skip to Main Content

Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in It’s a Wonderful Life

Wonder And Cruelty: Ontological War In It’s A Wonderful Life

“It’s a Wonderful Life is a truly subversive work.”

-William S. Pechter

 

A Tale of Two Films

It’s a Wonderful Life enjoys nearly sacrosanct status in American film history. In 1998 the American Film Institute (AFI) released its list of the “100 greatest American movies of all time.” It’s a Wonderful Life ranked eleventh. When the list was updated in 2007, it ranked twentieth.[i] In 2006 the institute announced its list of the 100 most inspiring films ever made.[ii] It’s A Wonderful Life placed first. In 2008 the institute announced its lists of the ten best films in ten different genres. It’s a Wonderful Life came in third in the fantasy category.[iii]

Turning from assessments of renowned films to beloved characters, in 2003 the AFI revealed its list of American cinema’s 100 greatest heroes and villains. George Bailey was ranked ninth greatest hero.[iv] Reflecting these kinds of accolades, Roger Ebert argues that It’s a Wonderful Life not only “holds up [well] over the years,” it actually “improves with age.” As if that were not sufficient praise, he adds that “some movies…can be viewed an indefinite number of times. Like great music, they improve with familiarity.”[v] According to Ebert, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those movies. Given this acclaim, the cinematic bona fides of It’s a Wonderful Life define impeccable.

It’s a Wonderful Life premiered on December 21, 1946. It had been slated for post-holiday release in late January 1947, but RKO’s designated holiday picture, Sinbad the Sailor, ran into production problems, so It’s a Wonderful Life was released ahead of schedule. The box office results were disappointing, even demoralizing.[vi] The film actually lost money. This financial fiasco was not due to cost-consciousness. With a budget of nearly four million dollars, It’s a Wonderful Life constituted Capra’s most expensive film.[vii] While it was nominated for a handful Academy Awards, including best picture, director, editing, and actor, it was shut out of the major categories. Lily Rothman conjectures that the post-World War II mood more or less doomed the picture in advance.  Market conditions were grim and people were not looking for dark content in the few dollars they were willing to devote to movie-going. Frank Capra favored the market explanation, but the phenomenal success of The Best Years of Our Lives at both the box office and in awards season casts serious doubt on these claims.[viii]

This is not to say that the film went unappreciated in either popular or critical circles. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it a “quaint and engaging modern parable on virtue being its own reward.”[ix] Time magazine declared, “It’s a Wonderful Life is a pretty wonderful movie,” with but one rival for best movie of the year (The Best Years of Our Lives). What’s more, “fantasy or not, this movie is twice as lifelike as most Hollywood whimsies which are offered with straight faces as slices of reality.” Admitting nonetheless that the film might have been “dully preachy,” the review compliments “director Capra’s inventiveness, humor and affection for human beings” to “keep it glowing with life and excitement.”[x] James Agee called “Capra’s first film since those he made for the army…one of the most efficient sentimental pieces since ‘A Christmas Carol.’” Agee was not, ultimately, a fan of the film, but, given Capra’s undeniable narrative skills, it took him several weeks to figure out the reasons why.[xi] Still, the contemporary reaction to It’s a Wonderful Life did not exactly presage its later revaluation.[xii]

The film’s immense popularity can be traced to its heavy-duty circulation on public television during the holiday season, which began in the 1970s following its loss of copyright protection.[xiii] Prior to this surge of celebrity, the film lingered for decades in relative obscurity. While Frank Capra was an established filmmaker when he made It’s a Wonderful Life, earning renown in the 1930s with It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the eventual success of the film surprised, even mystified him. In a Wall Street Journal interview in 1984, Capra admitted: “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. The film has a life of its own and now I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like the parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud…but it’s the kid who did the work.”[xiv] Regardless of whatever credit Capra deserves, It’s a Wonderful Life has become a separate and distinct artifact of American popular culture inviting, even demanding analysis.

Not surprisingly, the reincarnation of It’s a Wonderful Life has generated a new wave of criticism. To some the film’s sentimental affection for love, family, friendship, and sacrifice in small-town America come across as quaint and anachronistic. While the mawkish aspects of the film were noted when it was originally released, recent critics have pushed this line of thought to its logical conclusion. The Pottersville depicted in the so-called unborn sequence represents not a dystopian night terror but, ironically, the better, more exciting life that George craved but was always denied.[xv] While there is an interesting moment of truth to this claim, turning It’s a Wonderful Life on its head and reversing its affirmations tends to drain the film of its tragic conflicts and ambiguity. Thus critics who argue that the film has earned its admiration but for the wrong reasons are themselves mistaken when it comes to identifying the right reasons.[xvi]

What is to be made of this interpretive controversy? Perhaps Frank Capra points in the right direction when it comes to understanding the enduring significance and value of his film. Following the mass slaughter of World War II, Capra wanted to make a movie to demonstrate the value of the individual. This means that the film is a product of its time, but it also seeks to transcend the context of its creation. Relatedly, the film was meant to expose and counter the perils of atheism. (Ironically, J. Edgar Hoover’s red-baiting FBI considered the film’s negative portrayal of Mr. Potter as a ruthless banker bent on total control and exploitation of Bedford Falls tantamount to communist propaganda.[xvii]) Capra nevertheless seemed to think his film was not about politics—hence his rejection of Dalton Trumbo’s original screenplay. Joseph McBride argues, “Already by 1946, politics for Capra had become a dirty word.” Despite whatever fears he possessed in a tense post-war world in which the Communist threat was quickly becoming a national obsession, Capra seemed more concerned about the film’s presentation than its possible implications. McBride thus also writes, “The harsh, explicit social criticisms of Trumbo’s script cut too close to the bone for Capra.”[xviii]

No doubt, but Capra had his own political commitments and, even if they weren’t necessarily left or Marxist, they were definitely communitarian. He wanted to make a film about the significance of the individual, but the individual in a larger social and political setting where faith played a crucial role in any conception of a good life. What’s more, Capra, despite what he later claimed, made a deliberately provocative film that would force people to reflect on what they’d just seen, regardless of how they reacted to it. As Robert Ray notes, “The movie’s principle narrative tactic was juxtaposition. Throughout, it alternated sharply between optimism and despair, following scenes appealing to one set of values with others appealing to their opposite.” If that wasn’t enough, “It’s a Wonderful Life’s large narrative segments contained smaller units structured around contradictory imagery….At certain points, even individual shots [Ray cites the wedding night in the Granville house] included conflicting codes.”[xix] In other words, the film relentlessly lays into the audience, producing what Ray calls “violent effect[s].”[xx]

While Capra’s cinematic agenda might sound melodramatic, let’s take him at his word (more or less) and think of It’s a Wonderful Life as a cultural showpiece that enacts a spiritual war for the very soul of human beings, in this case George Bailey. It pits against each other two distinct, well-matched forms of life and conceptions of the good that refuse, at least initially, to yield in their contestation.[xxi] And while it might appear that one of them emerges victorious, the outcome could also be described as a Pyrrhic victory that settles nothing.[xxii] In other words, while the film concludes on an upbeat note, there is every reason to believe that the war continues and peace terms do not exist. To make this case, I bring a Nietzschean perspective to bear on the film—not just to oppose and complicate dominant understandings of the film (especially its resolution) but also to articulate and recover a noble form of life that, ultimately, receives short shrift in the film and disappears from view thanks to George Bailey’s reintegration, however nominal it might also be, into Bedford Falls.[xxiii]

Ontological Settings

Many viewers find the opening sequence of It’s a Wonderful Life hopelessly mawkish.  Joseph McBride even considers it part of “Capra’s postwar regression.” Though he concedes that this “limitation” was “built into the original story,” what McBride calls the film’s “recourse to the supernatural” constituted a “blatant manipulation by the director.”[xxiv] Perhaps, but it’s also possible to applaud Capra for It’s a Wonderful Life’s ontological candor. A dimension that most filmmakers would ignore or smuggle into a film while doing their best not to call undue attention to it, Capra announces and articulates outright. Thus, as the film begins, nothing but unidentified voices are heard, people appealing to God to help a man at a desperate moment in his life. These voices (which can be retrospectively identified) belong to various family members and friends of George Bailey, the film’s protagonist played by Jimmy Stewart. His value as husband, father, and friend is evident. Their prayers, we can assume, will not go unanswered. In heaven an angel named Joseph and his unidentified superior discuss the situation, one for which they had been waiting.[xxv] “George Bailey. Yes, tonight’s his crucial night.” Apparently the crisis from which George suffers is a familiar one. It is certainly not new—not to them. Tonight is “his crucial night.”[xxvi]  Last night it was someone else’s crucial night. Tomorrow will find another person in crisis. It seems they routinely send emissaries down to earth to assist people. (The larger social and ontological implications of this practice are ignored.) It does not seem to be a crisis of faith exactly. Rather it is a problem of recognition.

These divine paternal figures summon Clarence Oddbody, who will become George’s guardian angel. This will not be his first mission. Clarence has been at this vocation for roughly 200 years without earning his wings. Does this mean he has not been able to save his prior assignments? Do people manage to kill themselves despite heavenly intervention? If so, how is this to be understood? Clarence is told that a man is in trouble and needs help. Clarence wonders if he is sick. They inform him that George suffers from something far worse: discouragement. “At exactly 10:45 p.m., Earth time, that man will be thinking seriously about throwing away God’s greatest gift.” Distressed, Clarence assumes that George is about to throw away “his life” (my emphasis). He is mistaken. Strictly speaking George’s life is not his own. It is a gift from God and comes with a number of responsibilities attached to it, including living it properly, which means to its natural end. This is the command structure of the relationship between Creator and His Creation. It is not to be lived simply as one pleases for as long as one pleases (or not). The claim that George is not rejecting life itself but one particular form of it would be dismissed out of hand. The description from on high of George’s problem matters. Sickness might suggest something out of George’s control, something for which he is not responsible. Sickness happens to people. Discouragement, on the other hand, indicates that George’s problem is attitudinal, something (very much) under his control, and thus a temporary difficulty that can be corrected with the right dose of “support.”

First and foremost, then, It’s a Wonderful Life is a film about order, the order of the universe as designed by its Creator.[xxvii] God in Heaven rules over the human creatures He has created on earth—creatures He has created for a purpose. Refusal of that purpose is forbidden. When Clarence informs George that he prevented his suicide, the toll keeper listening to their conversation says, “It’s against the law to commit suicide around here,” to which Clarence responds, “Yeah, it’s against the law where I come from, too.” It’s never said what would happen to George if he succeeded in killing himself, but the very fact that Clarence has been dispatched to prevent it demonstrates not only George’s importance to Bedford Falls, as we will see below, but the seriousness of violating God’s most basic prohibition. Not surprisingly, then, Capra opens the film by delineating this order with a seamless movement from Bedford Falls’ rooftops to the stars of the heavenly domain above, suggesting that God (or his designated agents) keep close watch on what His beloved children are doing below. It also suggests an active and interventionist God who takes action when He decides that it is called for. This locates (and puts) human beings in their proper place in the order of things. They are made central, but also reduced and humbled.[xxviii]

Within this ontological frame, It’s a Wonderful Life tells a post-World War II Christmas Eve story of a good man who experiences all the blessings of life, especially family—from the parents who raised him to the loving wife and children with whom he carries on the family name and tradition. This man is also an indispensable member of the community. In fact, he makes the community possible through his life’s work, a kind of calling to allow the people in it to live decently on their own terms. He sets an example by treating people based on the golden rule rather than the pitiless rule of capital. There’s just one problem: he doesn’t know, let alone appreciate, what he has or what he’s accomplished, which causes him great—but also needless—pain and suffering. He experiences a number of surprises (injustices, setbacks, disappointments) in life, but he’s unable to keep them in perspective, which renders him suicidal after one particularly distressing miscue. Thanks, however, to a timely call for intervention and some much needed assistance from those who love him most, he comes to recognize his extraordinary good fortune, namely, that he is living life the way it was meant to be lived according to God, nature, and reason. Though stunned by this sudden turnabout, he then accepts and affirms his designated and rightful place in the order of things.[xxix]

Robert Ray, invoking Casablanca, theorizes the (problematic) goal and moralizing sensibility of the film: “George was a Victor Laszlo who wanted to be a Rick Blaine, a Good Good Boy desperately trying to be a Good Bad Boy, who seemed to get most of the glory and most of the fun. The goal of It’s a Wonderful Life was to liberate George, and the audience, from the frustrations caused by this desire, which the film identified as mistaken.”[xxx] But George did not aspire to be Rick Blaine. Nor was he a Victor Laszlo. Though he didn’t know it, he wanted to be Robert Moses, power broker and master builder of New York City.[xxxi] In “How things will become ever more ‘artistic’ in Europe,” Nietzsche discusses what making a living entails. Men must adopt an occupation, a role they are to play in the economy. Most have this role imposed on them; a few enjoy the appearance of choice. Nietzsche notes the tendency of men to confuse themselves with their roles, becoming “the victims of their own ‘good performance.’” They have forgotten the part that contingency and chance played in this matter “and how many other roles they might perhaps have been able to play; for now it is too late. Considered more deeply, the role has actually become character; and art, nature.” Nietzsche describes a world of undue constraint and limitation.[xxxii]

George Bailey does not suffer from the confusion Nietzsche identifies. He never loses sight of the many roles he plays in Bedford Falls. More importantly, he never associates them with his character or identity. They are roles, nothing more. Nor does George assume that he “can do just about everything and can manage almost any role,” the presumptuous folly of more democratic ages and “the faith of the Americans today.” Rather, he is keenly aware of one vocation in particular he can—and must—play if life is to become thinkable for him, something he can affirm without destroying himself (which is not to say it is without cost, both to himself and others). George aspires to become what Nietzsche considers unlikely in this democratic age, namely, a great architect, someone with “the strength to build…the courage to make plans that encompass the distant future…a genius for organization.”[xxxiii] George models a great architect yet to come, at which the film hints repeatedly. In certain respects he has prefigured it already, which makes its full realization all the more intolerable to him.

 

George Bailey’s identity, then, was anything but fixed. He aspired to overcome himself.  And what desire he did possess was anything but mistaken. George could not and cannot be liberated from the frustrations of his desire because he cannot be liberated from the desire itself. It’s not something that he chose and can therefore discard whenever he wants or summons the necessary will. Insofar as the film converts the desire into George’s choice, however, something changed as easily as a suit of clothes, it assigns responsibility to George for the difficulties it (supposedly) causes. Later, Ray argues, “the truly subversive point about It’s a Wonderful Life, then, was its recognition that a man could have so many of the things promised by the American Dream (wife, children, job, friends, house, car) and still be unhappy. For the movie acknowledged that having one thing (domesticity) required giving up its opposite (adventure). George had chosen and was unhappy that he had had to do so—after all, the American myth had suggested that he could have it all.”[xxxiv]

Ray’s analysis may apply to some or most men, but it does not apply to George. Given his childhood, there is little if any indication that he ever subscribed to the American myth that he “could have it all.” George always understood that life entailed decisions and those decisions came with a cost—to himself and to others. Not all costs are the same, however. The loss attending some decisions is ephemeral because ultimately insignificant. Some losses, however, perdure and leave not just scars but open wounds. George’s very life always demonstrated that he could not have it all and he was still prepared to make decisions—for example, to leave Bedford Falls—without blinking. He could live with the consequences, however difficult they might be, of departure—including the loss of Mary. The number of escapes that he planned (and almost made) proves it. He and Mary don’t couple until quite late—not until Harry’s betrayal, which more or less consigns George to Bedford Falls permanently. He spent much of his life informing Mary that he was leaving town and thus leaving her behind (from her point of view). Pace Ray, this did not make him unhappy. He didn’t seem to give it a second thought. Ray continues: “It’s a Wonderful Life…demonstrated that myths that had outlived their basis could in fact become pernicious. It was clear that dreams of adventure only caused George frustration, because he lived in a world to which they did not apply.”[xxxv] As we will see, George’s dreams resulted in more than frustration. What’s more, Ray’s formulation suggests that George’s dreams were something to which George could put a stop; they were, at nest, unnecessary. But could he stop them? Dreams did not come to him willy-nilly in his sleep. Indeed they were something George indulged every day in his heart and mind, but this does not mean that George was (or could be) in control of them. In other words, George had dreams but they also had (hold of) him. Is it even possible to imagine George without his dreams? What would he look like? If it’s not possible, what does this say about the nature of his official identity?[xxxvi]

Despite its dynamism, the structure of the film effectively disallows these kinds of questions, and the dominant narrative device, the flashback, plays a key role in shaping audience reception.[xxxvii] This mode of narration is routinely deployed as a confessional tool. It is inherently subjective. With the voice-over that often accompanies it, the audience is inclined to believe in its authenticity. Truth governs the flashback. But here it must be asked: whose truth?[xxxviii] In It’s a Wonderful Life, George does not narrate his own life. It’s not his life, as I mentioned. Nor is he to be trusted to re-present it. Joseph orchestrates the flashback—to introduce Clarence, however briefly, to George’s life as a prelude to intervention. Joseph, given his (transcendental) status and (transcendent) perspective, possesses a monopoly not just on knowledge (“If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him, don’t you?”) but also on truth. What he relates to Clarence—and thus to the audience—is unquestioned and unquestionable. George, then, has no say (he is not consulted) about the presentation of his life or his identity. Defined by others, he is the object, not the subject, of the flashback. The external source (Joseph) of the flashback (implicitly) discredits George and anything that he might say, think, or feel that differs from the official line. Once again, he has no control over his life. Joseph controls it. He is the arbiter of the truth of that life, which is to be communicated, ultimately, to George through Clarence and through George, as he is made an example, to the audience.

The flashback does more than convey truth. Though it is not exactly clear when it comes to an end, the flashback still performs a critical role in the conclusion to the film. It returns the audience to the present (now that it has illuminated and explained) where a solution awaits to the problem at hand, a solution that is fitting and proper. That is the structural design of the flashback.[xxxix] In the case of It’s a Wonderful Life, George, once again, won’t be consulted. He will be informed, one way and another, of what is required of him henceforth. It might seem like he can accept or refuse Clarence’s covert invitation via emotional blackmail, but once Clarence is through with George he will have no “choice” but to acquiesce. And that is what matters. You don’t choose this life. It chooses you. It is God’s gift. Your role is to accept and affirm it as it is. The end of the film thus signals the end of George’s rebellion and the restoration of order. Heaven can rest. Or can it?

 

Notes

[i] Each judgment was rendered by more than 1500 professionals in the film industry based on critical reception, awards won, enduring popularity, historical significance, and cultural impact. See the American Film Institute’s website: http://www.afi.com/100Years/movies.aspx. See also: http://www.filmsite.org/afi100films_2007.html.

[ii] http://www.afi.com/100Years/cheers.aspx. To hear Frank Capra tell it in 1971, It’s a Wonderful Life was meant to be the most inspiring film ever made: for the downtrodden, the marginalized, the forgotten, the abandoned, the powerless, and the depressed. See Frank Capra, The Name above the Title: An Autobiography (New York: Da Capo, 1971), 383. He also thinks “it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

[iii] http://www.afi.com/10top10/category.aspx?cat=6.

[iv] http://www.afi.com/100Years/handv.aspx.

[v] Roger Ebert, January 1, 199, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-its-a-wonderful-life-1946.

[vi] The results were also surprising given that it was a Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart, a war hero making his big screen return after the fighting ended (while Stewart did not allow RKO to use his status to promote the film, it did not need to do so; everybody knew). The film’s marketing campaign was built on three seemingly solid pillars: on Capra’s fame and record (as mentioned); as a “happy family story” during the Christmas holidays; and as a romantic love story between two attractive figures. Capra and Stewart’s efforts to push the film through personal appearances and events after the holidays also failed. Basinger, The It’s a Wonderful Life Book, (New York: Knopf, 1995), 54, 62.

[vii] Joseph McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 526.

[viii] Lily Rothman, “What Makes It’s a Wonderful Life a Great Movie, as Explained in 1946,” https://www.f3nws.com/news/what-makes-it-s-a-wonderful-life-a-great-movie-as-explained-in-1946-time-snJTED. William Wyler’s grim account of life in post-WW II America earned over $23 million dollars, the second highest grossing film to date, and won Academy Awards for best motion picture, director, actor, and screenplay, among others. For whatever reasons It’s a Wonderful Life failed at the box office, the serious content of its subject matter is unlikely to be one of them.

[ix] Bosley Crowther, THE SCREEN IN REVIEW, The New York Times, December 23, 1946, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E00EFDE163DEE3BBC4B51DFB467838D659EDE. Crowther also criticizes the film (to which I will return below).

[x] Time, New Picture, December 23, 1946, Volume 48, Issue 26, 56.

[xi] James Agee, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” The Nation, December 28, 1946, 766, and February 15, 1947, 193.

[xii] Jeannine Basinger, surveying newspapers across the country and national magazines, sums up the response: “On the whole, however, reviews from around the United States were positive.” She also notes that it was “Capra himself [who] contributed to the legend of bad reviews in his autobiography.” On the other hand, “British critics hated it.” Basinger, The It’s a Wonderful Life Book, 58-59, 54, 66.

[xiii] Ebert, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-its-a-wonderful-life-1946. See also, “Why Wonderful Life Comes but Once a Year,” Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/1999/12/why_wonderful_life_comes_but_once_a_year.html.

[xiv] See Stephen Cox, “On a Wing and a Prayer,” Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2006, http://articles.latimes.com/2006/dec/23/entertainment/et-wonderful23.

[xv] See, for example, Wendell Jamieson, “Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life,” The New York Times, December 18, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/19/movies/19wond.html.

[xvi] “Lots of people love this movie. But I’m convinced it’s for the wrong reasons….‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to a grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people.” Jamieson, “Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life.”

[xvii] See Will Chen, “FBI Considered ‘It’s a Wonderful Life Communist Propaganda,” http://www.wisebread.com/fbi-considered-its-a-wonderful-life-communist-propaganda. Nine different scriptwriters worked on It’s a Wonderful Life (three before Capra acquired the rights to it), several of whom were later called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and two of whom were blacklisted, including Dalton Trumbo. McBride notes that the Daily Worker, the official paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain, gave it a “favorable review,” calling it the kind of film (“thought-stimulating”) Hollywood no longer tends to make. Ultimately, four people would receive screenwriting credit for It’s a Wonderful Life, including Capra himself. See McBride, Frank Capra, 510-512.

[xviii] McBride, Frank Capra, 521-522, 516.

[xix] Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency in the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 184.

[xx] Ibid., 186.

[xxi] Charles Maland argues that the film should be understood “by examining the two main conflicts confronting George: one is external, between George and Potter, the other internal, within George himself.” There is no doubt that George suffers from conflict, but when Maland avers that “George’s internal conflict is between his sense of moral responsibility, inherited from his father, and his personal desires for adventure, achievement, and success,” he simultaneously anticipates its successful resolution. Moral responsibility always trumps (mere) personal desire. Maland’s formulation of the conflict thus drains it of tragedy. A couple of pages later, Maland reveals himself when he compliments George for repressing, unlike Potter, “the selfish desires of his ego.” At the close of the chapter devoted to the film, Maland locates George’s conflict “in the American tradition as far back as the New England Puritans. In capsule form, that conflict is the desire to do good versus the desire to succeed and acquire.” Once again, Maland’s very presentation of the conflict privileges one side of it and thus neatly resolves it. Charles J. Maland, Frank Capra (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980), 140-141, 143, 150-151.

[xxii] Raymond Carney is right that “Capra has almost invited the unwary to misunderstand his movie, by apparently organizing it around a personal conflict of two contrasted characters—an ‘innocent’ named George Bailey and a ‘villain’ named Potter.” The conflict around which the film is organized is ontological and moral not personal, and while Potter plays a decisive role in the film he is not central to the conflict. Raymond Carney, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 379.

[xxiii] See Robert Ray, who writes: “And, despite Capra’s intent, It’s a Wonderful Life’s complications, like so many post-war movies, stubbornly resisted the consolation of its nominal happy ending.” Ray’s concerns, articulated later in the same discussion, do not operate at the ontological level developed here. Ray, A Certain Tendency, 182, 202.

[xxiv] McBride, Frank Capra, 523. Robert Ray’s analysis resonates with McBride’s: “the literal deus ex machina solution…implied failed beliefs desperately retained, an awareness that conflicting desires could now be resolved only in obvious fantasy. Indeed, the whole last part of the movie seemed to exist in a kind of conditional syntax, as if to say, “This could be so if you are willing to believe it.’ The evident strain involved in achieving the film’s happy ending implied that what had once been guaranteed as part of the American landscape itself, now rested on the most precarious faith. What had once been manifest had become a matter of belief.” Ray, A Certain Tendency, 204, 212. When it comes to the ontological foundation nourishing social and political projects, it’s always a matter of faith. These foundations are not susceptible of demonstration and thus proof. By calling the film’s conclusion a “deus ex machina” solution, Ray, by definition, discredits it. Yet there is nothing in the film that could prove that George has not been reunited with his family, friends, and community, or, if he hasn’t been reunited that the fault doesn’t lie within him.  The ending will feel desperate, fantastical, and strained if you start with something like a Nietzschean ontology of resistance and discord. If, however, you start with faith in a created universe designed to realize a certain moral good for human beings, you will be singing along with Bedford Falls as the liberty bell rings.

[xxv] In the screenplay, the other angel is identified as Franklin, supposedly after Benjamin Franklin. Capra chose not to include his name in the film. Michael Willian, The Essential It’s a Wonderful Life: A Scene-by-Scene Guide to the Classic Film (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2006), 3.

[xxvi] Emphasis mine.

[xxvii] George, on the other hand, does not think of the world in these terms. Until the crisis that drives the film, George displays no religious sensibility whatsoever, and once he does it is out of a sense of desperation rather than conviction or faith. To the extent that he considers cosmic question, he does not think in terms of God’s creation and its design details. Rather he thinks of the world in its immensity as “the whole vast configuration of things.” The formulation indicates a world that was not created for human beings by some creator that loved and cared for them and might intervene on their behalf. If anything, George proceeds as if the world is a mysterious place indifferent to human being and its struggles. To George this just seems to be the way things are, which is why it is not surprising—nor a cause for special concern—that people such as Henry F. Potter populate it. From the right perspective, Potter is nothing more than a “scurvy little spider.” And he is not the only such spider. Regardless, George neither over nor underestimates his place in the world, but precisely because of its vastness, it is full of wonders and possibilities.

[xxviii] The same logic of order applies to Clarence. He is at the bottom rung of the heavenly hierarchy, having been an angel for 200 years. He is generally obsequious to his superiors and even his behavior while on earth with George is monitored for its probity. Thus at one point Clarence has to account for himself and denies taking a drink while accompanying George on his late night odyssey of awakening.

[xxix] The ontological certainties of the film betray an almost surreal self-confidence. Nothing can shake them, not even the onset of a war like no other, World War II. When it is inserted into the flashback, Joseph offers the global conflagration a minimal introduction: “Then came a war.” While much of the western world was wondering if democracy coupled with capitalism remained a viable social and political possibility for governing human affairs or whether some form of authoritarian (or worse) system of rule was on its way to becoming the norm, Bedford Falls carried on in its usual fashion. Indeed, many of its sons served overseas and risked their lives for home and country (none was injured or died, of course). Mothers, wives, and daughters did what they could at home, too, to support the war effort. But what was an unprecedented upheaval for much of the world was nothing more than a brief diversion for a way of a life the truth of which continued undaunted.

[xxx] Ray, A Certain Tendency, 187.

[xxxi] See Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1975).

[xxxii] Nietzsche, The Gay Science, #356, 302.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 303.

[xxxiv] Ray, A Certain Tendency, 192-193. Here Isaiah Berlin’s claim that not all the goods of life are compatible and that to choose one is to lose another is relevant. Later I turn to Nietzsche’s thought for assistance in this essay, though, because it facilitates a discussion of the theme of subjectivity and violence.

[xxxv] Ibid., 193.

[xxxvi] Capra himself does not seem to appreciate the complexity of the masterpiece he made. Rather, he seems to think it is as straightforward as the story on which it is based. “I read the original idea—a few typewritten pages bound in Christmas covers. It was the story I had been looking for all my life! Small town. A man. A good man, ambitious. But so busy helping others, life seems to pass him by. Despondent. He wishes he’d never been born. He gets his wish. Through the eyes of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he not been born. Wow! What an idea.” Frank Capra, The Name above the Title: An Autobiography (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997), 376.

[xxxvii] The use of flashback is one of the countless ways in which Capra lets us know, relentlessly and redundantly, that we are watching a film, a work of fiction that will be highly selective in its presentation. It is the product of a cinematic art that calls attention to itself throughout the film, beginning with the opening credits (in which we see the pages of a book turning), the shots of Joseph, Franklin, and Clarence represented in heaven as points of light, and Joseph acting as a kind of projectionist for Clarence so he can watch the action unfold below him. It can also be seen when Capra deploys a stop-action shot, bridging the gap between George as a boy and George as a young man, so Clarence can get a good look at his (now older) face, which literally brings the film to a halt. Why emphasize the film’s fictional and cinematic status? It’s a way of suggesting that precisely because film is the product of deliberate human artifice, it can enjoy a closer, more intimate, even immediate relationship to truth. It seeks expression and revelation not correspondence and proof. It invents a world to portray the truth of it. The real world, on the other hand, governs the production and dissemination of truth, which can limit, obstruct, and obscure its communicability.

[xxxviii] I am indebted here to Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 2nd edition (New York: Routledge Press, 2000), 133-136.

[xxxix] Ibid.

 

This excerpt is from Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in It’s a Wonderful Life (Lexington Books, 2018). Our review of the book is here.

Steven JohnstonSteven Johnston

Steven Johnston

Steven Johnston is the Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah.

Back To Top