Dec 24, 2008

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE or is it....Is Capra-corn as idealistic as it appears on the surface?

It's the holiday season which means of course that all the standard holiday films are making the rounds in people's homes either on Television or Blu-Ray/DVD. You know the ones I mean...HOLIDAY INN, WHITE CHRISTMAS, NATIONAL LAMPOON'S CHRISTMAS VACATION, THE BELLS OF ST. MARYS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, A CHRISTMAS STORY and of course, Frank Capra's 1946 IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE which I believe has already aired on NBC.

Recently the New York Times printed a story about IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE stating that underneath the flimsy Capra-cornesque flourishes, lies a deeply dark and disturbing movie. That article can be found here: WONDERFUL? SORRY GEORGE IT'S A PITIFUL, DREADFUL LIFE.

The article goes on to highlight that Jimmy Stewart's character, George Bailey, gets a fully raw deal as he's forced to sacrifice his life-long ambitions for a small town and seemingly unimportant and dreary existence. Every time Bailey creeps closer to happiness and achieving his goals, life slaps him down forcing him to compromise and settle.

It even goes so far as to say that the "nightmarish" Pottersville which Bailey sees during the part where the angel Clarence is showing George what life would be like had he not been born, is actually much more exciting and likely to be more profitable than boring old Bedford Falls. Then there is the revelation that thanks to certain laws, even though the townspeople bail George out of his financial quandary, there is still a very good chance that George Bailey could and would go to jail for his Uncle's screw up.

This is not the first article to explore the dark side of Capra's (what has become but was never intended to be a) holiday classic. David Thomson in his great book SUSPECTS which features "bios" of several movie characters as if they were real people, paints IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE as if it is a Film Noir, and several other critics have placed it in that category as well. (SUSPECTS btw is a fascinating and must read book).

I recently posted this article and some of these thoughts to my Facebook profile, but want to extend the idea here that perhaps "Capra-corn" is merely a facade. The other film which really highlights this is my favorite movie of all time, Capra's 1939 MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Columbia -- available on DVD) also starring James Stewart with Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell (who in 1939 had a stellar year appearing also in GONE WITH THE WIND and won a Supporting Actor Oscar for STAGECOACH) and Claude Rains.

In MR. SMITH, James Stewart plays a idealistic U.S. senator, appointed to the position when the man holding the office passes away. He's appointed by a corrupt business man -- Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) who basically controls the Governor, the Senators and the (unnamed) State itself.

The movie is most well-known for the finale which features a framed and disgraced Jefferson Smith filibustering in the US Senate (for those unaware of what filibustering is it means holding up the proceedings by staying on your feet, speaking continuously and never yielding the floor. There's a great season 2 episode of THE WEST WING that uses this as a plot device as well) rallying against the Taylor "machine" and trying to save his State and prove his innocence.

In the end (spoilers ahead) Smith, having been basically stonewalled by Taylor, collapses on the Senate floor, seemingly his attempt a complete failure. BUT THEN...a shot rings out and Claude Rains, the other State Representative that knew Smith's father and whom Smith grew up admiring, is stopped in a apparent suicide attempt and charges onto the Senate floor proclaiming Smith's innocence.

So as usual in the case of a Capra movie, the little guy wins over the big corrupt machine...or does he? Smith essentially is a beaten and broken man at the end of this movie. His attempts to reach his State are shut down completely by Taylor, and Taylor's machine is successful in painting the naive Smith as a lying, power hungry individual -- so much so that Smith receives letters during his filibuster demanding that he stop his "madness". Smith collapses nearly dead, vowing never to stop...but one wonders just how far he expects to go at that point given the opinion of his constituents.

Then there is the case of Claude Rains charging in to back up Smith. Rains' character earlier on is part of the machine that frames Smith, basically setting him up to be ruined when it is discovered that Smith's plan for a Boy's camp gets in the way of a Dam project that promises to put millions in Taylor's pocket. Does Rains get overcome by Smith's rantings and charge out onto the floor to back him up? No, absolutely not. In fact, instead of fessing up, the first thing Rains thinks of doing is taking the coward's way out and commit suicide. Had Rains not been stopped, would Smith have been cleared? Probably not. It's not until his suicide attempt is thwarted that out of guilt (and guilt only) Rains charges onto the floor and clears Smith of all wrong doing. Not only are Rains' character motivations in this moment questionable, but the act of him suddenly coming clean seems tacked on but the movie requires closure, and having Stewart's character lose would be unacceptable.

One wonders if Smith's rantings and subsequent clearing will really have any affect. Of course there would be hearings, and Taylor would probably end up in court, if not jail and the Governor and Rains impeached and probably imprisoned for corruption. But do Smith's actions clear the way for a corrupt-free Senate? Probably not. One would think that if Smith's State was so corrupt, that many of the other 47 (there were only 48 States in 1939 as Alaska and Hawaii had not yet joined the Union) probably were just as bad if not worse.

Capra films are a product of the Great Depression. The little guy, the agrarian, taking on the big city corruption that Capra points at being the reason of all the country's trouble and "winning." Perhaps in this current economic hardship, it is time to take another look at films such as IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934, Columbia -- Best Picture of 1934), YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938, Columbia -- Best Picture of 1938 also with James Stewart and Jean Arthur), AMERICAN MADNESS (1932, Columbia), MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936, Columbia), LADY FOR A DAY (1933, Columbia) and the rest of Capra's work, especially in the 30s and 40s (okay, maybe not DIRIGIBLE - 1931, Columbia) and find that maybe Capra wasn't as optimistic as his films lead us to believe.

Just a note for those in Los Angeles. The American Cinematheque will be screening MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON on January 2 at the Aero theater in Santa Monica as a sort of a tie-in with Barack Obama Presidential inauguration (they are also screening IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE at the Egyptian in Hollywood on January 1). I find this quite timely, given the recent scandal involving Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich being accused of trying to sell the President-elect's vacant senate seat.

Also of note is a great SIMPSONS episode (not sure of the season) where Mel Gibson hosts a test screening of his MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON remake in Springfield, and Homer helps him re-develop the ending which features Smith going postal on the Senate floor.