Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Film Ignorance #1: It's a Wonderful Life

Film: It's a Wonderful Life
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Frank Capra
Star: Jimmy Stewart
Reason for Ignorance: Saw it as a kid. Never got around to rewatching it

Ignorance Rating: 100% (10 Votes)

I've counted Frank Capra as one of my favorite directors for some time, and when the LAMB asked me for my three favorite movies, I picked Meet John Doe, often regarded as Capra's best film, as one of my entries. But I'll say this now, publicly: It's a Wonderful Life is better.

It's only fitting that I watched this movie on the same week I chose to make Jimmy Stewart my first Western star of the Week , because the only other possible choice was Gary Cooper - the star of Meet John Doe. Once again, I'm going to choose Stewart over Cooper.

Stewart really makes this film. He's always remembered, especially in this film but also in many others, for being the best, the brightest, the kindest, the most all-American of people. But this is a misremembering that we all fall prey to. He is all of those things, in this movie more than any other, but he always begrudges the town his kindness. In It's a Wonderful Life, he's sort of an Andy Griffith figure: he does everything right and is loved by the whole town, till his breakdown near the end of the film. But he actually hates the town. He calls it crummy. He wants to leave it and never set eyes on it again. And remember, the film opens with him planning suicide (much like John Doe); Capra is hitting us over the head, not with good-heartedness, but with the reminder that even those with the best of hearts fall victim to crushing despair. George Bailey doesn't stand up to Mr. Potter because he wants do. He just doesn't happen to see anybody else around who will, and if he doesn't, people will suffer. It all boils down to this: he is unwilling to ignore the suffering of others.

This is the brilliance of Jimmy Stewart, especially as George Bailey: he's the best American we could imagine, but not in a smaltzy way. He always stands up for the little guy, but we can see in his eyes that he doesn't really want to. He has to - it's the right thing to do. And he's rewarded with the everlasting love of the town Bedford Falls. But he never wanted that love. He never wanted to carry on in his father's footsteps. He never wanted to be an everyman, but rather an adventurer and explorer. So we love him, not because he always did the right thing and always had a kind word for everyone, but because he always did those things against his will. He's remembered as a cardboard cutout of righteousness and goodwill, but what he actually was was a complex and deeply conflicted character whose righteousness is the product of deep internal conflict.

The same could be said of this film and of Capra in general. Capra was a man of great optimism; even in Meet John Doe the optimism frequently shines. But if Capra's optimism always won out, it always did so in defiance of the despair that Capra clearly also felt. The role that suicide plays in both It's a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe is no coincidence. If Capra imagined for us the best of all possible Americas, he also reminded us that a better America requires the incessant navigation of despair, as the project of improvement and goodwill is constantly diverted or manipulated for the purposes of self-gain, by unscrupulous figures like Mr. Potter. Capra's greatest strength was always acknowledging these obstacles, but also always asking us to believe that they could be overcome. And that is why It's a Wonderful Life, and Stewart's performance in it, are among the best that I have ever seen.

Welcome to Film Ignorance. I won't always write such long entries, or such impassioned ones. But I'm glad you're along for the ride, and I hope you'll stick with me. I have a lot of films to watch, and it's always better to watch films with friends.


Joseph said...

Long and impassioned is good. :)

Nice review!

Sarah said...

i'm so glad you liked it! and yes, good commentary. i guess i'll have to put meet john doe on my list of movies to see in the near future.