In Prelude to war, Frank Capra’s 1942 propaganda documentary intended to encourage American involvement in WWII, the narrator asks at one point, “What made us change the way we live overnight?” ? The film, which co-won the Best Documentary Award at the 1943 Oscars, has a simple answer: Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Britain, and Nazi aggression in general.
But the question is one that Capra has considered throughout his career. His films often revolved around an ordinary man who undergoes a complete lifestyle change overnight, altering the trajectory not only of his own life, but of those around him as well. In the 1936s Mr. Deeds goes to town, an Everyman suddenly inherits $ 20 million. In the 1939s Mr. Smith goes to Washington, an Everyman suddenly becomes a senator.
And in the years 1946 It’s a wonderful life, who is celebrating his 75th birthday this month, an Everyman suddenly sees what his city would be like without him. Except this time his benefactor is not a deceased relative or a governor. It’s an angel.
World War II would split Capra’s career into two parts. The first was astonishingly successful – immigrated from Italy at the age of five, rising through the silent film ranks as a writer, fully embracing the technical revolutions in talking cinema and achieving critical success unprecedented in the years. 1930.
In 1934, It happened one night became the first film to win all five of the Oscar Grand Prizes: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. In addition to the award for best documentary for Prelude to war, Capra has won the award for best director three times.
Some of those movies lasted. But none come close to the roaring popularity of It’s a wonderful life, a film that began the post-war segment of Capra’s career, a film where critics and audiences alike now most often rejected it. After the bitter realities of WWII, audiences preferred films concerning espionage and deception, such as that of Alfred Hitchcock Popular or Tay Garnett’s The postman always rings twice. When they wanted sentimentality, they preferred it to be as racist as possible, with the highest grossing film of the year being Disney’s. Southern song.
So why Wonderful life, a film that was not loved by audiences and critics at the time, and that was not particularly Christmas-centric, would become a Christmas classic decades later? One of the reasons is its accidental entry into the public domain, but that only partially explains things. Tons of Christmas content comes out every year. Why this?
The answer could be that audiences weren’t quite ready for Capra’s vision. Mixing fictionalized collectivism with the power of the individual, Wonderful life did what the immigrants in the movies have done throughout the history of the industry: create the American dream.
Before even meeting George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), Capra introduces the public to two power structures: the community of Bedford Falls, which prays for George, and the light bureaucracy of Heaven, where “Joseph” speaks to a nameless God of all. upcoming prayers for George. They both agree that George needs help because it is his “crucial night”, but Joseph is skeptical as the assigned assistant, Clarence (Henry Travers), “has the IQ of a rabbit”.
The unnamed Higher Power laughs in agreement, but calls out anyway for Clarence, who rushes to the screen in the form of a star that lights up when he speaks. Before showing a thriving community in Bailey Park, and towards the end, a lair of iniquity and sin in the George-less alternate universe of the Pottersville film, Capra offers a powerful visual metaphor: We are all small cogs. In the universe, brilliant at the right opportunity.
And then Capra shows what those great opportunities can do, offering a glimpse into George’s life. Before meeting the character, audiences see that he is inherently brave and good. He saves his brother from ice water at the expense of his hearing. He later saves the pharmacist Mr. Gowers from accidental child poisoning. When George’s uncle, Billy (Thomas Mitchell), accidentally gives a crucial $ 8,000 deposit to the vile and wealthy banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), George’s family fails him. And when George fails to get the money back, it is with his family that he gets angry, cruelly berating them amid the noise of holiday cheer. Capra is not particularly concerned with Potter’s theft, but rather with the way collectives like families and communities react to misfortune.
But even when individuals fail in their collective, they can still redeem themselves. Maybe that’s why an FBI agent at the time thought It’s a wonderful life, a film directed by a Republican who had recently made several propaganda films for the military, was rife with Communist influence.
As Mr. Smith was not afraid to show corruption as long as it was beaten by the spirit of America, Wonderful life isn’t afraid to show times when people and communities fail. But, as we always hope, they are getting back on their feet. Even though life in Pottersville seems exciting, says Capra, it cannot offer the strength of community spirit.
There was another group of immigrants in the film industry with a similar romanticism: the Jews. As Neal Gabler notes in An empire of their own, a book about the Jews and the formation of the film industry, “They would make their empire like America … They would create its values and its myths, its traditions and its archetypes.”
Likewise, with his series of films depicting his version of America, Capra has created values and myths, traditions and archetypes. And by the time everyone sings “Auld Lang Syne” at the end of It’s a wonderful life it’s hard not to participate no matter who you are or what you’re celebrating.
It’s a wonderful life is broadcast on Amazon Prime Video and on Tubi with ads.