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Sunday, 18 December 2011

'Every Time a Bell Rings an Angel Gets Its Wings': A Tribute to the Greatest Christmas Film of All Time



Well, it's a week before 25th December, and as convention dictates I must do a Christmas Special blog post. As this is the first time I've done something of this kind I didn't have to rack my brains especially hard to find the perfect subject for such a post - a tribute to Frank Capra's 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life, and surely the best festive film ever made. It's a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly one of the most beloved Christmas films of all time, and I've yet to meet anyone who has seen it and doesn't love it. If any such person exists, I don't want to know about it. This post won't be arguing for Wonderful Life's position as top Chrimbo flick - I think that's already pretty well established. Rather, I'm going to systemically and objectively discuss just why It's a Wonderful Life is just so fucking lovely, and amongst the films that can and will make me cry like a baby every single time I watch it. I'm going to have to include some pretty major spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film before, I urge you to see it - it's on at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle and probably elsewhere, and it's readily available on DVD. Nevermind if you're one these cretins that don't like 'old' films (the subject of a future post, to be sure), if you have even the slightest degree of humanity you will surely love It's a Wonderful Life. I can't explain why without ruining the experience, but in this season of goodwill and friendship, just trust me on this one. Watch it.

So on with the show, and the reasons why It's a Wonderful Life really is wonderful. At the top of the list is the fact that:

1) It has Jimmy Stewart in it
How good is Jimmy Stewart? Ooh, about this good.
James Stewart was, and remains, one of the best screen actors to have ever lived. Second, perhaps, only to Gregory Peck, Stewart imbued his roles with a profound and quiet dignity, playing the smart male alternative to the more conventional machismo of the John Waynes, or the sophistication of the Cary Grants of Hollywood. And it is dignity that is the key word of Capra's classic, never moreso embodied than by Stewart's George Bailey, a man torn between his dreams and his responsibilities. For my money, Stewart never had a role more suited to his physique, his mannerisms and his skills as an actor. George's transformation from a brash, charming and idealistic college student, into a desperate family man driven to the edge of suicide is made utterly believable by Stewart's performance, and creates a deep and lasting pathos for the character.

2) Christmas is barely present
Like all the best Christmas films (Gremlins, Die Hard, The Hudsucker Proxy), It's a Wonderful Life doesn't actually feature Christmas as a story-telling device. Most of the film isn't even set during Christmas, and that the final act is set on Christmas Eve is almost incidental, serving more as an emotional underscoring of the themes in the film, rather than the central focus of the story. Undoubtedly, the iconography of Christmas plays a large part during the alternate-reality sequence and the final scene, but they're in the service of the wider narrative arc, providing the natural setting for the conclusion of the films themes of friendship and community. To contrast, something like Chris Columbus' Home Alone, while having none of the complexity, depth or emotion of the former, features similar themes of family and isolation, but uses Christmas as a specific narrative device; to get Kevin McAllister's family to leave him while they go on a Christmas vacation. The Christmassy feeling we get when watching It's a Wonderful Life is all the more powerful because it's not emphasised from the outset. It almost sneaks up on us, slowly building until that final scene where George's friends finally come through for him, while his daughter tinkles away on the piano playing 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing'. The swell of emotion at the end of the film is genuine, not because it's about anything inherently Christmas, but because that scene is the culmination of the relationships that we have witnessed George forge and maintain throughout his life.

3) It's more subversive than you might think
While the main thrust of the story is about George's journey as an ambitious young man, It's a Wonderful Life contains some quiet, yet quite strong political and social commentary. Firstly, George's failed attempt at escaping the small town of Bedford Falls reflects contemporary American anxieties over the suburban lifestyle and increased material consumption. As a child and college student, George vows that he'll 'shake of the dust of this crummy town' and travel the world, but as circumstances conspire against him, he gradually finds himself less and less upwardly mobile. A very large part of It's a Wonderful Life is an examination of life's unavoidable descent into entropy, from the naive, energetic optimism of youth to the quiet desperation of adult life, culminating in the moment when George decides to kill himself. Despite the warmth we feel by the end of the film, It's a Wonderful Life is largely a dark, satirical look at mid-twentieth century American life, and could even sit alongside other bleak masterpieces like Death of A Salesman, or Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road.

More to the point, It's a Wonderful Life takes a pretty big swipe at big business and the rise of corporate America. Don't believe me? Senator Joe McCarthy, who headed the hysterical anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, hated the film, objecting to its portrayal of Henry Potter as a ruthless and amoral profiteer. One of the major themes of It's a Wonderful Life is the conflict between community and individual profit. The Dickensian Potter, the film's villain, makes his fortune by buying out smaller business and charging extortionate rent for substandard property. It is only George Bailey's family run business, Bailey's Savings and Loan, that stands against Potter's town-wide monopoly. Where Potter's rampant, individualistic avarice threatens to destroy the community of Bedford Falls, George sacrifices his own personal ambition for the sake of the community he grew up in. At the heart of the film is the depiction of someone defying, and inspiring his community to defy, corruption, profiteering and unbridled greed. It's a Wonderful Life shows the small, grubbiness of these things in the face of human community.

4) It's simply a beautiful film
Christmas Eve with George Bailey and friends.
From the cinematography, the performances and the use of music, to the silent re-introduction of falling snowflakes that signal George's return to his own reality, It's a Wonderful Life is a beautiful, beautiful film. As we watch George grow up and become world-weary we witness the decline of Bedford Falls, and when, haggard and soaked, George returns to his dilapidated home we see a bittersweet reinvigoration of the town as they rally to his support. I cannot think of another film that feels so full of goodness, is so unabashedly wholesome, or is so full to the brim with feeling, without resorting to sentimentality, mawkishness or cynicism. The film peppers itself with the key moments in George's life that will later come in to play when he wishes his life away, and yet those moments feel natural and compelling in and of themselves, as snapshots of the ebb and flow of a person's life. As a result, when Clarence explains to George's dismay that his brother never saved his brothers at arms, 'because you weren't there to save him', we feel the loss that George feels, because we too were there when as a boy George saved his brother from drowning. Just as that moment in George's life is ripped from him, it's ripped from us, too, and it hurts. We are shown, not told, that Clarence's words are true: 'Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?' Even the smallest person touches dozens of lives without realising it, affecting the world around him in a tapestry of relationships and friendships that he himself barely glimpses. It's a Wonderful Life goes straight to the heart of the nature of a life lived in one community, ultimately touching and altering the lives of people that George has never even met. And finally, when George returns home to his friends and family to find that they have raised the money that his bumbling uncle left at Potter's bank, we weep, just as George weeps, as he reads Clarence's send-off, that 'no man is a failure who has friends'. Every year friendships bloom and others wither, jobs come and go, people move away, people die. Every year I watch It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, and every year that last phrase seems to take on new meaning, reducing me each time to an ever-more embarrassing pile of emotion. As the spectre of failure (whatever that means) seems to loom greater with each passing year, Clarence's note becomes increasingly powerful. It's a Wonderful Life is the perfect Christmas film because watching it at Christmas marks the end of another year in our lives, with Clarence's words as the epigraph. No man is a failure who has friends.

Merry Christmas.