Thursday, December 09, 2010

Sentiment? In It's a Wonderful Life? Pshaw!

Many people dismiss It's a Wonderful Life, calling it sappy and sentimental - to which I can only say:

Oh, really? Haven't watched the film lately, have you?

I HAVE watched the film lately. Saw it on the big screen the other day at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Dayton, where I am now a member. And I've got news for all the naysayers. It's a Wonderful Life is scarcely sentimental at all. Point of fact, it's the darkest and most foreboding picture Frank Capra ever made.

Don't believe me? You're probably thinking of all the happy scenes in the movie, such as George Bailey twice proclaiming "I wish I had a million dollars! Hot dog!" Or the scene where the guy falls over in the chair at Clarence's proclamations that he's an angel. Or the scene where George lassos the moon.

But consider:

*About 15 minutes into the movie, the druggist is beating George on his bad ear, making it visibly bleed.

*George is a great guy, but when you get down to it, he grouses an awful lot about how podunk Bedford Falls is when it looks like a perfectly lovely little burg.

*George reveals  his feelings for Mary in what has to be one of angriest, most violent declarations of love ever put on film. He shakes her - hard - and yells at her. There's a Hallmark moment for you.

*The vision of Pottersville is truly nightmarish, and the pacing in those scenes is relentless. Capra doesn't let up on George, making him not only hit bottom, butt bursting through the bottom of the barrel. Jimmy Stewart's acting in these scenes is not THAT far removed from his anguished portrayal of Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo. It's why I chose the film still I did, rather than the image from the end most people use.

*Heck, even the George lassos the moon scene is rather lascivious, since it does have a naked chick in it -albeit within the realms of 1946's good taste.

But there are other, real-life considerations many people don't realize. Capra and Stewart made that film after serving during World War II. Capra saw many atrocities as a documentarian, and Stewart was one of the few Hollywood stars who DID see combat, piloting several air raid missions.

I believe their experiences are reflected in It's a Wonderful Life - and are a large part of why that film endures. Light is more effective when it has darkness to fight.  The reason the cheery scenes stand out so well is because they counterbalance all that despair.

My colleague Hannah Poturalski wrote about the movie too, noting

What I liked most about the film was being able to identify with the characters. With George Bailey I could really identify. He was a family man even from an early age and genuinely cared for people. It was because of this that he gave up his dreams for the good of the town. George seemed to be racing through life and didn’t take time to breathe and enjoy what he had.

Yes, at times things get a little sticky, especially toward the beginning, what with the talking stars and the moon that looks a Crunch Berry. But the movie earns those scenes.  It damn well deserves its angels' wings. As Ty Burr says in his book The Best Old Movies for Families, "Call it sappy if you like - but it's a movie made by people who have seen things they'd give anything to forget."

Keep that in mind and watch it again.  It only enriches one of the best films ever made.

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