George Bailey’s wartime America looks eerily familiar
“An embarrassment both to flesh and spirit” — that was Richard Winnington of the News Chronicle in a contemporaneous review of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Even in the late ’70s, a reviewer for the New Yorker spoke of “more of the heartfelt than is good for the stomach,” in this case referring to Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Frank Capra tried, with mixed success in his lifetime, to lighten the charge of over-sentimentality by speaking of his own capracorn. Today, judging by the rental sales figures for the above films, the early 21st century is experiencing less nauseous reactions.
Some stomachs have never been quite so sensitive to capracorn, anyway; but if a generally more tolerant response now prevails, what’s happened to cause this? Was it always a more subtle nutrient than some could admit? Have we learned to put up with a poorer diet? Or — more difficult to address — are we moving away from the entire era of which Capra was so much a part, and is it simply this inevitable distancing that weakens all our responses?
To begin my own answer I want to refer to what is possibly the least Capraesque of Capra’s films — The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) — a cult phenomenon for some, certainly a curious piece. Capra himself felt it was a more “real movie” than anything he’d done before.
A photo-portrait of him at this point in his career reveals a still youthfully attractive physical energy; in the face, though, there’s an anxious purpose around the eyes and mouth. This is not just a man capable of taking others with him on his autodidactic journeys; he’s pushing himself into some strange territories, wondering, perhaps, about the wisdom of it all. Harry Cohn, his producer, was probably wearing a similar expression at the time, and the film did indeed bomb.
It’s possible to view this as artistic vanity or naivete or both, but that would not explain either the peculiar new direction or Capra’s commercially suicidal obstinacy. In Bitter Tea a brutal Chinese warlord with certain refined tastes meets a beautiful female Christian missionary, who sheds her intellectual zeal in favour of romance. This doomed interracial love affair, a little too daring for its first audiences, showed a new dimension in Capra’s idealism, one that was clearly influenced by the orientalism of the time.
Deliberately aiming away from the America in which he knew himself to be enveloped, and albeit with mixed results, he wanted to prove he could be more than the mildly amusing flag-waver which, after twenty-one films in eight years, most critics were convinced he was.
Ambitiously enough, he was seeking to add his bit to world culture: an essentially spiritual notion encouraged most famously by Carl Jung, Rabindranath Tagore, Richard Wilhelm, Paul Tillich, Herman Hesse (all affiliates of the German-based School of Wisdom, founded in 1920 in Darmstadt). Other important names not officially connected with the School included Robert van Gulik, Arthur Waley, and Christmas Humphreys. An idealist first and last, Capra would originally have hoped that in responding to this international trend he was staying absolutely in character and serving a wider cause than usual. If none of this is immediately evident in Bitter Tea, it later finds unequivocal expression in Lost Horizon (1937).
Meanwhile 20th-century history was not, of course, dedicating itself to an acceptance of our universally shared humanity. On the contrary, it was soon to lurch into a process that violently rejected this possibility, in part at least, because it saw in all such projects an unadmitted Anglo-American plan for world domination. How times change!
As World War II loomed, Capra was making Mr Smith Goes to Washington (left), instinct directing him to the heart of world democracy. After all, if that heart was skipping too many beats, what chance for the world’s future? In a further attack on big business after You Can’t Take It With You (1938), the director again uses a young actor of unlikely but startling emotional power — James Stewart playing Jefferson Smith, the Senate’s rawest new recruit.
Capra’s oft-repeated thesis that big corporations too easily lose touch with the needs of ordinary people is essentially sound, and has stood the test of time. It must be admitted, however, that — in spite of Joseph Kennedy’s conviction that this movie would ruin America’s reputation abroad — Capra doesn’t always find convincing ways to dramatise his point: Taylor owns everybody and everything in Mr Smith’s world, we are told; but we learn all this in such understated scenes that we wonder why on earth Claude Rains’ senator — among others — ever permitted himself to be turned from the true path. In our era, with its seemingly endless capacity for edginess, we particularly notice a lack of dramatic focus to explain Taylor’s supposed control over otherwise mature and confident associates. Capra may have had this kind of criticism in mind when he said: “I thought drama was when the actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.’
To some extent this failing is put right in the last quarter or so of running-time: here we see the malevolent use by Taylor of newspaper and radio propaganda, as well as murderous hired thugs, to try and enforce his will. Crowd scenes were always important in early cinema and Capra is an acknowledged master of this form of narrative technique, not least because he is often able to indicate the disparate forces within a crowd, not just its herd-like coherence. Meandering, random-seeming movement is essential to many of the Senate House scenes in Mr Smith; and though democratic political institutions may lend themselves to this kind of organised chaos, Capra seizes on it for maximum authenticity.
Verisimilitude, it should be stressed, is not the first word that usually comes to mind when discussing the films of Frank Capra, and it’s as if he’s admitting that things have got so desperate he’ll even try an utterly flat realism if it somehow helps convey his concerns.
As a storyteller and artist, Capra of course feels an enormous desire to communicate in whatever way he can; he is always determined to reach “ordinary” people, amusing them en route certainly, but also offering them moral sustenance. Oddly enough, these instincts seem, if not less noticeable, then less worrying now. Perhaps because of our 24 hour a day access to every kind of visually told story — from news bulletins to TV ads — we simply accept some naked emotional manipulation as a common feature in movies old and new, finding it at worst irritatingly redundant rather than “sickly.”
Capra’s moral urgency does sometimes get in the way of, rather than informing, his best work, but as we’ve just hinted and as we’ll soon explore further, at his best or worst he’s in interesting company. At all events, in the making of Wonderful Life he finds ways to allow his audience maximum access to his material, while never lazily or confusedly selling short his own deeper vision. This is a rare enough achievement in any artistic career and for that reason alone worth a closer look.
When cynics suggest that the end of WWII somehow by itself granted a blessing on Frank Capra’s most famous film and by this simple contingency helped create a “masterpiece,” let’s just remember the lukewarm reception it had from public and critics: “icky,”, “insipid,” or sentimentally “efficient” are some of the more generous comments it inspired on first release.
Let’s also admit that any endeavour, especially filmmaking with its incalculable array of individual inputs, can no doubt benefit from serendipity, or plain luck, no matter how skilled and determined the project managers may be. In this sense Wonderful Life is certainly a lucky film, with no serious obstructions to the full expression of its purpose anywhere in evidence. The writing, casting, cinematography, special effects, music — along of course with the acting and directing — all these forces remain beautifully paced and coordinated, not drawing false attention to themselves either by over-cleverness or ineptitude. One might, of course, make such claims for any well-made film and still have no more than an “efficient” product. It’s a Wonderful Life is more than that, and I’ll now say why I think this is so.
First the writing: many otherwise flawed projects have been rescued from complete forgettability by a good script, and not necessarily one produced by a single brilliant writer. In Wonderful Life, Capra shares script-writing duties between himself and the long-established marital-and-writing partnership of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. In the event, the potential for mutually nullifying their quite different strengths and arriving at one great homogenised mess was very much avoided.
Unless I’m mistaken, this trio hadn’t worked together before and never collaborated again, which may not be significant; but it may also suggest that there was no special affinity between them — certainly no addictive chemistry. One could also suggest that this actually helped the writers to free up — and stick to — their own special contributions. Whatever the reason, Capra’s “big theme” writing and the more domestic/romantic realisations of his co-workers curb each other’s excesses in a feat of extraordinary balance.
It’s worth noting, too, that in the writing of Wonderful Life we find an unusual amount of time spent on two subjects that are often ignored in books and films: the successful long-term relationship, and the honestly run business enterprise. Such stories are so dog-bites-man that we’ve grown accustomed to their general absence from art-news-headlines. But Wonderful Life presents them so vividly we hardly notice this near-unique event!
Many people who have been in a long-term relationship, as well many who have not, will surely see the writing for — and of course acting of — James Stewart and Donna Reed as convincing to the point of anguish. When George Bailey realises he’s going to have to give up his dream of becoming an architect, staying instead in Bedford Falls to preserve his father’s building-and-loan company, it also hits him that he will, of course, wed Mary, his first and only true love, have a home and children with her, and thereby experience what Zorba the Greek so eloquently once described as “the whole catastrophe.”
George has “the whole catastrophe” in mind in that first mutually committing embrace with Mary, and the scene remains, for me, one of the most wrenchingly truthful portrayals of its kind to be found anywhere. Emotionality is certainly to the fore; but what, if anything, is being sentimentalised? Certainly not romance. Isn’t it rather the case that cruelly conflicting inner feelings are, just for once, not given any gloss at all, and that’s precisely what stirs us so much?
In State of the Union (1948) Capra again reveals, though with a more sustained witty accent, that feeling for long-term relationships that I’ve already suggested is rather too rare in the general run of books and films. Is this kind of stuff too heartfelt? Do Woody Allen or Ingmar Bergman think too much? Where personal taste decrees our responses we meet perhaps an insuperable barrier to complete open-mindedness. For my part, Capra is — in category terms — an archetypal artist: like all others, he thinks via sentiment, not cognitively, and, however pragmatic or culturally embedded artists are, it shouldn’t be too shocking if we find enormous amounts of general resonance between ostensibly very different examples of the breed.
In Wonderful Life it may yet come as a surprise to see and hear the Dante of the The Divine Comedy as well as the more immediately obvious Charles Dickens of A Christmas Carol. George’s guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody, makes a peculiar sort of Virgil to an unlikely sort of hellbound poet. But as a person of this era I find George’s journey to the underworld more deeply scary, more spiritually exhausting, and finally more redemptive than the comparable episodes in medieval or 19th-century literature.
The medieval model is psychologically as well as structurally relevant to the conviction of tone in Wonderful Life: both men, albeit Dante more literally than Capra, have been forced to confront violent and morally corrosive factionalism in their world — war, in other words. As idealists, artists, and finally as people, they’ve experienced some serious doubts about whether they’ll come through unscathed, and in both cases this has increased their sensitivity to moral bravery — or “decency” as it sometimes known. Dickens remains relevant but in quite another way.
Some critics find a manic-depressive element in much, if not all of Capra. Be that as it may, Capra’s link with Dickens appears in their shared self-disappointment — if Dickens is Pip Pirrip in Great Expectations, then Capra is certainly George Bailey in Wonderful Life. Pip — a child-to-man portrait like George’s — has, it must be said, the darker experiences of the two, both in the sense of their being more murky and more complex. The Dickensian hero’s relations with women, and with his own childhood, are more fraught; his relationships with money and success are more self-alienating.
Does this leave us with an essentially lightweight Bailey/Capra? I think not. Mea culpa is sometimes a get-out clause for people who intend to go on sinning as cheerfully as ever. There are perhaps more ostensible signs of this in Capra than in Dickens. But Capra is working in a much less personally-controllable artistic ethos, and is forced thereby more often to the confessional. A nervous tic and a sincere self-questioning manifest in his work; is this more or less tolerable than Dickens touretting his way through so many books? I don’t know. Nor, of course, is this the choice we have to make.
For me, finally, Frank Capra’s reputation as a serious artist is absolutely secure. Indeed, the only really troubling doubt accrues because, unlike Dickens or Dante, he outlived his best period of creativity and — in an age that can’t leave well alone — provided posterity with a less than perfectly liberal old age to scorn or, worse still, read back into his films. But it is his best work — as indeed is the case with any artist — that we can confidently trust to make the only relevant points of discussion, and the only likely way to settle future arguments.