Frank Capra is arguably the quintessential American director of the thirties and forties. His films, particularly those he made with James Stewart, succeed in presenting a superficial environment reminiscent of Norman Rockwell but with enough subversion to both criticize and illuminate the unfortunate truths of America. One film in particular manages to balance both Capra’s Rockwellian idealism and his critical subversion with an unequaled balance, the holiday staple It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).
It’s A Wonderful Life follows the life of American “every man” George Bailey (James Stewart) as he is forced to put aside his own ambitions and dreams to assume responsibility for the welfare of his small town home Bedford Falls. George Bailey is one in a long line of reluctant and ill-equipped heroes in the Capra cannon. Like Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds, circumstances beyond control force George Bailey to rise to the task, to preserve a small portion of the “American Dream”. Bailey’s “American Dream” is the most essential and relatable in all of Frank Capra’s films, to ensure the equal economic and sociological chances of the inhabitants of Bedford Falls, a sort of “anywhere USA”. George Bailey is able to do this through his position at the Bailey Building & Loan, a position he acquired unwillingly when his father suddenly dies of a stroke. Bailey’s belief in equal opportunity and a society for the people by the people becomes distinctly socialist when contrasted with the capitalist ideals of his nemesis Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
Through his use of framing, set and costume design it becomes clear that Capra intends to associate Bailey’s socialist attitude with the ideal America, the America proposed by the founding fathers in 1776. Consider the drab brick buildings, the white picket fences and the casual tweed suits that adorn the frame with James Stewart. Now consider the items with which Capra populates the frame around Lionel Barrymore: a black coach and horses, a wheel chair, servants, and the old world architecture of the Bedford Falls bank. In Capra’s hands, capitalism transforms into a modern kind of monarchy. In the beginning of It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey, then only a child, mistakes Potter’s horse drawn buggy for that of a king’s. As the film progresses, Potter’s capitalist drive manifests itself as a variation upon imperialism as he acquires more and more of the town’s businesses and real estate. The only person that can stop Potter is, of course, George Bailey.
But Capra’s political messaging takes a backseat to the form of the film. It’s A Wonderful Life opens in Heaven of all places. Here, God and Joseph relay George Bailey’s life story in the form of flash backs to Bailey’s would be guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers). Like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), It’s A Wonderful Life unfurls its flashbacks in a series of long scenes and sequences designed to build not only the narrative, but the character of George Bailey, his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and the townsfolk who come to depend on George Bailey. But unlike Citizen Kane, the film does not leave the flashbacks until the narrative reaches the present, nor does It’s A Wonderful Life offer the audience any perspective other than God’s.
Staging the film half in flashbacks from the omnipresent perspective of God is a divergence for Capra from the standard assimilation of reality that occurs within the flashbacks themselves. In essence, Capra is equating the film director to a deity, and the audience to an angelic congregation. To take this further, the audience, like Clarence, is expected to implement what they learn from being a spectator to the real world outside of the cinema, or in Clarence’s case, Heaven. On Capra’s part, this tactic functions as a sort of subliminal message to the audience, drawing their attention to the socialist advocacy of the film without using any political labels or posturing.
One of the most brilliant components of Capra’s artistry is his eye for casting. Capra had worked with both Stewart and Barrymore before in You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Like Stewart and Barrymore, Donna Reed has a natural presence, appearing not as a Hollywood glamour girl, nor as anything idealized, but rather as a natural human being. By populating It’s A Wonderful Life with every day faces Capra makes his narrative all the more accessible. And, in Stewart’s case, is able to use his actors as signifiers to their own moral alignment within the film.
Signifiers are essential to Capra’s cinematic language. As I pointed out before, the environments that Bailey and Potter occupy work as signifiers not to their psychological condition, but to their political and economical affiliations. Even the narrative’s conflict functions as a signifier, representing the archetypal American conflict between the corrupt upper class and the righteous working class.
Today, Capra’s style may appear melodramatic or formally glossy, but It’s A Wonderful Life has long been among one of the most influential American films ever made in Hollywood. Frank Capra had always been John Cassavetes’ favorite filmmaker. If one analyzes the films of Cassavetes there is no denying that he has on multiple occasions appropriated both Capra’s concerns and his beliefs. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976), though often cited as an autobiographical film by Cassavetes about independent film production, deals with the same conflicts and interests that are at the heart of It’s A Wonderful Life. Cosmo (Ben Gazzara), like George Bailey, has bought into the American Dream, pursuing his ambitions and personal aspirations. But like Bailey, Cosmo is inhibited by a force beyond his control, and must take action in a way for which he is unprepared and unwilling. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie emphasizes the performance of its players and the naturalism of its timing, the “realism” of its content. This is the major difference between the two films. Capra could not escape the standards of Hollywood studio filmmaking just as Cassavetes could never conform to them.
It’s A Wonderful Life ends hopefully as the town bails George Bailey out, but Potter could just as easily plague the Building & Loan the next day. Capra merely suggests the conflicts to come, asserting that George Bailey, with the help of Clarence, has become better suited for his task. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, in true Cassavetes form, ends with tragedy, Cosmo dying slowly from a gunshot wound. In many ways George Bailey’s position at the Building & Loan is the same bullet, fired by a lack of idealism and hope, destined to kill him. In the hands of their directors Cosmo and George Bailey become martyrs to the “American Dream”. It’s interesting that each film was made after the conclusion of a war, and therefore indicative of the corrupted innocence a nation experiences after a crisis.