Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's not a wonderful life.

It amuses me to no end that when I suggest to people that perennial Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is not really an uplifting feel-good movie but Frank Capra's most relentlessly depressing work, they look at me as if I just said Jesus fucks chickens.

Like Douglas Sirk, Capra was a smuggler. He hid his themes and ideas under the façade of overly-sentimental tales and it’s easy to see why these directors’ films are often misunderstood. It really is genius when you can hide deeper and darker themes about humanity in a story that large audiences will respond to emotionally. Wonderful continues to be trotted out to demonstrate Capra’s life-affirming, joyous love of people. Yet reading Wonderful as wholesome heart-warming tale advances the notion that it celebrates the triumph of small-town sweetness over impersonal modernity while dismissing any further critical analysis and probing of its deeper meanings and themes.

Capra considered it his greatest achievement and it was his (and James Stewart’s) favorite. However, it was actually a box-office disappointment at the time of its release and only became a Holiday classic in the 1970s due to repeated television showings at Christmas-time when its copyright protection slipped and fell into the public domain in 1974 and TV stations could air it for free. (Republic Pictures restored its copyright claim to the film in 1993, with exclusive video rights to it. Currently, it can be shown only on NBC, and its distribution rights belong to Paramount Pictures.) Talk about irony with a capital I. General Electric, one of the largest multinational conglomerates now owns America’s most beloved populist holiday movie.

The screenplay (credited as being written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra himself, with additional scenes by Jo Swerling) was based on "The Greatest Gift," an original short story first written on a Christmas card by Philip Van Doren Stern. Uncredited for their work on the script were Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets.

Wonderful’s framing story draws on the backward-looking myth of the small town favored by Hollywood's not-notably rural filmmakers. But what's inside the frame is what really counts--a timeless corner of populist paradise is juxtaposed with a far more realistic and striking view of contemporary America in flux. Pottersville represents a place where the people are as nasty as their oppressors and the individual is unimportant.

This picture of the corruption and the death of small-town society is rivaled in film only by Orson Welles The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Pottersville is as atmospheric a film noir as any of the period's movies, and unlike the wholesome story, it’s not an inversion of reality at all. It's a realistic, if appalling, view of how things looked to be playing out in the society off the screen.

Some things did not turn out as badly as Capra seemed to fear. Post-war prosperity and the federal deposit insurance programs made bank failures a relative rarity, at least for a few decades (yikes), and thrift institutions like George Bailey's building and loan in fact did help underwrite the rise of suburbia, and thus the fulfillment of some Capra-era dreams In that period the country's cities did come more and more to resemble Pottersville, although with the additional woe of racism. And suburbia itself represented a turning-away from the spiritual strength and communal ties of places like Bedford Falls in favor of materialism and the security of the Company Man. I wonder what kind of movie Capra would make today and what he would think of manipulative crap like Slumdog Millionaire. How would Mr. Smith Goes to Wall Street play out? Some of us want to write that movie. Unfortunately, no one really wants to see it unless Mr. Smith is blue and has to battle a meteor in his dreams.

Was Bedford Falls really that wonderful? Even in his purportedly wonderful life, George Bailey lives in a town mostly owned by Old-Man Potter. He is burdened with a loser uncle and he’s forced to give up his dreams of traveling the world and succeeding in a career of his choice. One of the movie's most visually moving sequences is when George, informed that his brother won't be taking over the building and loan, turns away from his chosen destiny to live up to his familial obligations. Stewart’s face says it all. He knows Bedford Falls is a trap and it ultimately drives him to suicide. Should we really be cheering for dutiful martyrdom over the pursuit of personal dreams? No (fucking) way, says Capra.  Yet this romantic notion of self-sacrifice and angels getting their wings is cheered by teary-eyed American audiences every year.

In the context of Capra's earlier features, Wonderful looks even grimmer. In It Happened One Night (1934), evil turns up as cynicism and mistrust and in the status barriers that always divide people. Capra returns to these themes through all the films that follow. Whatever other adversaries they face, his heroes must always cope with these universal weaknesses, in themselves and in the people around them.

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) Gary Cooper is the antithesis of cynicism, mistrust and snobbery; he is small-town virtue personified. The lies and entrenched interests of the city have yet to infect his Bedford Fallsish society, where they’re written off as aberrant. Deeds falls prey when he goes to town, but he is more of a threat to the corruptions of a disorganized and internally divided system than it is to him. Its immorality is localized and in the end little more than traditional American venality, which gives way before Deed's enormous personal virtue.

Venality also motivates the evil in You Can't Take it With You (1938), but here it’s more focused, spreading death and destruction as it accumulates power and money. Romantic love is again a victim of cynicism, mistrust and status, while the Vanderhoff's unpretentious virtue (the most precious commodity in Capra's world) just barely survives. This was 1938, after all. The Depression seemed interminable; war had begun in Asia and was imminent in Europe. Still, the robber-baron villain comes around in the end when faced with the overwhelming argument presented by simple human goodness just being itself. Even Edward Arnold, combining the two most loathsome occupations of the Depression (banker/munitions mogul), has a conscience and can be cleansed of his sins and his social baggage and returned to an earlier innocence.

Arnold's evil expands in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), where he’s defeated in the end but, unlike in You Can't Take it With You, is left unredeemed. The hero goes up against classic political bossism, but here the evil has become well-organized and wields the extra oomph of modern communications. Despair at first outruns victory, as in most Capra films. (The Vanderhoffs prepare to move out, even if it means betraying the neighborhood. Deeds stands silent in court. Smith collapses in the Senate.) It takes the people, usually assisted by a guilt-ridden retainer of the villain, to clear the way for good to prevail, or at least survive.

In Meet John Doe (1941), even the people turn on the hero, who again surrenders to despair. Only at the very end do the fundamentally good-hearted citizens admit their wrongheadedness and proclaim their fealty to the virtues Doe represents (ignoring the fact that he himself is compromised by participation in a massive deception). It's a good thing, because the stakes have become higher. The traditional evils of Wall Street manipulators and political bosses have given way to totalitarianism, with Edward Arnold now the leader of a fascist movement.

Politically, this is as bad as it gets. Morally, there was worse to come.

To be Old Man Potter in Wonderful, Lionel Barrymore inverted his own Vanderhoff character in You Can't Take it With You. Where old Mr. Vanderhoff is good and gracious for the joy of it, Old-Man Potter is nasty for its own sake. Prior Capra villains had purpose, whether money, power or a new order. Potter is evil with no goal or reason for being that way. Political and financial empire-building are subsumed into greed, ill will and blind destructiveness.

There is no idealism here to give the villain an arc. This evil is so complete that the villain's conversion isn't contemplated. Significantly, the only conceivable response to Pottersville — which is in fact the real world — is to escape it. Even the intervention of the people is insufficient to save the hero, whose despair puts him beyond help from human agency. Yes, George's friends and beneficiaries come together to make good the building and loan's shortfall, but that only addresses his superficial and immediate problem. We know what really saves him, what keeps him alive so the community can band together to help: divine intervention.

Capra's group of socially conscious films of the 1930s reflected a reasonably coherent fear of the intensifying class conflict, fascism and militarism that seemed then to be overtaking the world. Wonderful reveals near panic over the catastrophes and depersonalization that actually did. It’s all too familiar. Except I don’t believe that the people of the 1930s and 40s were as optimistic and naïve as Americans today. Blind optimism a la The Secret or any self-help doctrine you care to mention, and that the U.S.A. is Number One just because we say so, has had a lot to do with America’s downfall. Collective pessimism, European style, creates certain protections for society as a whole. Here, Socialism is equated with Negativism. And we can’t have that.

In Wonderful, things had become so bad that only God could save the day. And if we truly believe that God will save the day, then we are so, so screwed. Life may be wonderful, but to be able to live it wonderfully is another matter entirely.

Merry Christmas.


P.S. No angels were harmed in the writing of this essay.


-Mike said...

I was pleased with your insightful analysis of the movie and the works of Capra. You are very credible in presenting your arguments and successfully opened my eyes and mind to the deeper message you see in Capra's work.

Sweeping another bit of holiday guilt and myth into the dustbin! Great work!

dizzydent said...

One by one they come to the Dark Side...