About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Most Important Film You Will Ever Experience (Part 3: Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life")

 Before saying that a film is important, the term "important" must be defined.  Is it artistically brilliant as a film?  Is the film life affirming?  Is the film life changing?  Does the film live beyond its date of release?  Does the film capture a time or place in society and history?  Does the film challenge the audience?  If it can fit into most of these categories, then it simply must be important.
 To quote the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, "The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."  On that note, the third film in my collection of important films is:
Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life (1946)


 Starring James Stewart as George Bailey and Donna Reed as Mary, Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is a prime example of a film that lives beyond its time period.  With archetypal characters representing all walks of life, It's A Wonderful Life could be described as a classic battle of good vs evil disguised as a post-WWII drama.
 On one side of the spectrum is the charismatic and ambitious George Bailey who desires to be an architect (and an explorer/ world traveler), but wound up standing up for what was right and saving his father's family-owned Bailey Building and Loan Association after he passed away.  
 On the opposing side is Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a life-long rival to the values that the Bailey Building and Loan has stood for.  When an $8,000 deposit goes missing (accidentally ending up in Mr. Potter's hands, which is never revealed to the other characters), George Bailey decides that his life isn't worth living anymore.  Just as he's about to kill himself by jumping into freezing water below a bridge, Clarence (Henry Travers) falls into the water from the sky.  George's good-natured self jumps in after Clarence and saves him, only to discover that Clarence is his guardian angel.  When asked by Clarence why he was about to jump, George states "I wish I'd never been born".  Clarence, seeking to earn his wings, sees this as a prime opportunity to demonstrate his worth... and with a violent gust of wind the snow stops and the world has instantly transformed into a dismal place as George Bailey witnesses the role that his existence played in his community.
 One of the many remarkable aspects of this film is that the conflict doesn't actually start until the 80 minute mark (meaning only 50 minutes are devoted to the conflict and resolution).  At the opening of the film, everyone in Bedford Falls can be heard praying for George Bailey's safety, but up until the bumbling Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) accidentally misplaces the $8,000 deposit 80 minutes into the film, the entire film is an inciting incident.  In-between the beginning of the film and the deposit accident, the audience is being introduced to every facet of George Bailey's life (from the day that 12 year old George saves his brother from drowning in 1919 to the day of the misplaced deposit in 1945).
 Many viewers who may have not seen this film in a while (or never seen it at all) may ignore It's A Wonderful Life because of its Christmas atmosphere, when in reality only the final 40 minutes of the film are actually set in the context of Christmas.  The Christmas atmosphere is used as an emotional device (as the events of Christmas bear little significance to the plot), and it is in the spirit of Christmas that this film maintains popularity due to the family-oriented story.
 Highly detail-based and emotionally gripping (as well as highly inventive), It's A Wonderful Life is a film that relies upon parallelism and concealed repetition to drive the events on the screen.  With an overwhelming cast, characters like Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson) and Violet Bick (lorna Grahame) stand out because of their detail based character development.  Everything from Sam's catchphrase "he-haw" to Violet's flirtatious behaviors are depicted within the first 15 minutes of the film and are used as constant identifying motifs as time moves forward throughout the film.  However, those details are merely surface level.  
 Events depicted at the beginning of the film such as when George saves his brother from drowning and loses his hearing in his left ear come back into play when George jumps into freezing water again to save Clarence.  When George wishes that he had never been born (after saving Clarence), suddenly his hearing returns.
 Almost as if the film references the Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, George Bailey is brought by the angel Clarence to see everyone that he knew in his life (still skeptical that he had never been born) and he is given the "gift" to see what the world would be like without him.  His friends don't know who he is, his wife doesn't recognize him, and Bedford Falls is now owned by Mr. Potter and called "Pottersville" (and the city has become a place of debauchery).  One of the most pivotal reveals is in George's visit to the cemetery where he finds his brother's gravestone.  Because George was never born, his brother drowned in 1919 (though the scene has a very different context than Dickens' A Christmas Carol, it serves a very similar function in making the protagonist - Scrooge - realize how valuable his life is when he is shown his own tombstone by the third ghost of Christmas).
 Though It's A Wonderful Life is 66 years old, the film still holds up today due to its timeless message about kindness and the impact that one person's life can have upon the world.  Surprisingly, this film was not initially received with open arms (though it was nominated for five Oscars including best picture).  Today, this film still lives on as an image of the American dream and as an important tale of one man's struggle to discover his worth.
 There are George Baileys and Mr. Potters all around us, and this American masterpiece shows the influence of leaders in society and reveals that joy is not found within monetary wealth but rather in the lives of those around us.


It's A Wonderful Life
A Christmas Carol

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