In 2007, I had a major argument with an acquaintance of mine about whether Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life is — at its heart — a life-affirming, warm-hearted positive view of humanity (as she maintained) or a dark, bitter view of a guy who figures out how to carve out a sliver of happiness in the face of life’s crushing disappointments (my position). I’m simplifying here.
Today, the N.Y. Times‘ A.O. Scott examines the film and seems to come to similar conclusions: Critics’ Picks: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
There does seem to be a popular notion that It’s a Wonderful Life is sweet and wonderful. For goodness sakes, it’s about a guy saved by an angel. However, most of the film is about how a guy gets driven to such desperation that he’s ready to kill himself; he got there by a series of cuts and blows delivered over years. It’s not just losing his hearing or the money or not getting to travel. It feels like George Bailey is a really smart and ambitious guy who is trapped in a small town full of people who are… uh… (How do I put this kindly?) perhaps not of his intellectual heft. Many of Capra’s movies were about the triumph of simple good-hearted folk over powerful authorities and smarty pants cynics. That ain’t George; he’s not the naive Jefferson Smith of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Although, on a related note, it does remind me of how dark and defeated Jefferson Smith becomes at the climax of that movie; great stuff from Jimmy Stewart and reminiscent of his work in films like Vertigo and The Naked Spur.