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Some notes on It's a Wonderful Life

Tuesday 12/26/23

The picture has a very high God quotient which is always overlooked. If it came out today, it may well be consigned to some religious category. The God quotient is overt, but Capra's larger point is that of the importance of believing in something bigger than yourself. He uses God, though, as one of those possible bigger things in the film, but is sufficiently inclusive that one has no sense of browbeating, that it has to be God per se.

Consider: The film opens with us eavesdropping on people's prayers to God. Imagine that now?

We then cut to angels--as blinking stars--talking, presumably in heaven.

When George heads out for what becomes his big night--his fateful night--he first goes to the bar. What does he do there? He prays. He had to go to the tavern to pray. It makes me think of Shane MacGowan, who understood so well the relationship between the sacred and profane.

What is George doing when he gets his life back the second time he goes to the bridge? He's praying to God.

Water. Water signals and cues change and rebirth in the movie. The saving of Harry and the subsequent loss of George's hearing in one ear. And yet he hears. He hears the word of God, if you like. Or of something bigger than himself. Think of the line about blind men being made to see. Water at the dance when the gym floor opens. It becomes a communal baptism, doesn't it? It is certainly a rebirth for George and Mary. And, of course, the water at the bridge, which I touched on a couple days ago. Water represents salvation in It's a Wonderful Life. You needn't get all religious, or balk that this is very religious. The self always requires saving--which is a product and process of growth--if we are to be as human as we might be and ought to be; that's ultimately why we are here: To be as human as possible. It is in doing so that we transcend "mere" humanness. That is the great paradox of existence. It is what so few ever realize, let alone master by method of fulfillment.

There may be no better use of diegetic sound in all of cinema than in the sequence--it feels longer than a scene, with more parts--when Janie chords on and on with "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" as George comes apart. It works the nerve, as his nerves give out on him and breakdown results, which we see manifested emotionally, mentally, physically--he even attacks the house, in a sense, by overturning everything in a corner of it--and spiritually.

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is a key component of this film, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge. These films would lose a portion of their power if they did not use that carol the way they do, which is very different in each film.

The part of that sequence when George holds his child like a terrified, desperate man: This is not a hug. In that moment George has had a thought, an idea for what he might do, might force himself to do. He is a man who is holding his child as if he knows it may be for the last time. It is also during this embrace--this clutching--that Mary realizes--when she sees George with their child that way--what is happening to this person she loves.

As soon as George leaves the house--it is near simultaneous--Mary begins effecting his rescue by making the first of many phone calls. She also answers the children when they ask what they can do for their father by saying, "Pray."

At this point in the story, we're actually back in the very first scene, time-wise, of the film when we eavesdropped on those prayers being made throughout Bedford Falls. We've been caught up. The present day story starts now. Enter, then, the horror film.

Nick at the bar: This Nick, in the alternate reality--the horror film reality--is queer-shaming George and Clarence. "Pansies" then meant "faggots" now.

Note how brutal the spraying of Mr. Gower with the water is. But again, water; here, though, the baptismal aspect is inverted and made brutal. It's not a rebirth, but a reminder of one's sins, lest anyone forget--or, worse, forgive.

Gower is terrified when George comes to his aid. The look on George's face, when he sees Gower's horror, is when he first understands that something terrible and not natural is happening. That the supernatural is at work.

A few words about Sam Wainwright. George stole his girl. Wainwright did not hold it against him. Wainwright tries to help George in the picture by raising his financial station, but also does not judge him negatively for declining. Wainwright is a hidden hero of the movie, or a subtle one, if you like. He's a hale fellow--that "hee haw" business was something he did as a kid and something he does as an adult and will do until his dying day. He is someone who would both enjoy the old reunion and who lives in the present.

There are all of these emotional climaxes at the movie's conclusion; it's very multi-orgastic, emotionally speaking. One climax would not do for Capra. But one that hits the deepest is news of Wainwright helping out from Europe. And who got in touch with him? I think people always miss this: It was Mr. Gower, the old man working the technology.

A Christmas Story (1983), takes place, in my view, during December 1940. Yes, there are all sorts of anachronisms and inconsistencies, but the popularity of The Wizard of Oz as evidenced in the film and the references to what we now call old time radio date it to that period. It's not December 1941. Pearl Harbor had just been bombed and you wouldn't have parades in the streets with what was happening in America at the time. People had gone for war. That was a much darker Christmas. So, really, the events of A Christmas Story and It's a Wonderful Life are only five, six years apart from each other, with those of the latter film occurring later. Seems hard to believe, right? A large part of the difference is one film is a pre-war film, the other is a post-war film. War and death clings to It's a Wonderful Life in a way which A Christmas Story is totally free of. You could argue--I think I just have--that It's a Wonderful Life is, among many things, a great war--and anti-war--film.

Orson Welles said of It's a Wonderful Life that it was impossible to hate. He meant that it was impossible for an unbiased third party to hate it. You'd have to be up to something otherwise.

Mr. Potter gets away with stealing the money.

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