Monday, December 10, 2007
Capra lassos the moon
How much of a staple of Americana has Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life become? Other outlandishly feel-good flicks are often referred to as "capraesque". Capra shot for the stars with this movie, and he at least got hold of the moon.
I've seen it probably over thirty times, and yet, by the time the whole "No man is a failure who has friends" line is read, I still get misty. Frankly, I give a lot of latitude when it comes to taste in movies, but if the ending didn't tear you up a little bit the first time you saw it, I'm inclined to think that you're as dead inside as one of Dexter's victims.
Oh, there's a lot to be said for this, the granddaddy of all holiday films. A slick script, a luminous Donna Reed, plenty of forties-style banter between the leads, a few madcap laughs, and an ending that can make Disney endings seem downright dour by comparison. But still shining brighter than anything else is Jimmy Steward as George Bailey.
Jimmy and George are often pointed to as the ultimate "good guy," and that's something I take great pleasure in. Because George was good. But he sure as shit wasn't cheerful about it. I like my men the way I like my coffee -- strong and bitter. And though George Bailey was determined and ambitious, he most certainly did show cracks in the plaster, just like his drafty old home. He was often cranky, sometimes showing a propensity for bursts of anger and self-pity. Best? He sure knew how to tie one on!
Looking at this movie with a modern eye, George is fairly tame. But I swear I can trace the lineage of Billy Bob's "Bad Santa" back to George Bailey. And I often wonder how his behavior wasn't considered scandalous back in the day. I mean, I mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: The guy sure did like to knock back the booze. For Clarence's sake, when hard times hit, he dealt with it by getting shitfaced and crashing his car! Not to mention that he yelled at the women and children. During his time of being tested, his hair even got wild and his face had a rather unkempt after-five-o'clock shadow creeping across it. And he sure was horny for Mary Hatch. (and maybe even Violet)
But it's all these little crabby tweaks that make George that much more lovable. George, he had to put up with an awful lot of shit. But he invariably did the right thing, even if he bitched about it. Which, of course, is the point of the whole thing. It may not seem so at the time, but in the end, it's all worthwhile.
It's been sixty years and it's been remade, mocked, sentimentalized, grossly colorized, and definitely over-referenced. Sometimes, I roll my eyes when George reaches in his pocket for ZuZu's petals. You can't even make a joke anymore about bells ringing/angels wings because it's so over-used. Yet, I still think it's kind of funny when Mary's naked in the bushes. It still makes me want to scream at the screen when Uncle Billy unwittingly hands the cash to Mr. Potter. I still think Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey is the cat's pajamas. And yeah, I do still get a little teary at the ending. How can I not? It's a wonderful movie.