“To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavor.” C.S. Lewis
Frank Capra’s immigrant status was an integral part of his persona and perspective. His work carries a theme of gratitude mixed with critical citizenship, and I think that’s largely because as someone who was new to America, he wanted to understand it, and he appreciated the things about it that perhaps seemed everyday to others. Nowhere is his grateful and critical theme clearer than in the 1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But citizenship is also how one belongs to a family (You Can’t Take it With You) or town (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) and so on. These are also a part of one’s home. The subject of Capra’s films is exactly what Lewis is talking about when he references Johnson. “The secular community, since it exists for our natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude.”
So Capra’s characters are always seeking to be happy at home, in one’s country, in one’s family, and with one’s self. It might be argued that It Happened One Night is about characters that seek to be happy with each other, or to be happy in the working class (a similar theme is found in Meet John Doe). Following this logic, It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of a George Bailey (James Stewart) who wants to be happy with himself, in order to be happy at home, in his town, country, and world.
It’s a Wonderful Life is on of Capra’s late films, so it comes near the end of his thematic development. It was also made after WWII, which significantly impacts all aspects of the story and film. Capra had explored the themes mentioned above, and during the war, worked in making training and propaganda films. Pre-War films have a different objective and feel from anything made after. If films of the 30s capture a zeitgeist of playfulness (screwballs), escape (musical and adventure), and social change (again, note Meet John Doe or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or many of the films of John Ford), then film after the war touch on something darker than poverty. Film noir before the war was its own genre. After the war, it invaded all genres.
The 1946 Oscar for Best Picture went to The Best Years of Our Lives, beating the mildly popular It’s a Wonderful Life with little surprised. The story of Capra’s opus rising to prominence through repeated TV viewings is well know, but shouldn’t overshadow why it didn’t do as well upon it’s initial release. According to historian Jeanine Basinger, William Wyler’s Lives was the right story at the right time. Americans weren’t quite ready for Capra’s film, which was more of a psychological drama than any “romantic” film made up to that time.
The first half of the film, told in a series of flashbacks, is a romantic comedy. It is brightly lit, and the camera addresses characters at eye level. It tells the story of a man with great ambitions for financial success, who instead chooses to represent his family (his father’s principles, objectified by the Bailey Brothers Savings and Loan), his community (those the S and L represent, who would otherwise be taken advantage of by the banker, Mr. Potter). In each scene, we see George set up or making a decision: should he do what he wants, or should he do what is best for another person? And every time, despite his complaints, his frowns, his trick ear, or his new suitcase, he chooses something other than himself. Even his marriage is despite his initial misgivings about being tied down to both Mary and Bedford Falls.
Inherent in this choice is an ideal not limited just to Christianity, but staunchly in the center of Holiness. It’s the idea of a higher good than the self, of setting aside personal ambitions for the ambitions of others. This is the notion that George himself will come to embody, while Mr. Potter embodies the inverse. In fact, more than once a reference is made to George being a younger idea of Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter is self-serving, conniving, false, and community minded only insomuch as he can control it, and sap it of its resources for his own gain. The romantic comedy Bedford Falls is the town with the Bailey’s (specifically George and his father) high ideals. The film noir town is called Potterville, and embodies the selfish principles of its controlling citizen.
Film noir is characterized by deep shadows and doubt. High contrast and low-key lighting are used along with low angles. Noir is inherently psychological. It has its roots in German Expressionism, and the shadows and darkness convey a sense of fear, anger, danger, and evil (see such films as Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard). When George makes his wish to never have been born, the film immediately changes tempo, and tenor. The alternate reality set up by George’s comic relief guardian angel Clarence is, most fittingly a nightmare in noir trappings.
But what kind of nightmare is this, to never have lived? George’s un-reality is brought on by his self-doubt. He has chosen his path in life for the good of those around him, and if he can no longer do good, then “things would be better if I had never been born.” What George needs is not pride, which comes from misunderstanding self worth, but to be happy with himself. And for George, it is understanding that he has done good.
A sense of Christianity/spirituality is evoked from the start, as Clarence hears George’s story from another angel named Joseph. And nowhere is this clearer than in the scene at Martini’s, where George admits, “God, I’m not a praying man.” His confession and plea for help is met, he tells Clarence, with a punch to the face. This is not an uncommon Christian experience. Like Jacob wrestling with the Angel, or St. John of the Cross enduring the Dark Night of the Soul, Christian endeavor is about the death of self. In the bar, George can no longer help himself, or anyone else. And it is there he is extended grace.
All of Capra’s films have an external struggle that is only overcome by deep inward change; a change away from self, a change with gratitude and truth. His “corny” critique is a misnomer by pessimists. Romantic comedy is possible, when the noir in us all is confronted with Grace. This story, this idea, rendered on film, informs my faith and my ideals of life. Capra’s infusion of story, dialog, and film technique only solidifies and does justice to themes that are timeless and full of grace.