Blog Directory CineVerse: George and Mary celebrate a diamond anniversary

George and Mary celebrate a diamond anniversary

Thursday, December 30, 2021

On December 20, 1946, an inconspicuous little picture called It’s a Wonderful Life first hit American theaters. Seventy-five years later, we’re still watching and talking about it, which speaks to its lasting influence, emotional potency, and ageless entertainment value. Fittingly, during Christmas week, our CineVerse group took a closer look at this most beloved of all Yuletide movies, and focused on several discussion points, as outlined below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

Why is this film worth celebrating 75 years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • 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.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life still matters because it offers something for every type of viewer: If you are religious, it’s one of the most spiritual films ever created; if you enjoy romance and comedy, it fulfills in those departments; if you’re a fan of noir, suspense, horror, or even science fiction, there are plentiful dark elements at work in the 30-minute fantasy sequence that can scratch those itches; if you appreciate outstanding acting, the movie boasts possibly career-best performances from James Stewart, Thomas Mitchell, and Donna Reed, in addition to tremendous turns by the numerous character actors in the cast; and if you are in the mood for a holiday film, they don’t come any better or more moving than this one.
  • It’s also worth celebrating 75 years later because, despite some dated elements, its ideas and themes are refreshingly modern: George Bailey may have had 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 traveling the world.
    • Per 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…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.”
    • Film Spectrum blogger Jason Fraley also posited: “In a world of bank bailouts and home foreclosures, It’s a Wonderful Life is just as relevant today as it was in 1946.” “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.”
  • The movie has remained evergreen because it is intrinsically American, certainly in its themes, characters, and situations but also in its wide historical scope. Consider, the film covers the post-World War I era, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and immediate postwar America masterfully, within the context of its characters and the situations they’re involved in, as only the cinema can—by using effective techniques like montage, flashbacks, vignettes, and voiceover narration.

In what ways was It’s a Wonderful Life influential on cinema and popular culture?

  • While they likely weren’t the first of their kind, the film’s long, uninterrupted takes and extreme romantic close-ups that possibly influenced later filmmakers (for instance, George Stevens, who would use some of these techniques in A Place in the Sun). Recall the famous romantically charged single shot where George and Mary, in close up, talk on the phone and fall in love; also, in the train depot scene when George learns from Harry’s new wife 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 gives them more gravity and allows the actors to maintain a consistent emotional resonance and characterization that can be diluted when a scene is broken up into too many shots and counterpoints.
  • There’s the famous freeze-frame on George’s face when he accepts Gower’s suitcase gift; some film scholars say this is among 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.
  • Posit 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 movie.
  • While all of these points can be debated as to their influential value or inventiveness, one thing cannot: This picture forever changed the way that fake snow was created and used in the movies. Before It’s a Wonderful Life, bleached cornflakes, asbestos, and cotton were commonly employed to stand in for the white stuff. But it didn’t look realistic; so Capra tasked RKO special-effects department guru Russell Shearman to devise an innovative new solution, which involved mixing sugar, soap, Foamite found in fire extinguishers, and water to create a more photogenic and practical end product; this invention ended up winning an Academy Award in 1949 and quickly became the go-to recipe for artificial snow in Hollywood movies for the next few decades.
  • Another indisputable truth about this movie’s influence: Contemporary creatives love to feature it in their works. Over the past several decades, It’s a Wonderful Life has made numerous cameos as a diegetic film – meaning it appears on a TV screen being watched by characters in a different movie or TV show – including Gremlins, Beverly Hills 90210, Bruce Almighty, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Sopranos, Home Alone, Cinema Paradiso, and so many others.
  • You could even make a case that certain aspects of Its a Wonderful Life – especially the dark fantasy/alternate reality sequence where George is never born – have been riffed on in countless subsequent films and TV shows, such as several episodes of The Twilight Zone, Click, The Butterfly Effect, Shrek Forever After, Bedazzled, Mr. Destiny, and Back to the Future Part II. And the earlier sequences in which George’s life is reviewed by heavenly powers are later echoed in films like Defending Your Life.

Is this James Stewart’s greatest performance?

  • Stewart commands this movie with his unique behavioral acting style. His charming mannerisms, tripping speech patterns, articulated facial expressions, and awkwardly lanky frame create an unforgettable and iconic persona. The playful spirit that builds to romantic tension while falling for Donna Reed's character is spellbinding, and this performance remains an eternal source of enjoyment for new and old audiences alike.
  • It’s hard not to be incredibly moved by the shot in Martini’s bar where Stewart conjures up real tears as he prays for divine help, or the earlier sequence where a thoroughly distraught George comes home on Christmas Eve and lashes out at his wife and children.

Why and how was Frank Capra the ideal director for It’s a Wonderful Life? What special qualities does he bring to the film?

  • As an immigrant child, Capra was impressed by common, everyday people whose lives he so grew to appreciate that his ambition was to someday project them onto the screen. Quite possibly his greatest talent rested in his power to represent the ordinary person’s strength to face insurmountable evil, thereby benefitting his fellow man. Capra realized this power early in his career when he decided to create films that would exhilarate the depressed spirits of the American public, inspired personally by his dramatic recovery from what was apparently a serious illness.
  • Capra envisioned the It’s a Wonderful Life narrative not as a Christmas yarn, but as a story intended for any time of year. He wasn't intimidated by the tale's dark implications of suicide and despair. He saw the potential for transcendence and inspiration, and the depiction of abundant human emotion. And, of course, Capra was already well-skilled in this art, as evidenced by his previous sentimental creations like “Meet John Doe,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
  • From the beginning, Capra conceived IAWL as his masterwork. He stated in his autobiography: "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.” “It wasn't made for the oh-so bored critics or the oh-so jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people.” “I think that a lot of people everywhere will be able to associate themselves with the character (of George Bailey) and will perhaps feel a lot better for having known him. People are seeking spiritual guidance and moral reassurance.”
  • Consider the cinematic techniques Capra uses to tell his story and imbue it with meaning. 
    • First, First, every major character has symbols and motifs associated with them:
      • 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 about George, as well; and remember that George is denied military service due to his bad ear.
      • 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.
      • 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.
      • Uncle Billy is associated with sympathetic, simple-minded, stray animals—the squirrel and raven.
      • Clarence is named “Odbody” for a reason: he’s a walking oddity who likes old books, antiquated clothing, and old-fashioned libations.
      • 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.
      • 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.
    • Further proof of Capra’s skills? Think about his symbolic commentary via clever misc-en-scene. 
      • Case in point: Ponder 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 traveling 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.
    • Capra is also a master of foreshadowing.
      • That same clothesline image, shown in a similar tilted 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. Also in that 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 previously mentioned bedroom scene, we see the shadows of vertical lines, like prison bars, behind George; earlier, George is separated from the Building and Loan throng by a steel gate that conjures up imagery of a prison door; and Uncle Billy peers through the vertical bars on the front gate at the bank, another visual cue that bad outcomes are imminent.
    • Give thought, as well, to Capra’s misc-en-scene depth. 
      • We are shown a richly detailed foreground, middle ground, and background in many settings, especially Potter’s office, the Building & Loan office, the back room of the pharmacy, and even George’s living room. Everything we see has been carefully chosen to give us texture, backstory, and characterization.
    • While he didn’t write the musical score, Capra was a proponent of 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.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in It’s a Wonderful Life?

  • No man is a failure who has friends.
  • The struggle of the little guy to get ahead in a rigged system run by oligarchs.
  • The depths of personal depression, based on negative personal circumstances, can drive a person to despondency and surrender.
  • The profound butterfly effect that each human being can have upon his fellow man and environment.
  • The dark underbelly that can exist beneath our glass-half-full outlook on the world.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life also shares common themes that run throughout many Capra films, including:
    • Man conflicted by alternating realities. Ruminate a moment on George Bailey: He has a lust for Violet but a need for Mary, and he desires fame and success and to escape the confines of social responsibilities yet he’s compelled to stay in Bedford Falls and mortgage his dreams to keep a positive cash flow.
    • The masses are easily swayed, for better or for worse, and populist values can be powerful: Consider how easily manipulated people are in this film, as well in Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and other Capra works.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • When it comes to gifts, It’s a Wonderful Life is like the magical sack Santa Claus carries, endlessly replenishing its contents with countless presents. But one gift many would likely put at the top is the film’s amazing capacity to draw contemporary audiences by invoking nostalgia in three key ways—a wistfulness for a simpler time, its focus on a close-knit hometown community, which, for many people doesn’t exist any longer, and its emphasis on fundamental humanistic values. Even if modern viewers didn’t grow up with those three elements, It’s a Wonderful Life can make them wish they did, which is an extremely impactful quality. Some are quick to criticize what they characterize as the mawkishly manipulative, over-sentimentalized nature of this film as a turnoff, “Capra-corny,” if you will. But it’s hard to name a more emotionally powerful picture, one that can instantly elicit humility, empathy, gratitude, faith in human nature, and, ultimately, tears – even on an umpteenth screening. If the mark of a well-made and meritorious film is to produce a genuine emotional response and allow the viewer to easily connect with and understand its characters and their conflicts, then It’s a Wonderful Life exceeds all expectations for a wonderful movie.
  • Its second-greatest gift is the stellar portrayal of a relatable and ordinary yet extraordinary man by the incomparable James Stewart. Stewart had many exemplary roles in his career that deserve consideration as his very best, including Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Elwood Dowd in Harvey, Jon Ferguson in Vertigo, Lin McAdam in Winchester 73, and Mike Connor in The Philadelphia Story. But many would crown his personification of George Bailey as the finest among that bunch.

Similar works

  • 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
  • The Majestic

Other films directed by Frank Capra

  • 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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