It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's a Wonderful Life (1946), produced and directed by Frank Capra.

Here are two important Truths of Life that you seldom see presented in movies:

(1) After the bursting energy of youth and first success as an adult, a man's life is a series of defeats. He never gets what he really wants, all is compromise, settling for less and ruined dreams. In the end every life seems like a failure.

(2) That's all right anyway.

Why should this be? George Bailey's case is a very common one: Women's Magic is stronger. He and Mary throw rocks at the old house, each with a wish: hers is to defeat his, to keep him from his dreams of adventure, to bind him to the little town. That requires the death of his father, the bank run and Great Depression: powerful stuff.

Is he the hero of the Building & Loan? He hates the shabby place, one of Old Man Potter's keener insights. Is he a pillar of the community? He hates the "crummy" town. Happy family man? In his anger and despair he says "why do we have all these kids?"

This would be a tragic tale were it not for Truth #2: It's ok. A good woman understands that having broken and domesticated her man, there are compensations for him: love, family, community, duties fulfilled. You can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. George is a large-hearted man: he can't even put himself first when trying to commit suicide. What would he have missed if he had become a solo adventurer?

I confess: when he returns to life and finds his kids at home, I get weepy. That doesn't often happen to a hardened amateur film reviewer.

I cannot praise James Stewart enough for this performance: all the shadings of yearning, despair and finally spiritual terror. And his miraculous return to joy. He's perfect for the role, so folksy and American, yet with that dangerous core, the persona that suited him so well in his Hitchcock pictures.

This is my first Blu-ray viewing and I see all sorts of new details, such as the sign at the pond where the boys are sledding: "H. Potter: No Trespassing", the plaque in Peter Bailey's office: "All you can take with you is that which you've given away", and the little boy searching George's pockets when he gets home. The sets are deep and rich, the cinematography finer than I remember. I even appreciate the acting more, something I don't remember from any other Blu-ray upgrade.

On the down side, Potter is a cartoon villain. The framing story of Clarence the angel ("IQ of a rabbit") is awfully sweet, but Capra's confidence makes it work. The juxtaposition of the sweetness with the tragic/joyful core of the story is actually kind of eerie, keeping us off balance.

The film provides unexpected opportunities for guilt by the viewer: for a man who has not achieved his goals and resents the ties that bind, for a woman who has hobbled her man, and for anyone who yearns for Bedford Falls while living and working in (and enjoying!) Pottersville.

Dimitri Tiomkin score.

Available on Blu-ray with a very decent image, particularly fine in the black levels.

Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!