The sentimental streak of Frank Capra—whose masterpiece, It’s A Wonderful Life, plays at the Brattle this weekend—was so distasteful to the critics of his day that they coined a mocking phrase to define it: Capra-corn. He dedicates a page of his autobiography to quotes from reviews for Wonderful Life, and indeed, even the most laudatory notices give it a demerit for sentiment. Yet his body of work, filled with yarns about great men pushing themselves to the psychological and financial brink in search of societal improvement, provides a far knottier impression. A vision of America as a land where most don’t make it to the top, but die trying—and where those who do make it nearly die doing so. One of his best early pictures, and one that features many sequences re-staged in It’s a Wonderful Life, is aptly titled American Madness. The corn is only half of it: These films aren’t sentimental about American life, they’re manic-depressive.
The Capra formula, as seen in a number of his strongest pictures: A man establishes himself as a moral leader, is challenged by forces willing to cut ethical corners, and is driven to his lowest point by the success of their treachery. Yet eventually he triumphs, thanks to the same moral fortitude that set him back in the first place. In Wonderful Life, that’s Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey. When his brother falls through ice, he dives right in, losing hearing in one ear saving him. When his father dies, he cancels his university enrollment, staying on in small town Bedford Falls to run his family’s Building & Loan business instead. When a busted bank leaves citizens broke, he pays out every cent of his savings to clients. And when Henry Potter, the town’s wealthy slumlord and the one-percent incarnate, plots to bankrupt the Building & Loan (he literally steals their funds,) George—unable to sacrific—heads to the town bridge, ready to throw himself off.
Suicide. Constantly in Capra movies, the threat is invoked. When the protagonist of American Madness, another bank manager, is facing a run on his funds (and thinks his wife is cheating on him to boot,) he turns to the gun stashed in his desk. The hero of Meet John Doe, a self-described average guy battling against society’s more predatory elements, threatens to launch himself fatally from the top of City Hall. A Hole in the Head climaxes with Frank Sinatra’s lovable scoundrel staring into the Miami coast, facing insurmountable financial turmoil, ready to bury himself in its waves. If we’re willing to grant that this repetition is more than just a dramatist’s crutch, then Capra was no idealistic proponent of pursuing the American Dream of financial independence and emotional fulfillment. In these movies, to chase that is tantamount to putting a gun to your head. Which brings us to the iconic conceit of Wonderful Life—a reckoning with all those threats of suicide littered about in the Capra canon.
Bailey peers into the abyss, only to be saved by a guardian angel who shows him what his life would be like without him: His friends penniless and pitied, his town under the rule of the wealthy, his wife a spinster. For perhaps the first time in Capra’s films, joy returns to the main character not in the form of financial and professional success, but in the form of a community, hands outstretched, ready to take him in. And let us note that, though George’s faith in life may be restored, Potter never sees his transgressions punished, because Capra—those derisive reviews be damned—isn’t merely following the rules of the morality play, nor is he jerking tears with false gravitas. It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s the triumph and the tragedy of the American townie.
But before George is redeemed, before he throws himself off the bridge, there’s a scene where he returns home to find typical suburban chaos: Kids clanging on pianos, wife starting in quick with updates on the to-do list. He loses it, a barrage of long-repressed insults coming loose on his way out the door. Capra, magnificently, has Stewart’s left-side profile pass the camera’s gaze as he walks past the frame itself. An hour earlier in the movie, at Bailey’s most selfless moment, Capra’s camera had enacted the same composition in reverse, catching the right side of Stewart’s face. Righteous moral sacrifice as one half of the American face, all the unwinnable wars from wealth inequality to familial squabbles the other; illustrated unpretentiously in a matter of moments. That has nothing to do with sentiment or corn—it’s cinema.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. THE BRATTLE, 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. FRI 12.19 – SAT 12.21. FOR SHOWTIMES AND TICKET PRICES, VISIT BRATTLEFILM.ORG