Thursday, January 04, 2018

Re-visiting "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946)

This past Christmas Eve, looking for something to do, I saw that a local megaplex theater was showing Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. I decided to go see it on the big screen, as I had just missed an earlier screening of the film at another theater the previous day, and although the film is hardly a "holiday tradition" for me the way it is for some people, it's still a film I like to re-visit every few years.

To be honest, it's a film that I always approach with some trepidation, because it packs such an emotional wallop that I know I cannot possibly go in to see it (or come out of seeing it) casually. In contrast to the hip cynicism (or outright cluelessness) from some quarters that chide the film as saccharine or sappy, It's A Wonderful Life is instead one of the most achingly honest, sincere films Hollywood has ever produced. That it was made at all is, frankly, a wonder. It ranks alongside Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) as one of the most emotionally mature films of the Classic Hollywood era.

Its message, that a man's life has inherent value beyond the monetary, is an extremely radical one, certainly a radical one in the Hollywood of 1946, and one unthinkable in our current age of unbridled Capitalism and consumerism run amok. It's not surprising that the FBI cited the film as subversive, anti-American, Communist propaganda at the time of its release (for reference, you can read the full report here). Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter is the very personification of the scourge of money, of valuing the almighty dollar above the well-being of humanity. His mean, petty theft of the money that means the difference between survival and disaster to the Bailey Building & Loan perfectly encapsulates the real danger of money: the power that it brings with it, and the ability to wield that power for the sole purpose of furthering one's own gain.

As I suspected, the final third of the film left me an emotional wreck. The celebrated fantasy sequence is an incredibly brutal and emotionally exhausting depiction of the dark night of the soul. There is a moment toward the end that I consider to be one of the very most beautiful in any. It occurs just after Stewart has returned to the spot on the bridge where earlier he had intended to end his life. After experiencing a harrowing vision of the impact his life has had on others around him, he pleads with God to let him live again. At that moment, the snow begins to fall again, silently, an indication of the affirmative answer to his prayer. It's A Wonderful Life is, indeed, a powerful celebration of life and humanity.

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