Saturday, December 17, 2005

Tis the Sleazin' of Joy [It's a Wonderful Life(1946)]

Some years ago Connie Willis wrote (via a mouthpiece character in a short story in her collection Miracle and Other Christmas Stories) about the undeserved reputation the movie It's a Wonderful Life as embodying the true spirit of Christmas. (I'd quote her at length, but our copy of Miracle was lent out a while back and not yet returned -- how about that for the spirit of Christmas.) She preferred Miracle on 34th Street (1947): the mystery of the existence of Santa Claus isn't really ever tipped, and the question about whether old Kris Kringle is krazy, or maybe it's just society that's insane, is left more or less open through the end of the picture despite some heavy sentimental tipping about what you're supposed to believe. This question of faith in the unknowable presence of an unseen spirit in life made mysteriously manifest twice a year (Easter, and revisionistically, Christmas) is the essence of religious faith, or whatever part of the human spirit that in turn becomes organized as religious faith. That's always been the overlap between the Santa and Jesus legends. Santa has become popular because of the equation of literal materialistic gifts with the moral code of conduct required to get them ("he knows when you've been bad or good" "he's making a list") and the annual nature of his visits, which is a lot more predictable than the second coming. It's a Wonderful Life has to trot out an actual angel from the first frame of the film to assure the audience of the literal intervention of divine forces in life, even one so ill-examined as George Bailey's. It's Santa Claus to Miracle's Jesus, and it shows up at the same time every year on TV, too.

I don't disagree at all with the estimable Ms. Willis, and it's hard for me to argue that Miracle isn't better storytelling on nearly every front than It's a Wonderful Life. The latter movie tanked at the box office, and has accumulated its reputation as a Christmas classic slowly over the years. How this happened, I am not sure: a combination of repeated exposure to the baby boom generation on TV and the cult of Zuzu's petals. Miracle, on the other hand, was successful enough that the film industry has seen refit to re-make it four times (thus far), and, like A Christmas Carol, has lent its basic plot to a gazillion other movies since. Faith lost; faith redeemed; faith embodied in the love between a man and a woman; innocence restored.

Yet for some reason I continue to be drawn to watch It's a Wonderful Life over and over every chance I get. I've absorbed what sweet tidbits Miracle has, and as a screensaver to the season it's pleasant enough. It's a Wonderful Life is a twisted, bitter, and clinically diagnosable suicide note, and not incidentally was basically the end for Frank Capra's career. It is not, not, a good movie: but dissecting it every year, I seem to always notice something different about the film that makes me thankful for small favors. Those favors are not exactly what the literal text of the movie suggests, of course.

Let's review from the back to the front of the film. The miraculous delivery of George Bailey at the end of the movie is supposed to be because of not only his own self-review of the meaning of his life, but because of the intervention by prayer of the many people who love George, intervention which has brought Clarence down from heaven (where the rigid caste system in force keeps Clarence from moving up one class of Angelness unless he saves George from himself). It's a whirlwind of problems solving themselves in the last two minutes of celluloid which belies the deeply depressing turn of events of the previous couple of hours. The feeling is nothing so much like Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge -- speaking of great movies about to be remade, although I am thinking more of the cynical concision of the original Ambrose Bierce. I think too of the little Edward Gorey ditty:

The suicide, as she is falling,
Illuminated by the moon,
Regrets her act, and finds appalling
The thought she will be dead so soon.
I have an acquaintance who was on duty below the Golden Gate bridge -- jumper duty -- who had the unhappy experience of fishing the bodies of suicides out of the water from time to time. He tells of one jumper who was still alive, most of the bones in his body broken, who muttered, "I guess that was a dumb idea," before he passed out (and I think later died, although I actually can't remember that part of the story.)

What else to make of the ending of Wonderful Life? George Bailey, faced with a living hell, jumps to his death. On the way down, he considers the alternative distopia to the ugly distopia of his own life, and decides after all it's worth living. Too late: but before he hits, his brain invents a happy ending with everybody he loves around him, fade to black, The End.

Capra made Life coming off his celebrated series of propaganda movies during World War II, and of course his strangely cynically optimistic "classic" movies of the 30s before that. Life reads like a little resume of the woes of the first half of the twentieth century leading up to the A-bomb, wrapped up in the style and mindscreen of the propagandist.

In the "Wonderful" version of George Bailey's life, his little town is dominated by the mean old Scroogian miser, Potter. Potter, unlike Scrooge or every last "villain" of Miracle on 34th Street, is left unredeemed at the end of the movie, still apparently in possession of George's $8000. (What kind of sadist makes the beloved Lionel Barrymore into such a disgusting villain? Well, probably Barrymore himself, but talk about casting against type!) In the alternative universe of George's imagination, the one where he'd never been born, the slavery of Bedford Falls to Potter is simply one of degree. Without the single hold out of the Savings and Loan, the town which has been a confining purgatory to George his entire wanderlust-encrusted life becomes a true living hell: booze, floozies, hopheads, wage slavery, poverty, unrelenting personal misery, and most literally, the ruin of the very house George restored from ruins in his "real" life with Mary. Some wonderful life. George had every reason to be bitter and frustrated, the way the forces of entrepreneurial capitalism and normative social moires trapped him in a town he hated. For all the supposed idealism of the small town setting, do we ever see Bedford Falls in the present in the light of day? It's Christmas noir

It seems, in the end, very unlikely it was the threat of prison and disgrace, fueled with alcohol, that suddenly gave George the idea of suicide. (And here's another loophole left unresolved: George couldn't have believed the insurance company would honor his policy if he suicided.) No, he must've been thinking of it for years, and finally reached a tipping point. That, in turn, is probably why I find the movie so clinically fascinating at this time of hope and redemption, while Miracle gets an obligatory nod and yawn. Another year, we're all still here, that's a good thing.

I have observed this particular point about It's a Wonderful Life in previous years. On this year's re-viewing, however, I noticed another bit of subtext that had escaped me previously. George's despair is all!

The clues are there on the surface, and they're pretty disgusting. Violet Bick, the town slut whom George "saves" by giving her money to get out of town for a fresh start -- in New York City? -- what was George thinking about? is shown trying to dangle her wares in front of Georgie at the age of 10, the innocent future Mrs. Bailey watching and waiting inches away. Violet has to represent the "wanderlust" that George has for travel and exotic experience -- for going to college ("there's a time and a place for everything, and it's called college") -- for variety outside of his humdrum predictable Bedford Falls life. His downfall is precipitated in part by the suggestion that his alleged embezzlement is due to some kind of pay off to Violet for favors we don't need to mention, wink wink. In the scene in Mary's house after she and George have walked home after their dip into the high school pool (nothing symbolic about that drop through the gaping crevasse that appears with the throw of a switch, eh), Mary's mother asks what the heck George Bailey is doing there, when good old Sam Wainwright is offering his considerable charms -- in New York City!!! -- just at the other end of the phone line. "He's Making VIOLENT LOVE TO ME, Mother!" she yells up the stairs, pausing the glance at George for his reaction. In George's alternative life, the one where he never existed, the final horror he has to be shown by Clarence, the ghost of Christmas present, is -- what happened to Mary? Clarence, shudders, reluctant to tell the horrible truth about what happened to Mary without George -- "she's an OLD MAID!" he sobs, and George is horrified. The state of continued virginity in the middle of the sin city that has now become Bedford Falls in George's absence is the WORST THING THAT COULD POSSIBLY HAPPEN. (Just to rub it in to poor Mary's character's fate, she is, of course, that classic stereotype of spinsterhood -- the librarian!)

So, in the end, George's sacrifice of his own wanderings and sexual adventurism is to save Mary from the worst fate that could possibly happen to a fruitful woman. In the world of Bedford Falls without George, everybody's gettin' some except for his putative wife. Zuzu's petals, indeed. He has to undo his selfish nihilistic act of suicide in order to redeem her. The path not taken, the path that would have lead to George breaking out of both the geographical confines of his town and the strict moral code of bourgeois middle class America, must be shown to be terrible, so the quotidian reality of his life can be palatable.

The final scenes of the movie show George being showered in money, the fruits of his loins restored to him, everybody surrounding him watching him cheering him on. It's a Wonderful Life -- but what a sick, sick movie.


Sherlock Jr. said...

Gee, I'd pretty much given up on It's a Wonderful Life as an emblem of the depressive season in favor of Shop Around the Corner and Remember the Night, but now I might have to reconsider. Thanks!

Matt said...

The Shop Around the Corner: One of the things I'm still puzzled about by this movie is why they kept the setting in Budapest. Was it to retain the 'old world charm', meaning some kind of different concept of the social relation that would be more believable if set abroad than in the United States? Yet I would think the setting would work quite well in, say, Bedford Falls, not even to mention some kind of madcap twist ala Rosalind Russell. I know it was from a Hungarian play, but when did that ever stop Hollywood? Was the play so popular and recognizable in the US in its Hungarian setting that audiences would demand the same in a movie version?

It goes beyond the setting: they were quite attentive to some details, such as having the foreign cash register, all the writing in Hungarian, even having the correct newspapers as incidental props. But there's no consistency with accents. What was Lubitsch thinking? (That's a genuine pondering, not a rhetorical question...)

colddirt said...

LOl, I bet some "old maids" cringed in the audience when this came out. That is funny how her being single was a horror. Also I like the Violet town slut with george angle.