December 21, 2020

WE CAN'T ALL BE HARRY; WE CAN BE GEORGE:

It's a Wonderful Life: the perfect Christmas film?The 1946 classic is a timely reminder that affection and loyalty can surface in the most difficult of circumstances (Alexander Larman, 12/21/20, The Critic)

It is received wisdom that It's A Wonderful Life is a sentimental exercise in all-American wish-fulfilment. As so often, received wisdom is incorrect. It is instead a more complex and nuanced film than that. It was based on a short story by the author Philip van Doren Stern, "The Greatest Gift", which was both inspired by A Christmas Carol and, more tenuously, by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, which Stern was an expert in. The story was published at Christmas 1944, found its way to a film studio, who paid a substantial $10,000 for the rights, and, after Cary Grant turned down the leading role, ended up being made by Capra.

In its initial, potentially Grant-starring conception, with scripts by Dalton Trumbo and the playwright Clifford Odets, the film was to revolve around a politician who had become increasingly jaded and world-weary, as he sees how compromised and unhappy he has become. After losing a vital election, he attempts to kill himself, before he is shown exactly how worthwhile and useful all of his initiatives have been by being presented with a parallel existence in which he had been a businessman rather than having followed a career in politics.

It would have been an intriguing film, no doubt with something worthwhile to say, but Cary Grant in a picture about the necessary compromises of politics does not entirely shout out "festive cheer". So the script was rewritten by Capra and other collaborators (who loathed him, calling him "that horrid man" and "a very arrogant son of a bitch"), Stewart was cast in the central role of George Bailey, "a Good Sam who doesn't know that he's a Good Sam", with Donna Reed as his wife, and it was filmed with great character actors including Thomas Mitchell as the amiable drunk Uncle Billy, Lionel Barrymore as the villainous banker Potter and Gloria Grahame as the good-time girl Violet. The all-powerful Hays Code ensured that the film stopped short of anything other than suggestion when it came to how flirtatious Violet's activities with Bailey, and others, were.

The reason why It's A Wonderful Life succeeds so admirably - but also why it may have surprised viewers on first release - is that, for a piece of heart-warming Christmas entertainment, it breaks several central rules. Not only does it begin with a scene of attempted suicide, but its storyline does not revolve around the expected narrative progression of an ordinary man being raised to greatness through hard work, luck and brilliance, but rather an ordinary man remaining ordinary, if decent, through self-sacrifice, bad luck and an unwillingness to push himself forward to the front of the queue.

Posted by at December 21, 2020 12:00 AM

  

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