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The AFI Top 100 Films: It’s a Wonderful Life (#11)

Entertainment 150It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore
Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra (screenplay) and Philip Van Doren Stern (story)
Directed by Frank Capra

Part of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life such an indelible movie is its inextricable tie to Christmas and the mood we all wish to be in during that holiday. We want to see the best in mankind, we want to believe that a community can come together to take care of one of its own when they’re in trouble, we want to believe that things turn out all right in the end. It’s a Wonderful Life indulges that desire in spades, giving us a bittersweet fable of small-town, picture-postcard America that’s at turns heartbreaking and life-affirming. It’s quite an interesting film, actually, when you think about it beyond its sentimentality.

James Stewart is George Bailey, a young man from the small town of Bedford Falls with a dream of traveling around the world. His family serves a vital function of the community; allowing the working poor to receive loans to start businesses and buy homes for themselves. Their nemesis is an old Wall St. type named Henry Potter (Barrymore), an exploitative slum lord who represents the ideal of the free market, I suppose. The only thing that stands in the way of his complete capitalist tyranny is the little Bailey Building and Loan Association.

George’s father has a stroke right when his brother graduates high school, which means he’s the only one who can run it — his brother isn’t ready and his father and uncle are both unfit now. He puts off his dream to sort out the mess, and his brother goes to college instead. When his brother returns, it’s with an enormous job offer that George knows he can’t turn down. He kills his dream of leaving Bedford Falls for the betterment of his brother, taking on the burden of running the Building and Loan by himself.

The pressure from Potter intensifies, especially after the market crash of 1929. George gives up more and more of his life, sacrificing the nest egg he had squirreled away for his honeymoon to prevent a run on the association. Meanwhile, his brother enlists during World War II, becomes a fighter pilot ace, travels the world and comes home to a hero’s welcome. On the day of the parade, George’s absent-minded uncle misplaces $8,000 of the bank’s money. Without that deposit, the Building and Loan is sunk and Potter wins.

Distraught, George berates his children and one of their teachers, yells at his wife, crashes his car and nearly commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. Here is the part of the story everyone knows — his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) comes down to show him a dystopian Bedford Falls where he had never been born to show him the difference he’s made in people’s lives. Filled with joy at knowing the effect of his good works, George races through the streets of Bedford Falls towards his home, just in time for a Christmas miracle of the community’s own making. It really is one of the finest, most touching endings in cinematic history. I’m not ashamed to admit it makes me cry, every time.

What makes the ending so effective is what makes the rest of the movie so interesting and surprisingly complex. A lot of people ding this movie for its sentimentality, claiming that it gives easy answers that wouldn’t quite fly in the real world, and I disagree. What makes George Bailey such an extraordinary hero isn’t just that he tries so hard to do the right thing — it’s that sometimes he actually fails to. He’s not a saint; it’s clear that he resents his family and his community because of the choices he feels he has to make, and he doesn’t take care to find an outlet for it. The final straw simply uncovers what was already there — a man who feels trapped by responsibilities that may or may not be his, by the burden of being the difference between people’s happiness and their oppression.

It’s completely understandable that George would feel this way; he’s regularly sacrificed his happiness for other people, and he never seems to get a break. The rest of the community shows their appreciation at times, but they’re also just people — subject to mob mentality, panic and petty thoughts. Most people don’t have the emotional fortitude that Bailey possesses, and it’s rather difficult to be fair-minded about people you’ve stuck out your neck for but end up taking the easy way far too often.

This is the problem of the idealist; the world really doesn’t mold itself to your ideals all that often. And that disappointment can lead to a sort of desperation, the attachment that something good must come of your beliefs and deeds. As that disappointment continues, it poisons into resentment.

What It’s a Wonderful Life does is remind us that we do make a difference with our actions, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. If we put goodness out into the world, it really does help. Life in Bedford Falls isn’t perfect, especially for George; his Building and Loan may be saved by the end of the movie, but it’s still stressed. He still has unfulfilled dreams that he’ll likely never be able to return to. He’s still surrounded by people who are prone to panic, small-mindedness and failing their own ideals. Nothing’s changed but his perception, and a newfound appreciation for the things that have gone right.

Capra has become known for his “perfect” Americana pieces, but I think this movie doesn’t quite get its due because of it. It’s a Wonderful Life shows us the worth of the transformative mindset, what happens when we let go of the expectation that good things will happen to us because we do good things. Karmic feedback rarely takes the form that we’re looking for, and success can take on a wide variety of definitions. George struggles, but he succeeds because his community does; they never would have been able to help him when he needed it most without his life lived helping them.

What makes me so enamored with that lesson is the idea that a life well-lived matters in ways we never see, but it also cautions us to take care of our own desires. Or at least, how we deal with them when they’re unfulfilled. We must pay attention to ourselves every once in a while if we’re to continue living our ideals.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie. For those of us who are community-minded, it’s a gem that justifies our beliefs and reminds us of the worth of the individual. There’s a lot going on underneath the candy-coated exterior of Bedford Falls, but isn’t that always the way of a small town?

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (#29)

Entertainment 150Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains
Written by Sidney Buchman (screenplay) and Lewis R. Foster (story)
Directed by Frank Capra

The big surprise with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is how relevant it seems today. This is a movie that’s nearly 75 years old, and it’s talking about government corruption, graft, and how far politicians are willing to go to discredit and punish whistle-blowers. It’s a little shocking to see how deeply ingrained corruption was in our political process even back then, and it definitely puts our current crop of representatives in perspective. The machinery of Washington has been more firmly entrenched than most of us realize.

But I’ll try not to delve too deeply into the politics of this deeply-political movie. Instead, I’ll talk about its merits. James Stewart gives an incredible performance as Jefferson Smith, a small-town leader of a local Boy Scout analog. He’s appointed as the junior senator of his state by the governor on a whim, more-or-less. The governor (Guy Kibbee) is pushed into a minor act of rebellion against the shadowy businessman really pulling the strings — Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold).

Though Taylor isn’t particularly pleased by this wrench thrown into his plans, he expects them to go forward regardless. Basically, he wants the government to buy land he purchased cheaply for a works project. That would make him a ton of money while bringing in a flood of business to the state. This same patch of land, as luck would have it, is targeted by Jefferson Smith as a nature preserve for kids to appreciate the splendor of the American wilderness.

Once Jefferson finds out what the land has been earmarked for and just how the process has worked so far, he vows to fight Taylor’s corrupting influence. The resulting stand-off leaves Jefferson’s childhood hero (and senior senator of his state) Joseph Paine in the middle, along with his secretary, the hard-boiled Clarissa Saunders (Arthur). They have to look at the system they’ve been a part of for most of their lives, and decide whether or not it’s something they still believe in.

This movie marks something of a transition for its star and famous director. Capra is best known for It’s A Wonderful Life, of course, but later on started making pictures that looked towards America with a slightly more cynical eye. Stewart, on the other hand, still maintains the wide-eyed small-town innocence that he was known for at the time. He manages to carry a weight with him, though, that we don’t see until later. It’s interesting to note the beginnings of the seriousness he had during his work with Hitchcock, on display right here.

The supporting cast is actually pretty wonderful, too. Edward Arnold is fantastic as the villainous Jim Taylor, the no-nonsense businessman who has an incredible amount of power and knows how to wield it. He tries to charm his way into getting what he wants first, but is pretty quick with the overt threat when he senses that someone won’t be glad-handed into rolling over. Claude Rains has just the right amount of troubled conscience etched across his face as Joseph Paine; he knows that what’s happening here isn’t right, that he’s made compromises he shouldn’t have, but you can also see why he would make them and why he might continue to make them. Washington is a place that seduces you away from idealism quite well, it turns out.

Capra does a great job creating the mood of the nation’s capital as both a shrine to the ideals of what our nation can be and the echo chamber of back-room deals that it really is. Jefferson’s enthusiasm and awe is infectious when he first arrives, and you get a real sense of patriotism during the scenes where he immediately goes out on a tour of national landmarks. It makes the slow realization of how far we’ve come from those ideals surprisingly bleak; you feel the disillusionment he does when he sees how the Senate really works. Capra doesn’t distract from the point he’s making by mentioning the party system once; he makes the corruption that runs rampant a human issue rather than a political one.

Yet, politics really is only the way we agree to act towards ourselves as a group of people. It’s an oversimplification, of course, but I also believe it’s true. If we let the people with a thirst for power create a system that rewards the “might at all cost” mentality, this is what we get. And that’s as true now as it was in 1940. I love that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington offers us a glimpse of this truth filtered through the lens of pre-war America. It tells us that some of our country’s faults — as well as our strengths — are things that we need to be constantly in mind of.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: It Happened One Night (#35)

Entertainment 150It Happened One Night (1934)
Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert
Written by Robert Riskin (screenplay) and Samuel Hopkins Adams (short story)
Directed by Frank Capra

One of the most interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits I’ve discovered about It Happened One Night is just how much its lead actors hated working on the film. Its distributor, Columbia Pictures, was one of several studios on what was called “Poverty Row”. Other studios would send difficult actors to one of these lots as a ‘humbling experience,’ so they would learn to appreciate what they had. Clark Gable was sent there after a number of other actors had passed on the script, and Claudette Colbert only took the job when director Frank Capra told her he would double her salary and she would be done in four weeks. (At least, that’s the story according to IMDB.) Colbert was particularly unhappy the entire time, and didn’t think much of the final cut of the film.

Neither did critics or audiences, at first. It Happened One Night debuted to weak box office and indifferent reviews, and it looked like it would be another flop for Columbia. Then, something strange happened. It landed in second-rate theatres, and actually did better there. Word of mouth snowballed, more and more people saw it, and it actually turned into Columbia’s biggest hit at the time. This delayed wave of regard carried the film all the way to the Oscars, where it became the first of only three movies in history to win the “big five” awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Original or Adapted Screenplay).

Actually, this might be how they got to the Oscars.

“Will pay gas for ride to better movie.”

Not bad for a movie that almost everyone involved with hated. What’s impressive is you wouldn’t know it by just watching the film — it looks like everyone involved is having a blast. Either Gable and Colbert are consummate professionals or their chemistry is just that good. I’d like to think the latter.

Colbert is Ellie Andrews, the socialite daughter of a very rich man. Her father doesn’t approve of her gunshot marriage to wealthy aviator King Westley (no kidding, that’s his actual name — he’s not royalty) and basically abducts her to his yacht. She escapes, and in order to avoid notice rides a Greyhound bus back to New York where she hopes to meet her new husband. There, she meets a reporter who just happened to quit his job moments ago, Peter Warne (Gable).

Peter offers to help Ellie evade capture if he gets exclusive rights to the story; if she refuses, he’ll blow the whistle and send her back into the loving, tight embrace of dear old dad. That’s the only set up you need before it’s off to the races. Gable and Colbert trade jabs with impeccable timing, and together they make one of the best screen couples I’ve ever seen, hands down. When you see two people who can’t stand each other slowly come together over the course of the film, you can bet they’re building on the template these guys formed.

Gable is as awesome as ever as a cad and conniver; he’s always in control, always has an idea for any situation. Peter gets Ellie out of as many scrapes as he gets her into, but she’s quite game to go along with it. In fact, she often takes his ideas and improves upon them in surprising ways — Ellie may be inexperienced, but she’s tremendously quick-witted. It’s great to see this sheltered socialite come into her own the way she does; not only does she rise to the occasion, she loves doing it.

It Happened One Night is remembered quite fondly because it treats its romantic leads equally; Peter has his foibles and vulnerabilities just as much as Ellie. She picks at them, too, just as pointedly as he does. She gives as good as she gets, even though she’s not afraid to be vulnerable, or petty, or hurt. What makes me so fond of Ellie is that she’s such a fully-realized character. She’s helpless not because she’s a woman, or of low intellect, but simply because she’s never had the chance to help herself. And through the course of the trip you see her rely on her wits, charm and intelligence just as much as Peter.

It kind of blows me away to realize just how influential this movie was; a lot of the mannerisms for Bugs Bunny was based on things that happened in the film, and apparently sales of undershirts plummeted because of one scene of Clark Gable undressing. Beyond the legends about that, you just see this movie embedded in the DNA of every quippy romantic comedy that’s come out since, and even though they try to capture the interplay of Gable and Colbert, they can’t quite catch lightning in a bottle for a second time.

Another great thing about this film is the variety of people they meet in their travels. I’ve taken the Greyhound bus across the country before, and it turned out to be a lot less fun than what was depicted. I swore I’d never get on a bus again to travel long distances after that trip, but this movie made me seriously reconsider that. There’s a love of people that suffuses itself through the energy of the film; even though its leads have many bad qualities, you never once think of them as bad people. That attitude carries on right down the line, from annoying fellow passenger Oscar Shapely to severe helicopter father Mr. Andrews. I’m sure much of that comes from Capra, who somehow makes his affection for Americana earnestly without coming over too corny about it.

This is a grand romantic comedy that’s about more than two people finding each other and falling in love. It’s about how discovering the world outside yourself makes you a more complete person; both Ellie and Peter are trapped in different myopic world views, and it’s only when they open up to one another that they learn how to get out of their own way. Alone they’re reasonably intelligent, headstrong people who can’t quite catch a break. Together, they’re an unstoppable bickering force. The world — and the audience — is in the palm of their hands.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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