Thursday, 16 August 2012

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Dir. Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell

I wanted to find a film set in New York state that wasn’t set in Manhattan – and so I’ve headed to the fictional town of Bedford Falls, home to James Stewart’s George Bailey and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life 
Bedford Falls is a humble little town full of people with humble little dreams. But not George Bailey. He wants to travel the world, go to college and build great ambitious projects: bridges, skyscrapers, airfields. But he is never able to leave town. First his father dies and local tycoon Henry Potter (Key Largo’s Lionel Barrymore) moves to close down the Bailey Building and Loan Association. The Bailey Building and Loan is the only way the townspeople can afford to move out of the rented slum dwellings of Potter’s Field to their own homes. George energises the board to scupper Potter’s plans – but their condition is that he remains behind to run the business. He then hopes to hand over management of the family business to brother Harry (Todd Karns) when he returns from college. However Harry comes home with a wife and the prospect of a good job in Buffalo. So George stays on. He uses the $2,000 he had saved for his honeymoon to quell the panic when there is a run on the bank and the townsfolk try to withdraw their money from the Building and Loan. He refuses a lucrative job working for Potter and continues to underwrite more and more affordable housing developments. But when an $8,000 deposit goes missing it looks as though the family business will be closed down for bank fraud. George appeals to Mr Potter for help; Potter refuses, recognising his chance to finally close down the one business in Bedford Falls outside his control. In desperation George realises that he is worth more dead than alive. As the snow falls on Christmas Eve he staggers to the bridge to commit suicide. 

It then falls to Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) to show George the error of his ways. Clarence is an angel (second class) – George’s guardian angel. And he has been sent in answer to the prayers of so many people who care about George. He demonstrates what Bedford Falls would be like if George had never been born. His brother would never have become a decorated war hero because he would have died without George to rescue him, aged 9. Without George to recognise that the druggist Mr Gower (H. B. Warner) had made a mistake in making out a prescription Gower would have been imprisoned for murder and would now be a homeless bum. Without George the Bailey Building and Loan would have folded. Forgetful Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) would have been committed to an asylum and Potter would have finally achieved control over all of Bedford Falls – or Pottersville as it would now be called. Pottersville would be a rough town full of bars, nightclubs, striptease shows and pawnhouses. Worst of all Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), the girl he married, would now be a spinster: no husband, no children, and their house would be a decaying wreck. The realisation that he has touched so many lives for the better causes him to wake from this vision and send him running back through the streets. Reaching home he is besieged by all the people he has helped. Hearing that he was in trouble the entire town has turned out to donate whatever they can afford. A note from Clarence reminds him that “no man is poor who has friends.” Harry leads the toasts to “my big brother George: the richest man in town!”

You can criticise the film. If you’re a dick. It is sentimental – deliberately so. It has a very obvious good vs evil plotline. The angelic intervention is cribbed straight from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. And you don’t have to look very hard for a moral to the tale before stumbling on the notion that one should abandon all ambition. This is not High School Musical telling its audience that they can be whatever they want; It’s a Wonderful Life tells people to be content with their lot and give up on their dreams. For all his talk of ‘lassoing the moon’ and giving Mary whatever she wants (which he does: all she wants is him and a family and the old house they turn into a home) George negates all his dreams. He lets ‘duty’ and doing what is right take precedence over his own ambitions. But this is a very deontological viewpoint. Who knows what George could have achieved had he followed his dreams? He may have contributed more to the War as a planner, engineer and architect than selling War Bonds and saving the life of a brother who shot down fifteen enemy planes. You can see IAWL as a film about knowing one’s place. 

George Bailey: the man who put the 'Bail' in 'Bank Bail Out'

But to overanalyse the film is to lose the point of it. I said that it was deliberately sentimental, and you would need to have a heart of stone not to be affected by it. It is well crafted, Stewart is as engaging as ever as the “aw shucks!” small town boy with the simple morality, Donna Reed creates the perfect girl-next-door in Mary, nuts about George. And yes, I admit it, I had a tear in my eye in all those times when the townsfolk rally around, be it the Bailey’s abortive honeymoon arranged by Bert the cop and Ernie the taxi driver (Ward Bond and Frank Faylen) – no relation to Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie – or the final scene when everyone crams in to show George just how appreciated he is. It sees the good in human beings. Potter asks George “Why don’t you go to the riff-raff you love so much and ask them to let you have $8,000? You know why? Because they’d run you out of town on a rail.” The joy is in proving Potter wrong. They produce that $8,000 and much much more because they are all members of the same community; they look out for one another when times are tough. This is a film about love, and family, and friendship, and Christmas, and miracles. My girlfriend thought the angelic intervention at the end of the film spoilt it a little (and she’s the religious one in the relationship). But it’s Christmas in Bedford Falls. Every Christmas needs its angel to see something the rest of us cannot. It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t have a bad bone in its body. It is the very dictionary definition of ‘heart-warming’. I loved it. 

Nominated for five Academy Awards, It’s a Wonderful Life won none. It was completely outperformed by The Best Years of Our Lives. No, I’ve never heard of it neither. But IAWL sort of languished until a new generation rediscovered it some thirty years later. The American Film Institute named it America’s Most Inspiring Movie in 2006 (five places above another Frank Capra – James Stewart collaboration, Mr Smith Goes to Washington; The Best Years of Our Lives made #11). Four years earlier Channel 4 viewers in Britain had voted It’s a Wonderful Life the seventh greatest movie ever made. It has a special place in the affections of millions of fans the world over. Now it has one more. 

What have I learnt about New York?
This is New York outside NYC, a reminder that there is something more to the state than the great metropolis down on the coast. It is a land of pleasant towns whose concerns, where they lie outside the town boundaries, are directed towards Elmira, Rochester and Buffalo just as often as they are towards New York City. 

New York City may be further away from this New York town than it is from the New Jersey settings of On the Waterfront and Cop Land but it still looms figuratively on the horizon. One might suppose that the presence of such a major city spurs George’s wanderlust. When Potter offers him a job requiring him to travel down to New York City George is tempted. But although he wants to leave Bedford Falls he never manages to. A difference can be seen in local fast girl Violet (Gloria Grahame). The impression given is that she does not want to leave Bedford Falls but she cannot stand it any longer – presumably gossip about her reputation. An entire other way of living is literally just down the road.

Bedford Falls is a town with a poverty problem – probably due to a lack of local competition. The film shows how local tycoons like Potter can completely dominate a town. He has a senator dancing attendance on him in one scene, and he is more than happy to keep the townsfolk renting his slum dwellings in Potters Field rather than progress up to owning their own dwelling. He owns the store, the bank, the slums and a hundred other associated businesses. In New York City he would be gobbled up at once; out in the backwoods he can be a very big fish in a very small pond. It's notable that he has a bust of Napoleon in his office.

Can we go there?
There is no genuine town of Bedford Falls. However, the central New York town of Seneca Falls claims to be ‘the real Bedford Falls’. They have a It’s a Wonderful Life festival every December, the Hotel Clarence in town is named after Henry Travers’ angel, and they even have an It’s a Wonderful Life Museum (opened in 2010 by Karolyn Grimes who played Zuzu in the film). 

The film was made on a set – the RKO Ranch in Encino, California. The set covered four acres. To all intents and purposes a whole town was created there with 75 stores and buildings and twenty full-grown oak trees. Sadly, it was razed in the mid 1950s. It now lies under housing developments and Balboa Park. Only two locations survive. The Martini House can be found at 4587 Vira Road in La CaƱada Flintridge. And the school gym with the swimming pool beneath it still exists; it is part of Beverly Hills High School. Clueless was filmed there, and its alumni include Albert Brooks (from Taxi Driver), Nicholas Cage (from Raising Arizona), Carrie Fisher (from The Blues Brothers), Betty White (from Hard Rain and Lake Placid) and director Rob Reiner.

Overall Rating: 5/5

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