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Saturday, 21 December 2013

Supporting the garlic-eaters - or declining a Faustian pact

This is a Christmas review of It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

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21 December (updated 22 December ; Tweets added, Christmas Day 2015)

This is a Christmas review of It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

When George Bailey (James Stewart) kisses his wife Mary (Donna Reed) on their wedding night, he murmurs (more to himself than to her) ‘Wonderful, wonderful’. He has something then that he loses – or, rather, loses sight of.

Their location at that moment is bizarre in its real sense, and almost, also in its real sense, surreal¹, for they had planned a honeymoon without much thought for the future. But it symbolizes some things, such as courage in adversity and less love in a garret maybe than riches in heaven.

As has been said, George loses sight of the self who found all this, which initially seemed so ramshackle, made whole and complete by Mary’s love and care for him. He faces what seems an impossible position, and his enemy Potter (who started as if to remedy George’s uncle’s mistake, before seeing the capital for him in it (the palpable miserly wickedness embodied by Lionel Barrymore)) threatens him with penalties from a position of power : George ends up abusing the forgetful / easily distracted Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), and, not believing that anyone can help, gets frustrated with Mary and the children, showing only tenderness for Zuzu [one is reminded of Louis Malle’s Zazie], in bed with a temperature

He has lost hope. What happens, when he seeks to drown his sorrows makes matters worse, and causes him despairingly to recall Potter’s words of derisory rejection, thinking that his value is in being dead, not alive. In one version of the Gospel story, distraught at what he has done, Judas throws the thirty pieces of silver down when they will not be accepted back from him and they are used to buy The Potter’s Field (which is the name of where George builds his homes, but which is where the graveyard is in what Clarence shows him, a Bedford Falls without George, where the place is then called Pottersville ?); in another, Judas hangs himself, so suicide, choosing death over continued life (which some try to harmonize as his doing one and then the other).

Clarence Ardbody (that seems to be his name, and he is charmingly brought to us by Henry Travers) is George’s guardian angel, and he leaves George, after what he has shown him – but only when George chooses to embrace life again, after seeing a world where he is the nobody that he has allowed himself to believe that he is. There he is someone whom no one, not even Mary, knows and is even frightened of, and who is the witness of how differently things could have been.

The conception of this film, starting with prayers for George, Clarence’s appointment, and seeing how George became who and where he is, avoids the easy solution that Clarence should simply tell George how Potter kept back the crucial money that he decided not to return. The film has George choose life, after Clarence’s ruse (used again by Luc Besson in Angel-A (2005)) diverts him from his own plight to – where his heart is as a man – someone else’s, but only after he comes to value himself and the life that he has.

Meanwhile, aside from those prayers, Mary has been addressing the problem that gave rise to his disaffection and, although she did not know it, led him to the brink. He was going to choose water : water had been where, saving his brother from drowning, he lost hearing in his left ear, and into which, in a sort of sacramental baptism, envious hands contrive for Mary and George to fall. Water was falling from the sky and into the new home that Mary had contrived for George and her, and, of course, in the snow of Christmas Eve, it is there in frozen form. That is just an observation, but, those who believe that the other three classical elements will be there when water is found can, of course, excavate…

A criticism that could be levelled at the pacing of the film, which is why do we spend so much time with George in the world where he does not exist before he understands. Actually, because it builds up to him being rejected by the woman whom he still thinks of as his wife (and whose status Clarence has been a little unwilling to give), it takes that for the message that his mother only runs Ma Bailey’s Boarding-House because he is not around to sink in – George has both drunk a lot, before meeting Clarence, and had a double after, and the film symbolically represents how difficult, with a person in deep depression, it is for the truth of his or her worth to permeate and unfreeze that numbness of being dislocated from the world.

As the lyrics of Talking Heads’ song² Once in a Lifetime go, seeming to see a dislocation, from the opposite pole of psychosis :

You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife

In the world that he sought to leave, George had lost contact with the things and people who mattered to him, burdened by not knowing what to do; in the world that Clarence shows him, he is able to seek out what should be familiar, and keeps trying, ending with Mary. It is only when, under danger of gunfire, that he has gone back to where he started that he can value what he had before and ask for it to be restored – before, it might as well have been in a vault as behind a veil, for he could break through neither to it.

As a portrayal of depression, it demonstrates the truth that one cannot ‘snap out of it, ‘count one’s blessings’ or ‘pull oneself together’, and also, with Clarence’s inscription in Tom Sawyer (some significance in that choice of book, one would warrant), of the value of true friends. But the film works without entering into those considerations, just better if one sees what is slow to change in George.

And perhaps one has to consider the force, in Potter, that George has been fighting, whose Pottersville is debauched and gaudy when (in Clarence’s other world) there had been no one to stop him making it that way : on his desk, seen most clearly when the offer is being made that is too good to be true, is a skull, a bell in a triangular arch, but also an apparatus for heating something over a flame in a spoon that would not be out of place in the drug-laden realm of shooting-up in Trainspotting (1996)³.

In different ways, Potter, desiring domination in a no more rational way than Iago wishes Othello’s destruction, is stood up to by George’s courage and self-sacrifice : by riding the effects of the run on the bank, opposing Potter (and getting the vote) when he moves that the Building & Loan be wound up, and by rejecting a cushy offer for himself. Probably far-fetched that they are parallels to the temptations in the wilderness, but George does give up, respectively, (along with Mary) their honeymoon, his cherished plans of travel⁴, and a life of benefit for himself by going over to Potter…

James Stewart has humour (some of it at the inquisitiveness of Annie, the servant), warmth, and frustration at what he has to give up for what he believes in, even if he does put his foot in it by calling it ‘a crummy little office’ (or some such) to his father : that characteristic quality to Stewart’s voice fits hand in glove with the sort of astonished pleading with people to know who he is. Barrymore, even when he is slow to see his final winning hand against George, brings a smouldering, disgusted malevolence to the role of Potter.

And, when soaked from the swimming-pool trick played on them, George has walked Mary back home in borrowed clothes, Donna Reed and Stewart have a delightful awkwardness to them, so that he does not quite dare kiss her properly when she dares to offer her hand, and then both are spooked by him being urged to kiss her (one almost feels that, by not doing what is suggested, he is trying to avoid his own destiny, and cheat history...). And he has to be snatched away, without that kiss (or, acting against form, trying to exploit her being robeless in the hydrangea bush) on this very night, because of his father’s health. Pain prolonged, and hope deferred, but bringing a life together that they want to lead – though threatened by the opportunistic Potter and George’s despair.

Happy Christmas !


One can also find, given that the film was made in 1946, a Hitler figure in Potter : George's father appeased him by putting him on the Board of the Building & Loan; George fought his offer to Building & Loan customers with Mary's and his honeymoon fund; Potter offered an alliance to George; and rejected Potter takes the opportunity to turn the weapons of law and order on him.


¹ The ruins where Edward Scissorhands is found spring to mind.

² By David Byrne, Christopher Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, and Brian Eno.

³ Seen more obviously, though fleetingly, is a bronze bust of Napoleon Bonaparte near the window in Potter's office.

⁴ He is a sort of Marius (in Daniel Auteuil's film this year of the same name), with a sense of Wanderlust.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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