimmy Stewart.

Both Capra and Stewart had returned to Hollywood right after the end of World War II after distinguished service in the military. Stewart had piloted many bombing missions, and Capra had been responsible for making the famous “Why We Fight “ documentaries for the Army. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was the first film venture for each of them on their return to civilian life.

It is well known that before the war Frank Capra had become Hollywood’s most famous and acclaimed director despite the fact that he had come to America as a young Sicilian boy who could not speak a word of English. His family migrated to California to provide for themselves by farming. The young Frank worked to help the family but somehow managed to become the only one in the family to get a college degree.

After a brief and uneventful stint in the Army in the waning days of World War I, he found himself out of work and with no prospects. In his autobiography he described how quite by accident he stumbled into a fledgling movie studio and began his career. He was in Hollywood almost at the inception and proceeded to learn the craft of filmmaking from the ground up.

All the things he learned during this apprenticeship are evident in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the first place, he learned to make pictures that were really moving. His characters never just stand around just talking. Either they are moving or the camera is moving. Unlike many other films, Capra’s never grind to a standstill.

Just visualize the scene right after the marriage of George and Mary.  Ernie, the cab driver, is driving them to the train station as they embark on their honeymoon. They are joking with Ernie but  through the back window the camera shows men running in the street. We jump immediately into the scene of the run on the banks without any pause or introduction.

Speaking of George and Mary their earlier love scene where they both talk on the same telephone is perhaps the best and most famous in all of film history. No love scene in Casablanca, an equally sentimental film but a favorite of critics, can compare to this one for realism and emotion.

Capra was a pioneer practitioner of many of the techniques that we take for granted in films today. He began the film with a flashback and narrator. He used stop action to introduce the adult George Bailey. No film noir director ever used light and dark to greater effect than Capra. At the film’s finale the entire cast is  artfully brought back as if to take their bows. The camera goes from face to face in one of the most moving scenes ever shot.

Speaking of the cast, Jimmy Stewart regarded this film as his greatest performance. “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a saga of returning war veterans, swept the Academy Awards in 1946 but it was a real travesty when Frederic March won the Best Actor award for his relatively wooden portrayal of a hard drinking banker. He wasn’t even the best actor in “Best Years.” In addition to the classic telephone love scene, I remember especially Stewart’s reaction to the news that his college-hero brother will not be returning to take over the running of the Bailey Building and Loan. In that brief scene his face goes through a whole gamut of emotions. That scene prepared us for the angry Stewart who berates his own children on Christmas Eve. Jimmy Stewart really grew up in this film.

The rest of the cast could have won an award for best ensemble. Capra had a knack of bringing out the best in his reservoir of great character actors. Was Donna Reed ever better? Capra introduced a young Gloria Grahame into this film and she was a stunning success. Who can ever forget her reaction to Stewart’s compliment on her dress? “Oh, this old thing. I only wear this when I don’t care how I look!" Of the others it will just be sufficient to notice Beulah Bondi’s transformation from a loving mother to a haggard old landlady.

Every scene in this great film was planned and directed by Frank Capra. It is a true work of art. Who can bear to watch any of the remakes? It takes great skill to make a “sentimental” film watchable and believable. During the harrowing twenty minutes after George Bailey’s suicide attempt, who doesn’t believe that Henry Travers is a real angel?

Years ago I remember an episode of “Cheers” where the regulars were standing around the bar on Christmas Eve watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” At that time no one owned the rights to the film and so it could be seen on practically every local channel all during the day and night. Characteristically, they were casting sarcastic jokes. At the end of the film they were all crying uncontrollably.###

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