Rod Bennett in the January 2007 edition of the online magazine GodSpy gives us The Gospel according to Frank Capra. He starts by asking the question - how can the story of George Bailey be called It’s a Wonderful Live?
At Christmastime in the year 1974, when I was 14 years old, I saw an old black & white movie on television called It's A Wonderful Life. It was a very cold sunny afternoon as I remember; I was home from school on two weeks of Christmas vacation. I had been randomly turning the TV dial and just happened to get interested in a scene—about ten minutes into the picture, as it turns out—in which a young boy had just saved a drunken druggist from accidentally poisoning a sick child. At the first commercial break, the "Armchair Theatre" announcer told me the title.
Wracked as I was at the time with all the usual terrors and traumas of being fourteen years old, I wasn't at all sure that it was, in fact, a wonderful life here on Planet Earth. But I watched the movie anyway. And the longer that old picture went on the more the sound of that title (which had seemed at first so pat and sugary) began to change in my doubtful ears. It's A Wonderful Life. Standing there so unashamed in the face of everything going on all around it, that simplistic, illogical phrase began to sound... I don't know... defiant; like a challenge being flung at me or even an attack.
I had no way of knowing at the time that this was supposed to be a corny old Christmas "feel-good" movie. It began to make me feel pretty bad, in fact. Certainly I saw that It's A Wonderful Life is full of wonderful things: charm and humor and unforgettable characters that have since become like a second family to me. But the longer the movie went on, the bleaker and blacker things got. George Bailey, the hero (played by James Stewart), the dreamer who was going to see the world and lasso the moon, struggles to get out of the dead end job that keeps him chained to the hick town where he was born. It soon becomes obvious, to us and to him, that he never will get out of it. And yet, somehow, with every commercial break, that announcer kept repeating It's A Wonderful Life. I myself had dreams very like George Bailey's: dreams of accomplishment, dreams of romance.
But the plain reality was that I was failing in school, my first real romance was ten years away, and I was lonely, alienated, and ugly with that unique ugliness only possible to fourteen year olds. And yet with every commercial break, over and over at eight-minute intervals, the "Armchair Theatre" man insisted It's A Wonderful Life. Before long, George Bailey (because of a meaningless accident—his lovable, doddering old uncle has destroyed his business by absentmindedly losing a packet of money) stands on a frigid overpass ready to drown his whole thwarted, aborted dream in an icy black river and we're not so sure we blame him. I stood there with him—my own dreams seemed (and sometimes still seem) just as hopeless. And still the man says It's A Wonderful Life.
I guess the repeated words of that corny title—proved surely to be a lie by the very story to which they had somehow been tacked—made me feel a little like Nero must have felt, listening in disbelief to the joyful hymns the martyrs sang as he fed them to the lions.
And then the final act of the movie began.
If one had only Capra's reputation to go by, without knowing the man or seeing the films, I suppose that one might come to create a mental portrait of him as some smiling white-haired sentimentalist, perhaps a retired Congregationalist minister, with his eyes full of easy stars and possessing a fondness for quoting Norman Vincent Peale. In reality, Frank Capra was not only a hard-nosed, up-from-poverty immigrant with a rather acidic sense of humor (the biggest laughs in his films are cynical cracks from jaded sophisticates mocking the callow Capra hero), he was actually an intellectual—almost a rationalist. He was certainly every inch the Cal Tech Chemical Engineer of his school years. In fact, in Capra's unique background I've found what has been, for me, the whole key to the mystery of his films and their strange fate at the hands of the critics.
This is why Frank Capra, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most challenging of all filmmakers and in some ways the most disturbing. Most "serious films"—the "hard-hitting" "uncompromising" films—ask us only to accept, for example, that poverty is bad, relationships are hard, that politics is corrupt. In short, their "challenge" consists precisely in asking us to accept ideas that we already accept anyway, even if we struggle to know just what to do about them. In these comedies, Capra asks us to accept that the old-fashioned American ideals are still good, that David really can whip Goliath, that our prayers do not go unheard, that the meek shall inherit the earth. In other words, he asks us to accept things about which we have grave, grave doubts. And he is uncompromising in his asking: he doesn't ask us to accept these propositions as nice or inspirational or comforting or helpful—he asks us to accept them as true. That, my friend, is a challenging filmmaker. That is serious, avant-garde cinema, if you will.
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