Blog Directory CineVerse: Want to know why It's a Wonderful Life rings so many bells? Read on...

Want to know why It's a Wonderful Life rings so many bells? Read on...

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Don't make the mistake of relegating "It's a Wonderful Life" to the Christmastime-only corner and chalking it up as just another disposable film fairy tale churned out by the Hollywood factory during its golden era. IAWL offers an embarrassment of riches just waiting to be discovered--and chances are you have yet to identify many of these facets, despite viewing the movie countless times. Here's a guardian angel of a guide that can help you navigate through a film that is much more complex and worthy of deep examination than you might have thought:

Ingrained repetition: What sustains the film's longevity could be the established ritualistic tradition it has become. You must either be a cave dweller or movie hater to have not heard of the film by now and to have seen at least some of it on television over the holidays. Consider that this is one of only a handful of classic films still shown annually on network (non-cable) television—the only others are the Wizard of Oz, The Ten Commandments, and the Sound of Music.
Maybe what draws contemporary audiences most to IAWL is its power to invoke hometown nostalgia, its sense of close-knit community and simple human values--all of which are becoming ignored concepts today in our ultra-urbanized societies (ask yourself: could a Bedford Falls' ever exist again on earth?).
IAWL functions as a fine drama, comedy, romance, and even film and psychological thriller—offering something for every viewer.
Despite some dated elements, its ideas and themes are refreshingly modern: George Bailey may have a wonderful life thanks to his family, friends, and good-hearted nature, but he’s also been shown how dark and seedy the world can be and he’s tasted the bitterness of an unfulfilled dream (sacrificing his dream of becoming an architect and travelling the world.
o In fact, according to writer Rich Cohen: ““It’s a Wonderful Life”…is really the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made.” “If you were to cut “It’s a Wonderful Life” by 20 minutes, its true subject would be revealed: In this shortened version, George Bailey, played by a Jimmy Stewart forever on the edge of hysteria, after being betrayed by nearly everyone in his life, after being broken on the wheel of capitalism, flees to the outskirts of town, Bedford Falls, N.Y., where he leaps off a bridge with thoughts of suicide. That’s the movie: The good man driven insane.” “Look again at the closing frames — shots of Jimmy Stewart staring at his friends. In most, he’s joyful. But in a few, he’s terrified. An hour earlier George was ready to kill himself. I don’t think he’s seeing the world that would exist had he never been born. I think he’s seeing the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.” “George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn’t know it. Because he was seeing the world through his eyes — not as it was, but as he was: honest and fair. But on “The Night Journey,” George is nothing and nobody. When the angel took him out of his life, he took him out of his consciousness, out from behind his eyes. It was only then that he saw America. Bedford Falls was the fantasy. Pottersville is where we live.”
o Film Spectrum blogger Jason Fraley also posited: “The internal struggle of America is right there in George Bailey’s angst. Should we engage in overseas adventurism, or turn inward toward the domestic? Should we focus on the rugged individualism of the private sector, or the social safety nets of a compassionate public sector? And should we chase the notion of exceptionalism, or be an important piece of a larger whole? Capra seems to say that America works best when both parts are in their proper proportions. In a world of bank bailouts and home foreclosures, It’s a Wonderful Life is just as relevant today as it was in 1946.”
I believe a lot more of us can relate to the George Bailey who remains in Bedford Falls than the would-be George who went off and “conquered the world,” as Potter put it—the destiny achieved by someone like Sam Wainright who made a fortune selling plastics. George has had to acquiesce, compromise his original vision, and assume the legacy of his father—also a good man. But this path can lead to frustration and resentment. Fortunately, George has a strong social network of family and friends and a grounded morality that keeps him from getting too down on himself.
Other relevant themes and messages still apply, too: 
o the struggle of the little guy to get ahead in a rigged system run by oligarchs; 
o the depths of personal depression, based on negative personal circumstances, that can drive a person to despondency and surrender; 
o the profound butterfly effect that each individual human being can have upon his fellow man and environment; 
o the dark underbelly that can exist beneath our glass-half-full outlook on the world; and more.
Also, this movie is timelessly epic and intrinsically American; according to Fraley, “It’s a Wonderful Life may very well be the most American film ever made, spanning the most consequential period of American history. George Bailey brings us through the first half of the 20th century like Forrest Gump brings us through the second.” IAWL covers the post-World War I era, Roaring Twenties, Great Depression, World War II, and post-WWII America as only the cinema can, through the power of montage, flashback, vignettes, voiceover, and other techniques. 

Every major character has symbols and motifs associated with them:
o George is linked to broken down machinery or makeshift technology—his old jalopy of a car, the snow shovel he uses as a sled, the ramshackle house he moves into, the broken railing cap, the fence door that won’t open, the second-hand luggage he accepts as a gift, and the “shabby little office” he works in. This imagery contrasts nicely with the perfect machinery that eludes him—the train waiting to take him out of town, the nicer cars he admires, and the rich man’s office he covets. The words “broken down” are often used by George or in reference to George, as well; and remember that George is denied military service due to his bad ear.
o Mary and her children are correlated with flowers—the corsages she wears in many scenes, the hydrangea bushes she hides in, the floral garden in front of her mother’s house, the floral wallpaper in that same house, and Zuzu’s flower petals and bedroom furniture featuring floral designs.
o Interestingly, there’s a dichotomous geometric pattern at work in this film: Mary is associated with rounded objects (the moon she wants George to lasso, phonograph records, her mother’s round-shaped phone receiver, Christmas tree ornaments, the ice cream scoop, rocks used to break windows, flowers, and a loaf of French bread), while George is paired with straight lines and sharp angles (the homes and buildings he didn’t get to build but which he’s lending out money for, office doors and counters, dollar bills, a tree trunk, the bridge, cage bars, travel brochures and posters, the clothesline, picture frames, the lasso rope, and his draftsman table and tools). These patterns coalesce when we see Mary and George in the pregnancy reveal scene: the headboard of their bed features rounded corners surrounding straight bars.
o Uncle Billy is associated with sympathetic, simple-minded, stray animals—the squirrel and raven.
o Clarence is named “Odbody” for a reason: he’s a walking oddity who likes old books, antiquated clothing, and old-fashioned libations.
o The color black is assigned to Mr. Potter, who sports a predominantly black wardrobe that includes black ties and hats (contrasting with Uncle Billy’s white hat), dark and ornately carved furniture, and an eerie black skull and black globe lamp that adorn his desk. 
o Harry exemplifies balance (remember him acrobatically carrying three pies?), dexterity and natural skill (for which he becomes a decorated war hero), good luck (he survives his wartime missions and marries a beautiful woman), and front page popularity—in contrast to George’s older and “broken down” body and spirit.
Symbolic commentary via clever misc-en-scene: consider the changing walls of the Bailey home—Mary wallpapers the walls with pastoral prints, but later we see an anchor pattern on the wall adjacent to George after he returns home tired and angry from a tussle with potter; the anchor reminds us of his dream of travelling and also suggests he’s tied down. Think, too, of the butterfly framings/paintings on the walls of George’s parents’ home and Mary and George’s house, suggesting the elusive freedom that George cannot grasp. Also, recall the clothesline that spatially and symbolically separates George and Clarence within the bridge operator’s room—suggesting that Clarence is on a higher ethereal level than George.
Foreshadowing:  that same clothesline image, shown in the same titled angle, is echoed earlier in the bedroom scene where Mary reveals she is pregnant—it’s off in the corner, a strange portent of things to come. In the same scene, consider the odd placement of the pull-string with a loop at the end that comes between George and Mary lying in bed—visually insinuating a noose (that foreboding symbol of suicide/doom). Vertical bars and shadows are also prevalent as foreshadowing devices—remember how, in that same bedroom scene, we see the shadows of vertical lines, like prison bars, behind George; earlier, George is separated from the building & loan throng by a steel gate that looks like a prison door; and Uncle Billy peers through the vertical bars on the front gate at the bank, another forewarning that bad things are imminent.
Misc-en-scene depth: we see richly detailed foreground, middle ground and background in many settings, especially Potter’s office, the Building & Loan office, the druggist’s back room, and even George’s living room. Everything we see has been carefully chosen to give us texture, backstory and characterization.
Leitmotifs (repeated musical cues): Buffalo Gals is repeated throughout the film to remind us of the loving bond between George and Mary; we hear “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” again and again as a kind of theme for Clarence; and “Hark the Herald” is played in connotation with kith and kin.
Long, uninterrupted takes: best evidenced in the famous romantically charged single shot where George and Mary, in close up, talk on the phone and fall in love; also, when George learns from Harry’s new wife at the train depot that Harry won’t be relieving him of his work duties; and when Gower the druggist first berates then embraces young George. Leaving important shots like these unbroken give these shots much more power and allow the actors to maintain a consistent emotional power and characterization that can be diluted when a scene is broken up into too many shots and counterpoints.
The famous freeze frame on George’s face when he accepts Gower’s suitcase gift; film scholars insist this may be the earliest example of a freeze frame in a feature film—preceding the ones used in “All About Eve” and “The 400 Blows” years later.
The “breaking of the fourth wall” that occurs when George turns his head and eventually faces the camera and us upon running away from his mother’s boarding house; this was very unusual for a non-comedy Hollywood film.

Populist values
The struggle of the everyday common man against the machine of politics, commerce, and corruption
Man conflicted by alternating realities (consider George Bailey: he has a lust for Violet, a need for Mary; he desires fame and success and to escape the confines of social responsibilities, yet he’s compelled to stay in Bedford Falls, mortgage his dreams to keep a positive cash flow)
Strong, charismatic female leads: other examples include Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds, You Can’t Take it With You; Stanwyck in John Doe, Colbert in It Happened One Night
The masses are like sheep and democracy can be dangerous: consider how easily manipulated people are in this film, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, etc.

A Christmas Carol
Meet John Doe, featuring another Capra character who plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve
The Best Years of Our Lives
Back to the Future Part II—in which another character sees a negative alternate reality version of his hometown
Groundhog Day
The Majestic

It Happened One Night
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Lost Horizon
You Can’t Take it With You
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Meet John Doe

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