Thursday, December 17, 2015

George Bailey: victim of circumstances?

Originally posted in December 2007

Shannon and I returned home late last night after spending the evening with some friends. I wasn't ready to call it a night so I put It's a Wonderful Life in the DVD player thinking I'd watch the first 45 minutes or so. Guess what? We ended up watching the entire movie until the wee hours of the morning. No matter how many times you've seen it, the story draws you in and makes it impossible to turn off. I think this quality must be the main reason IAWL remains a perennial holiday favorite. However, let me offer a few fresh observations that may help you appreciate this picture even more.

First, and most importantly, Frank Capra was a great filmic storyteller. He co-wrote the script and directed his actors in such a way that the pacing and structure of the film, well, pulls you in. He never let style get in the way of the story, but at the same time he wasn't afraid to use innovative cinematic techniques to serve the story. The most obvious example is the non-linear structure of the film, which few directors of that era would have been comfortable with, or able to pull off. A few more examples...

1) Capra used freeze-frame (remember the early scene when college-bound George Bailey is buying a suitcase?). This is a technique we're accustomed to, but not so for audiences of the day.  2) Capra's editing made liberal use of "fade to black" and "wipes" to transition between scenes. "Fade to black" tends to heighten the emotional impact of a scene and "wipes" (when the next scene transitions in from left to right across the screen) creates a dreamlike or storybook quality (remember that most of IAWL is an extended flashback in the "mind" of Clarence). Again, routine stuff today but not for mainstream films of the 1940's. 3) Capra's use of sound, particularly source music (music that originates from a location within the movie), was very effective. For instance, during George's "vision" we see Pottersville (now filled with taverns and dance halls) from his point of view. As he walks down Main Street, and each marquee slides by, we hear the various music and voices wafting out onto the sidewalk just as he's hearing it.

These are all relatively minor contributions to the greatness of the film (I haven't even mentioned the cast!), but they show a side of Capra often missed. He wasn't afraid to use the cinematic tools at his disposal, but only if they served the story he wanted to tell. Therein lies a lesson for self-indulgent directors overly enamored with cinematic whiz-bang.

The story of George Bailey is about how "life happens when you're making plans." He's a victim of circumstance over and over again -- his father's death, Harry getting married and getting the good job, the bank panic on his wedding night, the war. Things keep happening just when George is on the cusp of something big. But is he a victim? His best laid plans are constantly frustrated, and it all finally comes to a boil on that snowy Christmas Eve. But It's a Wonderful Life believes that there's a divine providence at work, and that George really isn't a victim. Indeed, there's a meaning to life greater than our own plans, aspirations and circumstances. That's a worthy message to hear in a time when individual choice and personal autonomy are held up as ultimate values.

In his moment of crisis out there on that seemingly godforsaken bridge George Bailey of Bedford Falls gives out a desperate cry for help.

God, if you're up there. Show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope.

George knows he's not a "praying man", but his prayer and the prayers of others in the town (heard at the beginning of the movie) bring a divine intervention that show him that his faithfulness and sacrifice haven't been in vain, indeed, in the things that matter most, George is the richest man in town. Here's hoping that Frank Capra's tale finds an audience for many more holiday seasons. Much has changed since 1946, but everyone still loves a good story, and It's a Wonderful Life is one of the best.

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