Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Musing Pictures: "It's a Wonderful Life"

I was introduced to the film "It's a Wonderful Life" at a production meeting, of all places.

The fellow who suggested that I see the film introduced it roughly like this: "When it begins, you'll think there's absolutely no way this film can work, but you'll see, by the time it's over, it kicks like a mule."

Like a mule? I was curious.

Frank Capra's film, which has become an annual holiday event of sorts on TV (though it's much reduced, usually, when it is broadcast), begins with a conversation between a twinkly light in the sky, and another twinkly light in the sky. These are angels, discussing the saving of a poor fellow named George Bailey from his intended suicide. You'd think you were watching some bad, early Hallmark telefilm.

But here's the thing. Capra takes it all totally seriously.

We see the town (Bedford Falls). We see kids playing. We see George Bailey's story unfold (and the role is completely inhabited by Jimmy Stewart), and Capra takes everything in as matter-of-factly as he possibly can. To Capra, this is not schlock. This is important. And that makes it all the easier for us to take it seriously.

I found myself buying in to the film's premise quite quickly, and, in fact, being rather taken by it -- moved to the verge of tears by the end (which is something very few movies can do to me).

I spent some time, after seeing the film, pondering Spielberg. He said, once: "Before I go off and direct a movie, I always look at four films. They tend to be The Seven Samurai, Lawrence Of Arabia, It's A Wonderful Life and The Searchers" (

That's an interesting spread of films, and "It's a Wonderful Life" fits in there in an interesting way -- it is the most heartwarming, the most uplifting of the films. Strangely, the director who seems to be known for playing his audience's heartstrings very well takes most of his cues from dark films, where characters die, and where people skirt the edge of reason or even turn completely evil before all is said and done.

But "It's a Wonderful Life" stands out, and I suspect that I know why. It's a completely effective film that somehow avoids falling in to all of the traps of a sentimental family picture. It's sentimental without sentimentality -- without coming across as being made of maple syrup. For Spielberg, who loves to tell uplifting stories (even though, lately, he has taken a dark turn), I can certainly understand why "It's a Wonderful Life" is such an influential film that he will re-watch it before every film he shoots.

An aside: I wonder how "Its a Wonderful Life" will affect me in forty years. Today, I am much more like the young, ambitious George Bailey. I'm not yet a family man, with kids, with that day-to-day grind, and with curbed ambitions. It strikes me as the sort of film that affects people very differently, depending on their age and stage of life.


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