This will being with the shameless (but borderline ashamed) admission that the author viewed Frank Capra’s unsurpassed It’s A Wonderful Life in its new digital colorization. I went into it kicking and screaming and quickly settled into a more vibrant Bedford Falls, replete with a color scheme that somehow did justice to the film’s classic status. We must all cross our fingers and hope that “they” never decide to give the film too “real” a look. It seems probable, to say the least, that if Capra were around to see this version of his film, he would be relatively okay with it. We only scruffled our noses at the character of Violet, who seemed always to be dressed in something violet.
The best things about It’s A Wonderful Life are the things that are best said by the film itself and are too obvious to banter about here. Suffice it to say, the film presents a fairly persuasive apologia for the nuclear family in a time when it isn’t so much considered one of any number of good and productive lifestyles but rather an outdated and outmoded social structure that ought to be scrapped altogether. Sometimes the hailers of diversity can be the least diverse.
After viewing some of Capra’s propaganda films for the US government during WWII, It’s A Wonderful Life takes on a slightly new light, and perhaps even an ironic one. One such film attempts to document (or at least presents itself as documenting) the immediate pre-WWII history of the US. It is told from the point of view of the average American living his/her mundane life, always in the context of family and working, and voicing his/her rightful voice in the democratic process. The idea of the film is, we didn’t get involve until we had to, and we did that only when the overwhelming majority of the American public supported the war effort not only in votes but in hard labor. Hard to imagine these days. We were the democratic chosen, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers. We were content in our own democratic capitalism and didn’t pretend to impose such notions on the rest of the world, no matter how perfect things were (even through a Depression, somehow) with these notions. But once they hit us, we hit them, and we did so unanimously (more or less). The war montage in It’s A Wonderful Life is the only sequence in the film that unites Bedford Falls, including its most evil figure, Mr. Potter. He’s as grumpy as ever, but Joseph the angelic narrator presents him as doing his part. If Capra would have wanted a real villain, Potter might have used his position to stay out of the war effort. The fact that the viewer is forced to put all negative dispositions about Mr. Potter on hold during the war is a fascinating illustration of Capra’s American nationalism. It’s a thread the continues through the rest of the film in the character of Harry Bailey, George’s kid brother who becomes a war hero. Part of the hypothetical tragedy of George having never been born isn’t the extreme idea that we lost the war, but the still-tragic destruction of the ship that Harry would have prevented, had he been alive to do so. The American nationalism seems to be the cherry on top of a film that in every other way still epitomizes 1940s USA like Antonioni’s Blow-Up captures mod London in the 60s. The difference is that while Antonioni shows the emptiness of London, Capra embraces a nostalgia (a present nostalgia?) for his modern era and the accompanying lifestyle. Antonioni’s irony is intentional, and the suggested irony in Capra’s film isn’t. Capra seemed to be embracing a distinct brand of US nationalism; not the traditional kind, but the new FDR kind. Traditionally, capitalism is best when it’s on its own. In this case, Mr. Potter (a sort of 1940s Wal-Mart figure) isn’t really bad. It’s every man for himself (man, mind you), you wanna break an omelet you gotta break a few eggs, etc., etc. The Depression showed a nation the punishment brought on by the invisible hand when it blindly put its faith in ideals without regard for people. It may not actually be irony, but Capra’s presentation of the American way is a new nostalgia – not for hanging on to tradition but for a nuanced tradition. The socialist element is very present in It’s A Wonderful Life. The “old Building & Loan” needs to survive. People need to work for more than their own self interest. Community over the individual. All the rest. A film like this contrasts remarkably from films from the same period that forgetfully idealize the 1920s as a time of booming and vivacious activity. Capra is probably right to glorify a blossoming communitarian Americanism in the early 40s over its hedonistic downward spiral in the 20s and 30s.