Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Still a Wonderful Life

My idea of heaven is seeing the film It’s a Wonderful Life on a rainy day at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. And today I did just that. Made even more special by the “sensitive male” bonding I had with my son-in-law and my 16-year old step-grandson. We walked out of the theater dabbing our eyes without an ounce of shame.

The film has become a cliché in American Christmas culture, but it is truly a masterwork. Story, setting, character, conflict, resolution, extraordinary casting and acting, and of course, the heartwarming ending. Perfect for a film of any time or season and especially suited to the holiday times.

But in the midst of its unquestioned mainstream acceptance, has anyone noticed how profoundly radical it is? How Mr. Potter is a later incarnation of Scrooge and an earlier incarnation of Trump? How George Bailey is representing the working people, leaning toward generosity in his business dealings and would be right at home with Bernie Sander’s form of socialism? How community spirit wins out over individual, selfish greed? How Walmart would have no place in Bedford Falls?

Indeed, such themes have often surfaced in other Frank Capra films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and more. Capra was a first-generation Italian-immigrant and a classic rags-to-riches story of the self-made man taking advantage of the opportunities America offered him. His first hit film (on my top ten best films list) was It Happened One Night  (1934) with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, a story about a spoiled heiress mixed up with a newspaper reporter with the inevitable love interest rising (Hmm. Similar theme to another great film, Roman Holiday). After the success of that film, Capra turned more to certain themes in his films, which he summed up as follows:

“In my films I championed the cause of the gentle, the poor, the downtrodden….My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.”

In his actual political life, Capra was a conservative Republican wary of Roosevelt’s programs. (Keep in mind that “conservative Republican” meant something quite different in the 30’s and 40’s than it does today). But in his art, he is a prime candidate for my motto from my last blog— “comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable.” At any rate, it’s a good summary of George Bailey’s relationship with his townsfolk and his thorn-in-the-side relationship with the greedy Mr. Potter.

Two mild critiques of the film, both of which made me smile:

• When Clarence the Angel shows George Bailey what life in Bedford Falls would have been like if George had never been born, the depravity of the town (now called Pottersville) is shown by a main street full of jazz clubs!

• When George asks about his wife Mary, Clarence refuses to show him what happened to her, shaking his head that it’s just too horrible to behold. George insists, Clarence relents and takes him to the library, which she is locking up and walks away with her hair up and glasses—she’s an (GASP!) old maid librarian!

Sorry if you’ve never seen the film and that was a spoiler, but if you haven’t, lucky you! You have something wonderful ahead of you. And check out the other Capra films as well. We should be so lucky as to recover the American spirit and vision he presents (with some tweaking—see above).


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