“I’m at the end of my rope… show me the way…”
Frank Capra is often maligned (even occasionally by yours truly) for his tendencies to lean into sentiment and schmaltz, with his Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life receiving its fair share of those accusations. Even I avoided watching the film from start to finish for several years, having only caught glimpses of the “Buffalo Gal” scene and Jimmy Stewart running joyously through the streets of Bedford Falls. The movie is frequently and unfairly pinned as run-of-the-mill “Capracorn.” But in the 75th anniversary year of the film’s release, it deserves some exploration of why its popularity has never waned.
There are certainly elements of sweetness to the movie – it is a Christmas film, after all. But it cannot fairly be accused of comprising all sentiment with no teeth. While it is about (re)finding hope and purpose during the holidays, George Bailey must first lose those things. In this sense, It’s a Wonderful Life embodies more than a few elements of film noir, from its string of colorful secondary characters, to its exploration of the grimmer parts of life, to its central question of the innate value, if any, of a human being.
While the movie’s emotional heart and heaviest reliance on noir themes lies mostly its final act, it begins with a cinematic tool used often in noir – narration. In many noir openings, the protagonist himself will provide an introduction to the seedy town and grim story that’s about to present itself to an audience. In this Christmas movie, however, the narration is fittingly turned from cynicism to concern. The film opens with a series of prayers on behalf of the main character, George Bailey (James Stewart), and quickly cuts to the voices of three angels who discuss George’s plight. This is a fascinating take on the noir voiceover; it still lays out the dire nature of George’s predicament, but in terms more hopeful and appropriate for a holiday film.
This narration works in tandem with the snapshots we get of George throughout his life, as he both affects and is affected by his neighbors in Bedford Falls. He saves his brother from a near-drowning, permanently injuring one of his ears. He interacts with his to-be wife, Mary, when they are both children. And in one of the most moving scenes of the film, and the first in which some of the darker aspects of the movie are revealed, he prevents an unintentional poisoning by the local pharmacist, so tormented by the loss of his son that he gives the wrong pills to a client.
The colorful townspeople of Bedford Falls give the movie another hint of noir. Violet, the local vamp, Nick the barkeeper, Mr. Gower the grieving, drunken pharmacist, Bert and Ernie the local policemen, and kind but unreliable Uncle Billy are all unique personalities of varying temperament and intentions. And of course, the audience is also introduced in the first act to the villain of the film, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). An obvious answer to Ebenezer Scrooge, Potter is also in many senses a classic noir antagonist – willing to harm anyone in his path for love of money, scheming and plotting at every turn, and driven by greed and malice.
George’s emotional crisis is the point at which the movie takes its sharpest turn toward noir. Turmoil and grit are the bread and butter of film noir, and George’s despair gives rise to some of the movie’s most evocative moments in both pathos and cinematography. As George moves through the looking glass version of Bedford Falls with Clarence, its griminess and hard edge look more Dashiell Hammett than Frank Capra.
Many of the secondary characters in Bedford Falls become rougher, harder people who fit right into the world of film noir. Nick is gruff and violent; Violet appears to have fallen into prostitution; George’s mother is brusque and cold. The town, now called Pottersville, has become seedy and unfeeling, full of clubs, gambling halls, neon signs, and unkind people.
This snapshot of life without George, and the employment of noir staples to tattoo in the mind the bleakness of such a life, is brief but effective. The sans-George sequence includes some striking noir cinematography, and it culminates in a deliberately Dickensian scene in the local cemetery where George sees the headstone of his brother, who was drowned in the frozen pond because he had no older brother George to pull him out.
This grim vignette, Capra’s alternative to Scrooge’s excursion with the Ghost of Christmas Future, serves its purpose as a wake-up call for George, who cries to Clarence (and whoever else may be listening), begging to return to his real life.
And so he does.
Capra’s use of noir elements to show the decline and return of a George Bailey’s lease on life was masterful. And it lends It’s a Wonderful Life a complexity and grit that the movie is not always granted. Rounded out with a deeply emotional performance by Stewart and a deliciously evil turn by Barrymore, the movie’s mixture of noir and cheer is one of the reasons for its endurance with generations since its release (this formula also allows the film to overcome moments when it does ebb into molasses-like terrain). The movie is a classic for a reason.
Thank you so much to Classic Movie Muse for coordinating this blog-a-thon and inviting me to participate! Check out the main post, which links all the other wonderful entries.
Happy Holidays, everyone!