o you think Newport City Centre is more like Bedford Falls, or Pottersville? If you have ever seen It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), then you’ll understand what I mean. If not, then you’ll have the opportunity this Christmas to see it on the big screen as the film is being re-released on 11th December.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a marmite film; it divides opinion. A Christmas favourite since the 1970s in the United States, it was rated number 11 on the American Film Institute’s centenary list compiled in 1998, yet was not popular until the 1970s and has its fair share of detractors. Even now Guardian editor Andrew Gilchrest calls it a “celebration of picket-fence smugness” and “nauseatingly wholesome”. However, I have come to love it partly because, for me, it is the epitome of classic Hollywood. It is a film where characters, themes, imagery and narrative come together in an organic whole which encourages an afterlife of interpretation, imbued with different meanings for succeeding generations and a richness of feeling which continues to garner new relevance.
It’s hard today to imagine a film with a banker hero. However, George Bailey, played by James Stewart, inherits Bedford Falls Savings and Loan Company from his father and runs it with the motivations of a contemporary social entrepreneur, not making much of a profit but enabling his customers to pool collective risk, own their own homes and plan their futures, whilst struggling against the asset-stripping venality of the Trump-alike boss of the town, Henry F. Potter.
However, Bailey’s decency comes at a cost. Every time he tries to leave to live his dreams, he is pulled back to Bedford Falls to fulfil his commitments and to sacrifice his dreams of freedom on the altar of family and community. When Uncle Billy accidentally loses the day’s takings, threatening to give Potter ultimate victory over Bedford Savings and Loan leading to George’s ruin, George cannot resolve his conflicts and goes to the falls in order to commit suicide. In a fantasy move which is an almost perfect reversal of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and pure “Capracorn” (a phrase coined after the name of the director to describe this kind of sentimental melodrama), George has been assigned a “guardian angel, second class”, Clarence Oddbody, tasked to save him. If Clarence is successful in saving George, he will be promoted to “angel first class” and gain his wings. Clarence jumps in the freezing water, forcing George, staying in character, to plunge in after him in rescue. The only way Clarence can reverse George’s despair is to act on his wish “never to have been born” and to show him what the life of Bedford Falls would have been like without his existence. The misery of “Pottersville”, the denuded and dehumanised town he encounters, makes George decide to live and he returns to the Christmas gathering with his wife and children to find the whole community has pitched in to replace the lost money and save the Savings and Loan. As George realises that his life is blessed, Clarence disappears, having won “his wings”.
So far, so corny. But what elevates It’s a Wonderful Life is how beautifully it uses form and style to express the emotions of the characters. For example, the joy conveyed in an early scene where George and Mary are so engrossed with each other dancing the Charleston they become the only dancers on the floor, as the dance floor slides apart to reveal a swimming pool. They dance precipitously ever nearer the edge until they finally and gloriously fall in, a move which echoes the development of their relationship and their marriage.
The sense of everyday struggle, how near George comes to despair on several occasions, seems especially relevant again today where anger and extreme emotions have become the increasing and inevitable response to austerity. George’s darkness is palpable, and even frightening in James Stewart’s exemplary performance. At his lowest ebb, we see him losing his temper with his wife and children and taking out his anger on the local teacher, an act which has unforeseen consequences when her husband punches him later and prompts his suicide attempt. His internal conflict is symbolized by the newel post on the stairs in his rickety old house, which keeps coming off when he goes upstairs. Exasperated with it, eventually, he finally accepts that the imperfections of his life are also what he loves and the newel post becomes a cherished object. In my favourite scene, George visits Zuzu, his small daughter, who is in bed with a cold. He “rescues” the rose she has been given as a school prize and puts it in water. He hides the fallen petals in his trouser pocket and discovers them again with joy as the sign that Clarence has given him his life back. Nature, in the form of the rose, redeems George from Potter’s money driven misanthrope.
Of course, the film is dated and the representation of women and black people are of its time. The black maid is a comic stereotype; jovial, subordinate and dumb, and the women are of the homemaker (Mary) or good-time girl variety (played by the great Gloria Grahame who has only recently become the subject of a feature film - Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool). Pottersville as a depiction of hell is now unintentionally comic – it is overrun by jazz and jitterbugging and the awful fate visited upon Mary is that she is a friendly spinster with glasses who works at the local library!
The ending still brought a tear to my eye, even though I’ve seen the film many times, but if you haven’t yet seen It’s a Wonderful Life, then I urge you to watch it and make up your mind. And remember, whenever you hear a bell ring, an angel has gained his wings…