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It’s a Wonderful Life – 1946 Capra
- It’s pure cinematic transcendence in narrative, acting and writing—that much is clear and inarguable. I think though, this viewing has taught me what a doggedly formal work it is so I’ve taken it to another level (and I already had it in my top 100 of all-time). Nearly every element in the film has a counterpoint (in childhood and then again later as an adult), bookend (there is sacrifice by Stewart’s Bailey and, in turn, he’s paid back), or doppelganger (in the Pottersville surrealism nightmare). There an unquestionable economy in the script but it’s more poetic than that—it’s about film form like Paterson or The Searchers the elements of duality
- It’s a mount rushmore performance from Jimmy Stewart (perhaps second to his work in Vertigo) amongst the best of all-performances of the 1940’s which put it up there all-time (on my short list of top 25). I’ve also said before that Stewart may be cinema’s greatest single actor
- The supporting cast is uniformly superb. Donna Reed is so pure and genuine. Other standouts include Lionel Barymore, the devastating Thomas Mitchell (as Uncle Billy and my god when he loses the money his scenes are tough to watch they’re so wrenchingly powerful) and Gloria Grahame.
- Solid Dimitri Tiomkin score but not amongst his best—it’s better known for the absolutely perfect timing and usage of Auld Lang Syne
- The flashback voice over structure (it’s basically an omniscient narrative (though creatively done) narrator and dark surrealism sequences make people think of noir but it’s not noir—there’s no fatalism in the flashback
- Even without the formal elements there’s real ambition in the storytelling. These two characters (again well done by Stewart and Barrymore) are large, Faustian—the embodiments of good and evil
- The talented ensemble is aided by the idiosyncrasies in the characters put in by Capra. We have Clarence the Angel reading Tom Sawyer (both telling us about his adventurous spirit—which matches George Bailey) and sets up a future joke about the “modern author Mark Twain”
- There’s no reason, outside of genius writing, to have the “Hee-Haw” element put in the character Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson). I love it—it gives him personality and us, the viewer, and identifier as we’re thrown so many characters from the ensemble in a short time
- The mise-en-scene and décor is more instructive and well-done than I had thought of previously. We have a poster of Abe Lincoln
- I’m of a mind to think that George Bailey, perhaps only second behind Michael Corleone from the godfather (who has the benefit of 2 masterpieces and 6+ hours of brilliant cinema to work with), is the greatest single character in cinema history. He’s heavy—something like David Copperfield from Dickens or something from Dostoevsky—it’s novelistic in his arch and depth.
- Again, everything has such formal balance and meaning—everything has a counter-point- we have the teacher and the husband Bailey insults on the phone. But it’s not just an excuse to show he’s angry (and he cares about his daughter getting sick) and not himself—he’s punched and that blood shows him (in part) hitting rock bottom and also acts as a signifier that he’s no longer in the normal Bedford Falls reality—
- One of the best scenes of acting on display is Stewart breaking down and praying in the bar (pic above)—it’s shattering.
- Another favorite shot of mine is the close-up of Stewart (with what looks like a wide angle lens) after visiting his mother in the surrealism Potterville scene—it shows he’s absolutely floored by the situation
- Sacrifices paid back along the way of this “wonderful life”- rigid formalism
- Breezy wipe edits—which is trademark of Capra and his pacing—I’m not always in love with it here—but he is trying to condense a novel on film here into 130 minutes. I would’ve used a different transition and made it 135 or 140 minutes.
- When we first show Stewart (as a grown up George Bailey) we have him in freeze frame—great shot—he’s a huge personality
- The poison story with Mr. Gower (HB Warner) and a young George Bailey is a brilliant novella on its own—it could be a standalone short story and a great one at that
- “hot dog” line is another sign of formalism repeated— in fact nearly every lined is repeated or comes back- the bannister top, etc.
- There are a few poorly edited transitions—not a big deal but could do without
- Again, if it were just the writing, acting and consistency of Capra’s voice as an auteur (he and his populist themes and narratives he was known for) we’d still have a masterpiece but formal aspects are glaring to me now and the ending, which wipes me out every time, is a formal masterstroke with everything coming back
- A towering masterpiece– top 100 film of all-time