It’s Christmas 2020, and considering what a trainwreck the year has been, I don’t feel much like boarding the Polar Express. I’m staying at home this year, burning the Yule log with a glass of egg nog in one hand, a fire extinguisher in the other.
Haven’t been in the mood to watch Christmas movies, either. At least, not until I saw that a restored version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” was streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Yes, jaded and worldweary as I am, I can still watch this 1946 Frank Capra classic. Even my friends who know I’m a movie buff roll their eyes when I start defending it. How can a guy who argued early on that “Die Hard” was a Christmas movie (a position now generally accepted), and for whom Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” is still the definitive Western possibly be a fan of this sentimental fantasy yarn about a man and his guardian angel?
My answer is simple. If you haven’t watched the movie since you were a kid, watch it again. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is darker than you think.
The thing is, all that people tend to remember about this movie is the happy ending. Ask a random person what “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about, and chances are they’ll blather on about an angel getting his wings and Jimmy Stewart jumping off a bridge. That’s the final reel. What about the first two-thirds of the movie?
An early scene sets the tone. George as a boy makes deliveries for the local druggist. In a drunken stupor, the druggist puts poison in prescription capsules by mistake. Young George calls him on it, and the druggist strikes the boy repeatedly. The scene is brutal, doubly so for modern audiences.
The film jumps to George Bailey (Stewart) as a young man. George is idealistic and dreams of traveling the world, but every time he tries to leave his hometown of Bedford Falls, he gets pulled back. By the middle of the film, George is suffering from depression. He feels trapped in the “crummy little town” and overwhelmed trying to run the Bailey Building and Loan, the business he inherited from his father. It doesn’t help that the town’s greedy capitalist banker, Mr. Potter, is constantly scheming to shut Bailey down.
The final straw is when the loss of a bank deposit leaves George facing financial ruin and probable charges of embezzlement. In despair, George becomes suicidal. He physically assaults Uncle Billy (who lost the money), verbally assaults his family, gets drunk, wrecks his car and staggers onto a bridge fully prepared to end it all.
Not exactly Hallmark movie material. But all this is just laying the groundwork for the film to slip into full “Twilight Zone” mode, where things are about to get still grimmer.
George’s guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), steps in at the last moment and saves George from his despair. Later, Clarence grants George’s wish and allows him to see what Bedford Falls would be like had he never been born.
What follows is pure film noir — a cinematic sequence as powerful today as when it was made. Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, a seedy dive town full of bars, strip clubs and pawnshops.
Capra’s camera captures all this with stylish realism. The streets are pools of shadow, the people morally bankrupt. It’s as if we’ve wandered into a Raymond Chandler detective story.
In one scene, we witness George’s childhood friend, Violet (Gloria Grahame), now a vicious femme fatale, get dragged away by police. Another scene has Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who becomes George’s wife in Bedford Falls, fleeing in fear when George approaches, thinking him a stalker.
Throughout this nightmare, Stewart’s performance is superb. You can see his anguish, feel his desperation.
Then follows the celebrated ending, where Clarence (who’s rather crafty for an angel) gives George his life back — with the difference that George’s angst is gone, replaced by joy. The theme is timeless. We are all George Bailey, and we all have a purpose. Life’s not necessarily about doing big things; sometimes it’s small things that can make a difference.
Capra considered “It’s a Wonderful Life” his best film, but postwar audiences were unenthusiastic. It was forgotten until the 1970s, when the film’s copyright was allowed to expire and TV stations began showing it incessantly over the holidays, exposing new generations to the story of George Bailey.
I occasionally indulge in a mental game where I assemble my dream cast for a remake of an old show or movie. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is no exception.
In the past I’ve pictured Sylvester Stallone as George Bailey. Consider this line of dialogue, but delivered by Sly rather than Stewart:
“What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word, and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”
Yo. I get a little punch drunk just thinking about it.
Lately, though, my fantasy is to redo “It’s a Wonderful Life” using the cast of “Schitt’s Creek.”
For those who haven’t seen it, “Schitt’s Creek” is a fun comedy about the Roses, a wealthy family of socialites who suddenly lose all their money and must live in the dreary, small town of Schitt’s Creek, a kind of modern-day Bedford Falls.
The show ran for six seasons on PopTV, then Netflix began streaming the episodes and it became a mainstream hit — one of those shows everybody has been binge watching during the pandemic.
Picture, if you will, the inimitable David Rose (Daniel Levy) as George Bailey, complete with manic creativity and gender-fluid couture. Alexis Rose (the delightful Annie Murphy) would play George’s business partner (replacing the inept but lovable Uncle Billy).
As on the show, the practical Patrick Brewer (Noah Reid) would play George’s love interest/husband. Naturally, Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy, the family patriarch) would be the banker, Mr. Potter. Catherine O’Hara could continue her solid run of portraying eccentric matriarchs and turn Moira Rose into George’s mother, Mrs. Bailey.
That leaves Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott) to play Clarence, the slacker angel who hasn’t earned his wings — a role made in heaven for Elliott. Talk about Oscar bait.
But the final scene, where George finds the book left for him by Clarence, just won’t do. Gifting a book wouldn’t be Roland’s style, not even as an angel. Instead, Clarence would leave George a Blu-ray of “Die Hard — 30th Anniversary Edition.”
Yippee-ki-yay and Merry Christmas. Every time a bell rings ... well, you know.