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...as fine and as calibrated as a smile turning to a frown on Jimmy Stewart’s face...

Travel journal: Hideaway TX, Christmas – New Year’s 2015

Watched Capra’s Wonderful Life last night. My waking up thoughts this morning over coffee opened it back up, more analytically. The high school Social Studies and English teacher in me this morning sees its commentary on immigration, class, “the 20s”, bank runs, race, alcohol, small town v. big city values, family, faith and religion, sex, money, Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore, Capra, socialism, communalism, predatory capitalism, WWII, the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, Christmas, character actors, small town “characters”, the “bad woman” v. the “good woman”, pathos, indignation, humor, subtexts about what is normative and what is deviant.


I’m sure there’s more: it is after all a movie, with gradations of expressed meaning as fine and as calibrated as a smile turning to a frown on Jimmy Stewart’s face.

The critical essay I’d like to read this morning would dig into the importance of the crowd scenes in the movie. There are several such scenes and they’re key to the movie’s expression: the high school graduation party and Charleston contest where George and Mary meet; the run on the Bailey Savings and Loan; the Martinis’ move-in day; and the emotional climax in the Baileys’ living room, where the town rescues George.

These choreographed set pieces gather and focus Capra’s themes of the values of community, radical acceptance, and democracy by gathering together – crowding together – the characters representing the different parts of the town. The scenes pointedly include Others: the children, the humble, the female, black, flawed, (alcoholic, “immoral”), the immigrant, the other, with the normative white men; all realized, made whole, all coming together into thematic harmony, by literally crowding together into the reality lived by the characters of the leads. George and Mary of course are that crowd, at its best. I will say here that Capra means us to see ourselves both in the particulars of that crowd and its idealization as George and Mary.


Capra’s introduction of the central plot device of the reversal of Bedford Falls into the bizarro world of Pottersville brings those collectivist themes into high relief with distorted mirror crowd scenes: the mean drunks at Nick’s place, the police raid on the dance hall where we see the alternate universe Violet Bick hauled off yelling from a sidewalk jammed with struggling bodies, the equally jam-packed crowd in the Pottersville bar – with all the townspeople George knew and loved denying him, as bizarro alternative Mary shrinks away from him in fear.


But the essay I’d want to read this morning would also note that we don’t watch Capra for these things, interesting as they might be: we watch him because we know he will bring us to catharsis, to tears over George’s anguish and restoration, and Mary’s faith in him. We know it’s disreputably sentimental: we don’t care, we want it, if only once a year. We want that moment of desperation and horror when George grabs Uncle Billy by the lapels and shouts, “Where is that money you old fool?!? Don’t you know what this means? It means scandal and ruin and prison!”


We want Zu-zu’s petals.


In the final Christmas scene in the living room, we want to be there when all the bread that George has cast out on the waters of his life comes back to him a hundred-fold. Everybody gets moist, here, a little verklempt; and this morning I remember what seems to me a telling detail: Ma Bailey smiling and wiping a tear. I think we all see this quick shot, and we all think, hey, she’s not acting, she means it, she feels it. I do not know – I was not there – but I know something of actors, what big kids are even the most professional – and my discernment is that even behind the camera, even on the fifth take, the magician Frank Capra was still singing Auld Lang Syne, and those actors in that scene were as genuinely moved as we are now, at our fifth, or fifteenth, or fiftieth viewing.

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