It's a Miserable Life
The Abiding Darkness of a Capra Classic
dir. Frank Capra
Alongside Kafkaesque, Felliniesque, and Beatlesque, Capraesque is the most flagrantly misused quasi-adjective in the critical lexicon. Where the first three words stand in respectively for "creepy," "weird," and "catchy"—thereby eliminating all the specificities that might make the terms useful—the last one, in the popular shorthand, means "heartwarming." This isn't wholly inaccurate; "heartwarming" is where Frank Capra's films usually wind up. The problem is that by reducing Capra to sweetness and light alone, the description skimps on the human desperation and emotional brutality those films portray on the road to their life-affirming and, indeed, heartwarming endings. For evidence of the gap between what is and what is meant by "Capraesque," one need only examine Capra's greatest work, the ubiquitous holiday chestnut It's a Wonderful Life.
It's a film whose key moments are more familiar to most Americans than the Bill of Rights. Every year around this time, the parade of its iconic scenes becomes inescapable: James Stewart and Donna Reed falling into a swimming pool while dancing the Charleston; Stewart stumbling ecstatically through the streets screaming "Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls" for all he's worth, and, chestnuttiest of all, Stewart's winking congratulation to the angel who's just gotten his wings—"Atta boy, Clarence." And, stuck on infinite cultural repeat, these bits are as cloying as they are context-free. It's not hard to see why a lot of people can hate It's a Wonderful Life without having actually seen it. But they're wrong, and they, like you, should brave the elements to see this overplayed-yet-eternally-underrated masterwork at the Grand Illusion by (or on) Christmas Day. And again next year. And the year after that. Because seeing it in a theater might be the only way to remember that this isn't a piecemeal collection of syrupy moments stapled to the litany of holiday bullshit we all still have to annually endure. It's actually a movie. A great movie. A work of art.
It's no accident that those excerpts comprise the distillation of the film: They're obvious highlights and instant reminders of the deeply gratifying "hee-haw" that lies at the heart of the story. They're also a good deal more lighthearted than the long dark night of the soul that separates them. Prior to the famously uplifting climax, It's a Wonderful Life seems an ironic title for a film whose main purpose seems to be portraying just how miserable one man's life can be.
En route to his tearful redemption, our George is put through a Job-like incrementum of humiliation, emasculation, and depredation, all of which issue from his inability to be selfish. His father's death ensures that he will remain at home to preside over the family's building-and-loan company, at the expense of all his hopes and dreams. For the rest of his life, George is destined to dine on small potatoes. He gets married, moves into a crumbling house—the only one he can afford—and scrapes out a living, watching his boyhood friends become millionaires, his baby brother become a war hero, and his nemesis, imperious Mr. Potter (the great Lionel Barrymore), become richer and more powerful with every passing year. Along the way are humble rewards, but they are swallowed up by an accretion of hard disappointments that eventually lead him to the brink of suicide.
George's hardships, like much of the film's construction, are the stuff of melodrama. James Agee called Life "one of the most efficient sentimental pieces since A Christmas Carol," and he wasn't far from wrong... except that sentimentality is unearned emotion, and no movie hero ever earned it like George Bailey.
The film's power to make you cry doesn't issue from bathos, but from the tiny moments of human anguish Capra captures throughout: the righteous fire in Jimmy Stewart's belly when he calls Potter "a warped, frustrated old man," and later, "nothing but a scurvy little spider!"; the quaking passion as he grips Mary and cries, "Now, you listen to me! I don't want any plastics, and I don't want any ground floors, and I don't want to get married, ever, to anyone!"; his impotent fury as he kicks shut the door of his old car, slams the banister post, clutches his son while silently sobbing. Capra's eye for despair extends to the supporting cast as well: Mr. Gower's drunken tears ("Ask Dad, he'll know!") and the vicious slaps that make young George's ears drip blood; Uncle Billy's pathetic apologies for misplacing a huge deposit; Violet's dissolution from comely young flirt to fallen woman. These scenes are shot plainly, and played with unflinching ugliness; one could argue that Capra is piling it on. But the film's morality—angels and wings aside—comes from its profound admiration of the human capacity for punishment and renewal.
Shortly after Life's 1946 release, Agee, one of the earliest "serious" film critics whose work is still worth reading, noted the film's grueling aspect. "Often," he wrote, "in its pile-driving emotional exuberance, it outrages, insults, or at least accosts without introduction, the cooler and more responsible parts of the mind." These aesthetic cautions are followed, however, by a telling addendum: "It is nevertheless recommended," Agee allowed, "and will be reviewed at length as soon as the paralyzing joys of the season permit." Paralyzing joys are the very heart of George Bailey's dilemma; they are, to borrow words from George's father, "deep in the race." The sacrifices George makes for being "the richest man in town" resonate bitterly even as they lead to the finale's effusive payoff. Those sacrifices are what make It's a Wonderful Life, in all its "Capraesque" glory, endure.
Originally published Dec 13, 2001. It's a Wonderful Life plays at the Grand Illusion through Dec 30.