It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be a tough one. When I was a kid, during the public domain days, Wonderful Life was omnipresent. It became a joke because of that omnipresence. But also because it’s undeniably sappy. And it has angels in it. It’s so saccharine, I didn’t even notice my eyes tear up for the finish. It’s so devastating, I also didn’t notice when they teared up at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. Because It’s a Wonderful Life has all these things going on and some of them don’t actually interact with the other, which might be director Capra’s greatest achievement with the film. It’s well-intentioned, feel-good, historically relevant character study as epic. It’s a Wonderful Life is an epic. It’s a short one–the film speeds by in its 130 minutes–but it’s an epic.
The film has four credited screenwriters–including Capra–and a legion of uncredited helpers. The film has the rather expedient structure of heavenly intervention. Let’s face it–God magic is the best magic–and Wonderful Life is aware of the promise it’s making with God magic. A Greek chorus would probably be less awkward, especially since there’s angel bickering. Mind you, angel bickering shows up before Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until twelves minutes into the picture. And it’s all about him. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t start his character–Robert J. Anderson starts the character and it’s great. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are phenomenal. Capra goes all out with it.
Because most of It’s a Wonderful Life concentrates on Stewart and Reed, which is great because they’re amazing together and if it weren’t for the the last third of the film, Reed would easily give the best performance. The way she watches Stewart is exceptional. It’s a Wonderful Life has some strange cuts–apparently Capra even processed zoomed for emphasis–but the sound design always carries it. The film’s setting is about its sound, about its residents’ voices. Capra brings characters back in at just the right moment, in just the right scene, so the nightmare sequence at the end even scarier. Anyway, the sound and Reed. Capra will go for these different takes, jarring the viewer and forcing a reconsideration of the character. With Reed, it’s a little different. Capra’s direction of Reed during the courtship is about making her the film’s center.
Once Stewart and Reed get married, there’s a handoff to Stewart. Reed literally disappears. Capra figures out a way to show she’s still essential, but she doesn’t have to be omnipresent. There’s a lot of frantic qualities to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like the screwball comedy came home from the war.
So around halfway in, the film enters a different relationship with its protagonist. After Stewart being crushed again and again in the first half, the film has to show him get some reward. It’s a Wonderful Life is a mix of pragmatism, hopefulness, and cynicism. Stewart has to live up to the promise of the character before he showed up on screen.
Stewart has to make the viewer dislike him. The scene where he terrorizes the family is so freaky. The architecture designs, given room with the family’s things, are tragic. It answers a question It’s a Wonderful Life told the audience to ignore–sure, Reed’s actually perfect, but would Stewart have made it if he’d gotten away from home? Yeah. But he’s not even angry right, because when he’s angry, he’s supposed to be telling Reed he doesn’t need her and everyone knows he’s lying and is supposed to know he’s lying. He’s betraying the viewer’s expectation–and Capra knows how to do it too. The film’s a wonderful mix of sensibilities. Capra changes the pace, the tone. He introduces memorable characters in the second half. He doesn’t care. It’s awesome.
The nightmare part–does it even have an agreed upon term (it better not be some alternate timeline thing)–is this great twist. We’d been promised God magic and what did we get. Henry Travers, who looks as adorable as he sounds. Travers gets very little screen time and a phenomenal introduction. Capra still has these amazing scene constructions for the finale. And I think It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of acts, fits Dan O’Bannon’s second act to third act transition mark better than anything else. The bridge. It’s Capra trying some things he’d tried before without success and scoring, time and again.
Very off track, which is the thing about It’s a Wonderful Life–there’s too much. There’s so much to process, so much to appreciate, so much to consider. It’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking about it in terms of anticipation and recollection. I don’t even think I watched it in order when I first saw it. Or it had been cut down to fit a two-hour block and was missing a bunch. I’ve been thinking about how the film works since I was a kid. It’s brilliant. Capra does it. He goes for it, he does it.
Great supporting performances from Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, especially Gloria Grahame. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are awesome. H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds. Everyone else but especially those people.
Technically outstanding, especially William Hornbeck’s editing and Clem Portman and Richard Van Hessen’s sound. They make Capra’s forceful moves work.
Dimitri Tiomkin ’s score actually doesn’t help with those forceful moves, but enables them further. Only then that great scene construction brings it through. It’s a Wonderful Life is like shifting plates in perfect rhythm.
And now I’m never going to write about it again because it’s all I’d want to do.
Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern; directors of photography, Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), and Robert J. Anderson (Little George).