(Warning--plot and narrative twists discussed in explicit detail)
I do think Frank Capra's best-known film is some kind of masterpiece.
The director developed pacing and a gift for slapstick while making silent comedies; with It Happened One Night, showed a gift for swift-sketched romances; with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe revealed a vaguely libertarian idealism bordering on (some would say blundering past the point of) naivete.
Everything Capra learned was poured into this, not to mention considerable studio resources. Bedford Falls (fictional, though Seneca Falls NY claims to be the original inspiration) was built in RKO's Encino ranch, all three hundred yards' worth including bank, drugstore, emporium, tree-lined boulevard, and movie theater; the film's most emblematic shot, of George Bailey (James Stewart) running up and down the street is repeated several times in several different kinds of weather, from bright summer to blustery fall to sleety winter to heavy Christmas snow.
Capra in effect constructs an entire world and populates it with a cast of distinct characters: Irish cop, taxi driver, smart-aleck college graduate, semi-abusive druggist, flirtatious free spirit, malevolent financier. Each inhabitant has the effect of either confirming Bailey's unforgiving sense of duty (he runs his father's Building and Loan despite a longheld desire to go to college and see the world) or mulish stubbornness (he never fails to speak up for the common folk against the greed of local banker Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore))--really two sides of the same coin.
Capra introduces this world to us in a relatively brief seventy-five minutes, the second hour devoted to making every detail pay off as validation of Bailey's sacrifice. Even the visual style changes midway, as if the film were executed by two directors: the first half is more in Capra's familiar self-effacing manner, with the camera in constant medium shots of longish length, the better to catch the pratfalls (I remember this perfect little bit of business, of George stepping out of heavy rain into an improvised honeymoon suite--he's just married longtime sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed)--and taxi driver Ernie (Frank Faylen) as uniformed doorman leans back against the entranceway, stovepipe's brim pushed up in greeting, palm raised in anticipation; when George looks down at Ernie's hand his fedora promptly tips the doorman with a hatful of rainwater).
The latter hour has the more interesting style, with a shadowy Gothic look and snow that might have swirled out of the little glass ball that opens Citizen Kane. Capra pushes the camera right up to George's face to better capture the anguish (he's about to be accused of embezzlement) and the closeups are gigantic, even grainy (Capra liked one take of Stewart weeping so much he had the shot blown up, hence the not inappropriate coarseness), with harsh lighting and little music.
Note that in all of the film's 130 minute running time there's almost no image of the world outside Bedford Falls; O a few glimpses of World War 2 perhaps, and of a plastics factory--but otherwise we're every bit as trapped in town as George is, and possibly as frustrated. Only other film I can remember off the top of my head that realized such effectively stylized small-town claustrophobia is Joe Dante's Gremlins thirty-eight years later, which parodies Bedford Falls (Did it need parodying? I wonder...).
Most folks adore the film; some don't. Some of the more perceptive nonfans grudgingly appreciate Capra's skill in weaving various elements and influences, everything from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (the Martini family's rickety old Ford driving past the improvised "Bailey Park" sign--Capra's answer to government resettlement camps, a communally funded housing project) to the aforementioned Welles film. They note the film's nimblefooted way of skittering across moods and genres: low slapstick, sexy rom-com, high drama, metaphysical fantasy, nightmare noir--this is a massive alcohol-drenched holiday fruitcake stuffed full of nuts and candied fruits, not some paltry Lenten snack.
I've yet to find a skeptic though willing to defend the film's ending; one is capable of ingesting only so much sweetness and light I suppose before nausea takes over.
See if this makes any sense then:
Remember that George spent his whole life trying to flee Bedford Falls; every time he's on the verge of actually doing so some calamitous event (his father's death; the attempted takeover of the Buildings and Loan; the bank run) or momentous occasion (his marriage to Mary) compels him to stay.
The man's inner struggle is handily encapsulated in one sequence: George is urged to visit Mary, who has just returned from college; on the way he's approached by Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) a childhood friend. "Don't you get tired of just reading about things?" she asks provocatively; George scares her away with his answer (something about walking barefoot through a field and swimming (presumably naked) in a moonlit pool--though to be fair the nearby audience laughing at her probably didn't help). Later he listens in on a long-distance call between Mary and her beau Sam in New York and you can tell--thanks to Stewart's unselfconscious performance--that there's considerable electric tension between them. George ends up kissing Mary passionately; the wedding follows soon after.
Capra clearly stacks the odds against Violet; her bewildered response doesn't make much sense (why wouldn't she want to walk barefoot through a field with George?). Mary is also allowed more time with George; in fact George deliberately delays their eventual meeting because he knows the lure of wanting to see her is so strong. Capra ruthlessly shapes the scenes to build and build, literally climaxing with George's mouth all over Mary's face because that's the point and theme of the sequence of in fact the entire film, with only one crucial problem: Grahame. Our lady of the baby cheeks and smoldering throw-me-on-a-couch-and-have-your-way-with-me gaze fills out a dress so well ("This old thing? Why I only wear it when I don't care how I look") you can believe she causes traffic accidents every time she steps off the sidewalk.
On the surface the film is geared towards convincing George that he's destined to stay home and assume the position of town patriarch. If George and Violet weren't so clearly being manipulated by script and filmmaker to stop short of consummating their mutual sexual attraction he probably wouldn't even make it as far as Mary's front door--would probably be somewhere near the foot of Mount Bedford, skinny-dipping or worse.
Is it just sexual? I mean between George and Violet? Midway through the film is a scene between them in his office; she's embarrassed he's patient and understanding. She's clearly reluctant to leave Bedford Falls--because of him perhaps? When she wipes the lipstick off his cheek it's an intimate gesture, a glimpse (like all the other glimpses in the film) into a relationship that might have been.
As for that ending: George is driven to thoughts of suicide, is brought back from the brink by guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) via the magical device of the "what if" scenario, showing what life is like without him (A bit of a cheat on Clarence's part: George's issue is less general ('is life worth living?') than it is specific ('will I ever get out of here?') and I don't think Clarence's reply addresses the problem at all).
Few nightmares in cinema are more terrifying than what follows. George has Christmas Past Present and Future rammed down his throat in one all-encompassing vision, showing the value of staying put and standing by your grindstone, never once looking up outside of established boundaries. The town has become a dark forbidding realm filled with familiar faces acting like total strangers (Violet is briefly spotted being dragged violently into a police van). At one point shots are fired; later a cemetery is visited. By vision's end George is reduced to a sniveling quivering mess, begging Clarence desperately (Are angels liable for emotional abuse?) for a second chance.
Come snow, indicating that George is back in the real world (few note Capra's skill in depicting weather, a skill possibly in the same league as Kurosawa's; his winds his rains his eloquently falling snow work harder than even the music to set a scene's emotional tone). George the blubbering hysteric has become George the exuberant maniac; you hear the cracked gratefulness in his voice as he runs for the umpteenth time down Bedford Falls' main street, shrieking 'Merry Christmas!' at each and every storefront standing there.
George barges into his own home and--isn't it remarkable how Capra has so carefully introduced every character in Bedford Falls except the children? We never see them except as brief glimpses in transitional footage and then suddenly when daddy suffers a really bad day at work (he's just been threatened with prison) all four are tossed at us in all their bawling annoying glory. George is visibly having difficulty keeping it together as he deals with each child's problem, one more ridiculous than the next (a sore throat; a noisy piano, played relentlessly offkey; a few dropped flower petals). By the end of the scene when the filial comes off the banister in his hand you wonder why he doesn't bludgeon them all to death with the wooden knob--instead he runs out the door.
Anyway, George barges back into his home and hugs each brat as if he hadn't seen them all his life. Friends start pouring in (Violet has an all-too-brief walk-on) money too (What embezzlement charge?). George is surrounded by so much love and goodwill you wonder why no one's taken to singing 'Auld Lang Syne'--and what do you know little Janie starts banging on the damned piano, and everyone joins in.
At this point you realize what it is you're looking at: a perfectly realized Hallmark Card (the story this film was based on failed to find a publisher, so author Philip Van Doren Stern was reduced to printing it out as greeting cards to be handed out at Christmas). And George--poor George, his dreams of college of engineering of seeing the world finally and irreparably crushed--finds himself trapped in the middle of all that relentless cheer. He grins the idiot grin of a broken man, tail tucked firmly between legs, a man who has well and truly learned his lesson, who will never again dare lift his head to dream of anything better than living out the brief span of his thoroughly shackled life to its bitter feeble end.
Merry Christmas one and all!
First published in Businessworld 12.15.16