Sunday, 4 April 2010

It’s A Wonderful Life...So I Don’t Need to Say Much

Other than being a prerequisite of Christmas It’s A Wonderful Life exists (superficially, at least) as in indicator of changing opinions on films. I suppose Citizen Kane already has that laurel (but I prefer How Green Was My Valley); but on the other hand this Stewart piece is such an obvious victor among its nominees even if eventual winner The Best Years of Our Lives is not undeserving of the title – best. The thing is, as I simultaneously bemoan the loss of the film it’s not difficult to see why it didn’t win. It’s A Wonderful Life exists as a film so comfortable in its sentimentally (but never wallowing). Its affirmation of family values is sweet but never maudlin. I’m well aware that the AMPAS is a group of persons and not a single (ominous) entity, but I often wonder if they are fine with being overly mawkish but don’t give their laurels to those that tread the middle ground. It’s not that It’s A Wonderful Life is not brave enough, it’s just wise enough to realise that being overemotional would only undermine the potency of Jimmy’s story.

Capra could not have found someone more epitomic of the everyman than Jimmy Stewart. Stewart has always been able to deliver a cadence that makes him simultaneously admirable and relatable and he brings it to full use in It’s A Wonderful Life – most likely his most iconic role. Yet, the conceit of the common man undergoing an epiphany after a bout with a celestial being is not exactly new; although it was relatively original for the time. Unlike its contemporaries (Heaven Can Wait, or its original Here Comes Mr. Jordan) the usually suave angel is replaced with an intermediate and somewhat bumbling buffoon – Clarence. Like in the characters in the film, though, Clarence is a representation of a specific type explicated by the actors playing them. For example: the aforementioned everyman in Stewart, the assertive but still meek (paradoxical, of course) wife in Reed and the greedy villain (usually, a representation of old values). The thing is, the strength of It’s A Wonderful Life isn’t lost by the ostensible glossing of characters. It’s part of its charm.
It’s A Wonderful Life is an ensemble cast form all superficial representations, but for me the success of this film depends completely on Jimmy Stewart. The man is such a brilliant actor, and exudes such a goofy charm that you can’t help but root for him whatever he’s going through. When it all comes down to it, it’s Jimmy that makes It’s A Wonderful Life for me (although Donna's prettiness, doesn't hurt), and as that final scene ends and we see his upward wink at Clarence I can’t help but feel a sense of happiness. It’s not Jimmy I’m watching anymore, but George.


Tom said...

Very nice review Andrew. I share your thoughts about the Academy's omissions; I've always felt that Jimmy should have won the Best Actor Oscar for this one. But at least he was nominated, and so was the picture. Also, I'm surprised the Lionel Barrymore was not nominated for Best Supporting Actor, one of cinema's great villains.

TomS said...

By the time "Wonderful Life" hit screens, audiences that had been pummeled by war and were anxious about their futures were growing tired of the Capra sentimentality.

A film like "Best Years" not only captured the zeitgeist, but it endures today as a prime example of cinematic art, of a type that would still engage audiences today if it could get made.

If not for its movement into public domain a few decades back, allowing for its annual showings at holiday season, "Wonderful Life" might have been relegated to obscurity.

Since today's audiences forget that in 1946 this movie seemed like a tired retread of Capra platitudes (it was not a box-office success),today, removed from that context,it can be seen as a hugely entertaining film that also validates our modern ideas of self-worth.

Stwewart was iconic here, and speculation over his win or loss of an Oscar here would almost seem irrelevant.

Casey said...

Love this movie. I really think that it got snubbed from recognition due to the fact that it was widely recognized (and stigmatized) at the time, as a communist movie -- Potter representing capitalist society and the working man George Bailey wanting everyone to get an equal slice of pie.

It's odd that I learned this after seeing it so many times at Christmas time, since I would never think to watch it from a political perspective.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

tom lionel barymore was great here.

tom. s. i guess timing really is everything.

casey i never though it from that perspective either.