2001: A Film Odyssey – “It’s a Wonderful Life” (Adventures in Depression)

Every era has its creations, some heralded as masterpieces, others declared to be wretched waste. Then comes the next era, the next generation to look back at what came before and ask – what the fuck were they thinking? And in this vein I’m here to embark on this odyssey of entertainment, watching films ranging from summer blockbusters to cult classics, trying to figure out what holds up and what should be left to be consumed by the sands of time.

This week, for our ‘Depression’ theme week, we go back, further than we’ve ever gone before, with 1946’s  It’s a Wonderful Life. In “It’s a Wonderful Life” we watch the life of a George Bailey, an intelligent man with big dreams and an even bigger heart and see what happens when it all goes to shit.

In the beginning, the film opens with an interaction between angels, trying to figure out who’s job it is to save our protagonist – George Bailey (James Stewart) from committing suicide. In the end, the buck stops at Clarence, a dopey second-class angel who hasn’t gotten his wings yet. This is clearly meant to be humorous and the angels are the audience’s way through which we can see George’s past – but the scene just feels super out of place in an otherwise grounded film. The same goes for the angels throughout the film, I feel like all the moral points that the angels prove about the influence George Bailey has on the world around him could be proven without breaking the suspension of disbelief of the audience. Perhaps this is just a sign of the times in which this film was made but nevertheless, it doesn’t do the film any favours at all.

Beyond the angels, we have the story of George Bailey. We begin at his childhood, with George already showing his spirit by saving his little brother Harry from drowning. There’s not really much to this, barring establishing who he is as a character – and telling us how he becomes deaf in one ear. Perhaps the more interesting childhood scene is when George is shown to be working in a drugstore with Gower, the owner as Gower discovers that his son has died of influenza. The effect that this death has on him is profound, causing him to immediately begin to drink and angrily vent at George. H.B. Warner does an absolutely fantastic job of portraying the sheer misery he’s feeling at this point which is really what makes the tragedy so heart-wrenching. It’s like you can feel some of his pain through the screen – exemplifying how great Warner’s brief but impactful performance is. George’s response to this misery is a further demonstration of his character and perhaps more importantly, manages to establish that this film can (and will) get dark at times but these things can be overcome – something echoed throughout this film.

Once this part of George’s life is established, we surge forward into the young adult portion of George’s life, and the town he lives in. One thing that I got from this is just how nice and homely it all feels – the sheer warmth radiates out of these characters, everyone involved just feels so lovely. One particular stand-out performance is Thomas Mitchell playing the role of George Bailey’s Uncle Billy, he comes across as a funny and bumbling but warm-hearted man who you’d love to have as an uncle! The town as a whole really does feel like an idealised version of 1940s America, which works both to the film’s advantage and to its detriment, but more on that later.

On top of the heartwarming characters, the other thing I didn’t really expect from this film was humour – but it actually managed to catch me by surprise in that regard, with a whole host of wholesome (and not so wholesome) gags throughout George’s young adult life. However, the most important aspect of this portion of the film is the beginnings of the relationship between George Bailey and Mary Hatch (played by Donna Reed). Stewart and Reed have an incredible amount of chemistry and their relationship is absolutely adorable. You can feel the excitement of them being together. Beyond that, the quirks of their relationship (particularly with Stewart’s performance) just help to make this feel so nice and wholesome. By the end of this section, you’re just desperate for the two to get together – which they eventually do.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about this film without talking about Mr.Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore), the film’s antagonist and business rival to Bailey. Barrymore truly does feel like an incredibly slimy businessman, making you hate him more and more with every word that comes out of his mouth. Aside from being a hateable villain, he serves as an inverse image of Bailey: instead of being a caring and chipper person, he’s a warped and twisted figure whose only consideration is money, which serves as a commentary on rampant capitalism. There is perhaps, something powerful in the way in which (like a cockroach) Potter continues to persist, seemingly with little struggle and be a thorn in Bailey’s side throughout this film.

Finally, the film comes to the present(-ish) day, with George and Mary having a family together and everything seeming perfect. This leads up to a Christmas tragedy striking and a substantial amount of money is misplaced -leading to an imbalance in their accounts. With the threat of arrest looming, Bailey spirals into a depressive state which is demonstrated incredibly well by Stewart. His entire posture and body language snaps from springy and chipper into something far more sullen and violent. The sheer difference is staggering and really hammers home the tragedy of the situation, with this feeling only further entrenched by the way in which he’s surrounded by Christmas cheer. Beyond that, the effect on the children and Mary is profound, with the children crying and Mary infuriated – showing how misery not only affects the direct victim but everyone around them as well.  As this state of mind spirals, especially given the introduction of copious amounts of alcohol, he comes to the conclusion that he’s worth more dead than alive due to his life insurance policy and that this is the only way he can pay off his debts. Finally, his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) enters and ushers in what I believe to be the worst part of this entire film – the 20(ish) minutes where he’s shown what his town would be like if he was never born.

Through this dream sequence, he is incredibly oblivious to what’s happening – despite the concept being explained to him repeatedly by Clarence. Showing uncharacteristic levels of stupidity and thoughtlessness, he runs through town, shouting at people – despite them not knowing him being incredibly clear. Alongside that, this sequence seems devoid of all the character and charm that carried us through the rest of the film, especially considering how there is almost no chemistry between Stewart and Travers. Though at its core the idea of seeing how much of an affect he has on the world around him is pretty good, the way through which this gets explored is a complete and utter pain to watch – souring the idea. Eventually, he gets the point,  learns his lesson, and returns to the normal world and manages to escape his money troubles through the generosity of those whose lives he’s touched.

Aside from the film’s messages at face value, it also deals with interesting ideas. An example being, with the way in which Bailey is forced by varying circumstances and moral guilt into his father’s old job of the running the ‘Bailey & Loan’, it questions exactly how much agency we have in the decision of our fate and additionally how much we should give up for the sake of others.

Does it hold up?

This film is rooted in the 40s, with a lot of the uncomfortable stuff that comes with it. There’s an uncomfortable level of grabbing of women, as well as some casual misogyny throughout, an extreme lack of strong female figures. As well as that, Annie (played by Lillian Randolph) plays the very archetypal sassy black maid which really irked me. On another point, the way “It’s a Wonderful Life handles many of the issues involved feels too restrained like it’s being forced to fit a pre-established mould and is just begging to break out. Finally, the idealistic 40s setting makes the fall from grace more dramatic but also makes it significantly harder to connect with the characters and their struggles – though much of it translates pretty well. So, although this film was completely groundbreaking in its time – in 2017 it works better to watch as a piece of film history rather than something for pure and immediate entertainment.

And also, since this is the depression theme week I’ll relay the film’s main positive message: Every single one of you reading this has an influence on the world around you, from as little as giving me a little ego boost by reading this, to being a someone to lean on for a friend in need. So even if you think your impact is minimal, you matter, you’re important and the world would be missing something special without you around.

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