It's beginning to look more than a little like Christmas, and for many of us, the season wouldn't be complete without watching at least a few scenes from "It's a Wonderful Life." The movie wasn't a box-office hit when it was first released just after the Second World War, but it's become a seasonal favorite since. And garnered some critical acclaim. Some even proclaim it -- to use a much overused word in Hollywood -- a classic.
Quite aside from the story the movie tells, its own history is a testament to a wonderful life -- Frank Capra's. He had had a successful enough career before the war came, turning out populist classics in the best 1930s style, paeans to both Jeffersonian democracy and The Common Man that fit right in with the New Deal ("Meet John Doe" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)" But then came the war and, as FDR put it, Dr. Win-the-War replaced Dr. New Deal, and Frank Capra answered the call.
When the war ended, he was like a lot of returning vets, eager to get back into the swim of things and yet fearful, too, wondering if he still had it. By the time Capra got back home after making films for the Office of War Information ("Why We Fight"), a lot of water -- and blood -- had flowed under the bridge in combat zone after combat zone. Could he still pick a script, cast a movie with actors known and unknown who would be just right for the parts, put together the finances for a picture . . . all the things he used to do so well, but that now seemed so daunting?
As he told a reporter for the New York Times, "It's frightening to go back to Hollywood after four years . . . wondering whether you've gone rusty or lost touch. I keep telling myself how wonderful it would be just to sneak out somewhere and make a couple of quickie westerns first -- just to get the feel of things again." But that was a luxury, unlike somebody just starting out in the business, that an already well-established producer and director like Mr. Capra couldn't afford. He was too well-known to be making a film nobody would notice; any slips he made would make Variety, and probably earn some catty remarks from Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, too.
No, the famed director would have to find a great story to film and, just like him, Frank Capra picked an underdog -- an unpromising script that had been kicking around RKO studios for years. No wonder it had defeated the best efforts of various screenwriters to turn it into box-office material: Its thin plot had only one real idea -- a man given a chance to see what his world would look like if he'd never lived.
The rest of the story line was an uneasy mix of social criticism, humor and tragedy, preachy sermons and sheer fantasy. It even had an angel in the cast, and an incompetent one at that: Angel Second Class Clarence, who was still bucking for his wings. How make a movie out of all the discordant elements, much less a great one? In short, making this kind of film represented just the kind of romantic challenge Frank Capra would accept. With relish.
The finished product turned out to be more than a Christmas carol, for it also celebrates so many other themes dear to the heart of a certain species of American, a corny breed to which some of us still belong. Let us only begin to list "It's a Wonderful Life's" appeals:
- The combination of community and individualism, each re-enforcing the other to produce a quality in American society that neither could sustain alone.
- The work ethic and all the other Puritan values that go with it -- from delayed gratification to constancy of faith and ever-present purpose.
- America's image, and reality, as a nation of immigrants.
- Love and marriage and family.
- Small towns and great dreams.
The movie weaves all those themes together in a chiaroscuro of light and dark, for this story is not without its disillusions and disappointments, too, complete with a stony-hearted villain -- Old Man Potter, the very image of a Scrooge, but one who never saw the light.
"It's a Wonderful Life" still resonates with socio-economic causes, and political ones, too, that remain relevant even now. Like the contrast between old-fashioned local banking rooted in the community (like Bailey Building & Loan in the movie's Bedford Falls) and the kind of mega-banks and global conglomerates-cum-hedge funds that brought on the Panic of 2008-09 and the Great Recession that followed. The country is still struggling to shake off that disaster. Between a reckless government that inflated the housing market till it went bust and the big-time bankers who used those worthless mortgages to set off a financial panic, steady American prosperity didn't stand a chance.
The bipartisan decision to repeal the New Deal rules that separated ordinary commercial banking from the speculative kind (investment banking, it's politely called) was one of the saddest moves of the Clinton Years, and that strict separation needs to be revived. (Restore the Glass-Steagall Act!)
Maybe only a Frank Capra could have made sense out of all these divergent themes. More than sense -- for in "It's a Wonderful Life" he created an uplifting fable for his times and ours, too, and, let us hope, for future generations.
Some critics might not agree. Years ago I ran across a Critical Analysis of "It's a Wonderful Life" by a professor of American Studies at Boston University, bless his heart, who gave the film a thumbs down. Why? As he explained, while the movie shows that life can be "an enriching Norman Rockwell experience, it also can be smothering, where you end up marrying the girl you went to high school with, and you never get to go to Europe. . . . It tells us George [Bailey] is one of the most sad and lonely and tragic characters ever imagined. I cry when I see it."
The movie makes a lot of other folks shed tears, too, but not for the professor's reasons. They're the kind of tears that come on the happiest of occasions -- like weddings and birthdays and Christmases. Nothing in the movie is as sad as the professor's opinion of it. Take it from anybody who's celebrating the golden anniversary of his marrying his high-school sweetheart. And not getting to Europe is a tragedy? Try telling that to anybody who's still glad to have made it out of Europe's wars, hatreds, ideologies and persecutions -- all of which have a way of going together to produce a devil's brew.
Many a Christmas season has passed since I first read the professor's movie review and could only smile a wry smile at his all-too-knowing words. Here's hoping the professor has had many a Merry Christmas since -- and, yes, a wonderful life.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.