There are two major rites of passage associated with the Christmas season, both of which involve scales falling from one’s eyes and initiation into the world of adult cynicism. The first, of course, is the day you find out (SPOILER ALERT!) that there is no Santa Claus, though I imagine 4-year-olds are digging up that info on their iPads these days. Less remarked upon, however, is the second: Your sudden realization, late in an annual viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life, that this venerable holiday classic isn’t as heartwarming and life-affirming as its joyous ending insists, but rather one of the grimmest, most despairing portraits of middle-class compromise ever produced by Hollywood. Some folks never have this revelation, and for others it’s long deferred; arguably, you need to have given up on some cherished dreams of your own before the phrase “Holy shit, this movie is dark” pops into your head. Once the veil is lifted, though, there’s no returning to the carefree days of “Buffalo Gals” and lassoed moons. You’ll be wrecked by it forever after.
In particular, I’ve learned to leave the room at my parents’ house during the scene in which George Bailey returns home, having discovered that Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) has mislaid the cash receipts for their savings and loan business—a total of $8,000, which amounts to nearly $100,000 today. Potentially disastrous as this is, it’s really just the last straw in a lifelong series of frustrations and disappointments, and George proceeds to lose it in a way so credibly harrowing that it’s painful to watch—especially given the actor who’s playing him. Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann usually get the credit for unleashing the seething anger beneath Jimmy Stewart’s folksy persona, but Frank Capra got there first, creating an abrupt patriarchal nightmare that cuts far deeper, at least for me, than even an outright horror film like The Stepfather. If you can get through this clip without at least being on the verge of tears, regardless of how many times you’ve seen it before, then—um, wait a minute, you guys, sorry, I’ve got something in my eye...
Thankfully, the scene opens right on Janie hammering out “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” on the family piano, providing a convenient musical cue for me to flee. There’s something inexpressibly depressing about this clumsy refrain being repeated over and over for the entire duration of the scene (until George finally snaps and insists that she stop); you can hear it clearly even when we’re upstairs in Zuzu’s room. (Monty Python would later employ the same basic idea—harried man mocked by relentlessly cheery background music—for comic effect in the “Cheese Shop” sketch.) Janie knows all the correct notes but can’t play them at the correct tempo, and the close-but-no-cigar effect serves to unconsciously remind George of the many times that he’s almost achieved his goals, only to be foiled by awful timing. Plus, it’s just kind of maddening, even for someone not having the worst day of his entire crummy life. Certainly this is the moment in the film when the title seems most painfully ironic.
What’s extraordinarily rich and deeply moving about both the construction of the scene and Stewart’s performance, though, is that George doesn’t simply flip a switch and turn into a raging tyrant. Instead, he veers back and forth between bitterness and tenderness throughout, as his genuine love for his family does battle with his growing sense of self-pity. The first thing he does upon arriving home is respond brusquely to Mary’s innocuous questions about the Christmas wreath and his hat and coat; the second thing he does is hug Tommy so tight it’s a wonder he doesn’t break the poor kid’s ribs. Literally one minute later he peevishly asks, “Why do we have to have all these kids?!”—a heartbreaking question, but one that’s sandwiched between his concern about Zuzu’s health and his loving, whispered exchange with her upstairs. En route to which he pulls the broken ornamental piece off the banister and appears to briefly consider hurling it at Janie’s head (a beat that Stewart plays far more subtly than I can imagine most contemporary actors managing—he glances in her direction for only a microsecond).
With all these conflicting emotions regarding his family crowding his head, it’s no surprise that George seizes on an opportunity to vent at somebody outside the house. And it’s during the phone conversation with Zuzu’s teacher (and the teacher’s justifiably pissed-off husband) that Capra, who isn’t generally renowned as a visual stylist (but whose navigation of this set is unfussily masterful), provides the scene’s most distinctive formal touch. Mary finally manages to wrest the telephone from George, who exits the frame on the left, muttering about stupid people; Capra holds on a medium shot of Mary talking to the dead line. And then George crosses from left to right, out of focus, with the top of his head cut off by the frame. That may not sound like a big deal, but try to find a similar shot in Hollywood films of this era, which were blocked within an inch of their lives (as indeed was this one—there’s a match cut on George’s cross, so it’s not as if Stewart improvised the movement). The effect is to make him look like an animal pacing in its cage, reflecting the degree to which he now feels trapped by his circumstances.
And finally—after trashing the room, apologizing sincerely for his abusive behavior, and then instantly transforming that apology into further abuse (“Janie, go on, I told you to practice. Now go on, play!”), George escapes, heading out to throw himself off a bridge and be rescued by an angel. Obviously, the whole point of It’s A Wonderful Life is that the title isn’t ironic—Clarence shows George how much he’s meant to everybody in Bedford Falls, and the movie concludes with unbridled optimism and good cheer. And it being Christmas as this piece goes up, I don’t really want to bring everybody down. But I gotta say that while the ending works as intended, those beaming smiles and wing-heralding bells don’t linger for me nearly as powerfully as the impotent rage George gets consumed by here. The expression “Capra-corn” fails to recognize the degree to which this director’s crowd-pleasing epiphanies hinge upon the depths of utter hopelessness into which his characters first plunge. The real question is this: Has the movie become a holiday classic because people don’t notice how bleak and despondent it is, or because they do?