I grew up on a literary diet of dubious nutritious value: I was obsessed with the Sweet Valley Twins series (& like most things of dubious nutritious value, they tasted very good!). Till this very day, my bookshelf boasts a fair few of these thin paperback books (they came in so many bright colours!) — I haven’t read them in about eight years at least (maybe more), I think, but I was such good friends with some of these books that they are (hey Dylan!) practically “written in my soul”.
Out of the many hundred SVT books there are and that I’ve read, there was one which was my absolute favourite: it was called A Christmas Without Elizabeth, and came with the dramatic tagline, “What if Elizabeth had never been born?”. Elizabeth takes some money that Jessica and her Unicorns are going to use to throw a Christmas party, and gives it to a homeless family so that they can have a home for Christmas. They promise to pay it back before Jessica requires it, but fail to do so. Jess is furious when she finds out that the money is gone (as are the terrifying Unicorns, Lila Fowler & all – remember them, SVT fans?). A dramatic confrontation ends with Jessica uttering these monstrous words, words that no twin should ever say to another: “I wish you weren’t my sister, Elizabeth. I wish — I wish I’d never had a twin!” BOOM. Elizabeth runs away weeping to the mall and commits the cardinal sin of wishing she had never been born at all, whereupon she’s taken in tow by a sort of scruffy hippie angel called Laura, who decides to show her a Sweet Valley without Elizabeth. Thereby, of course, reinstating Elizabeth’s faith in herself and reiterating the necessity & importance of…er…appreciating what a wonderful life it is we all lead (but mostly that Elizabeth has led). Sound familiar, yet? Laura waxes lyrical, somewhere in the middle of the book, on a philsophy-cum-scientific theory about the ‘Sweater Effect’ that takes place in a world without somebody: “You change one thing and an endless number of other changes have to be made….You know how it is – you start yanking just one little loose thread on the sleeve of your sweater and pretty soon you can unravel the whole thing.” I don’t know if this still holds true of the high-tech (no doubt) sweaters in our day and age, but basically – I grew up believing in the Sweater Effect, & in the efficacy and necessity of little things. Just in case the sweater unravelled without one of ’em… Obviously the book has a happy ending – Elizabeth realises how many lives she’s changed/saved, and everyone else realises that Elizabeth has done a Good Deed and not stolen the party money for herself, and they use that money to throw her a big party at the end. Cool huh.
I read this book obsessively years ago, and thought it was an astonishingly amazing narrative/plot – SVT plots were usually OK, but this one was my absolute favourite. To re-imagine a world without you, & how different it could be! Amazing!
But sometime last year, I clocked onto the whole truth: the whole caboodle came from that strange movie people are so obsessed towards the end of December – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). A lot of things became clearer then; primarily, it explained that I’d been living in a veritable cave for most of my life. Because everyone knew (& most loved) Jimmy Stewart, and largely thanks to this film. My epiphany last month (that James Stewart existed, & that he made awesome movies/was an amazing actor) was in actuality a very tragic and belated non-revelation after all. And as I went hurtling on with my James Stewart film-marathon (this past month), I realised that there was no avoiding it – I had to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, and I couldn’t wait till December to do so. I knew it would make me weep like a fool; even the SVT book did, & I had reason to believe that It’s A Wonderful Life was even better than that. This movie tops lists compiled about ‘Peoples’ Favourite Christmas Movies’ almost every year (& has done for a few decades now, in both the US and UK); it has an 8.7 rating on IMDB (where the ratings are actually pretty trustworthy, most of the time); it’s #29 on the IMDB Top 250 (again, a good list!). The hype was up, & I was pretty scared. I don’t like watching movies that make me cry, because they’re usually pretty soul-destroying experiences.
Well, & so too was this an utterly soul-destroying experience. I can safely say now – thank god for never, ever watching it on Christmas day! Christmas in my house is pretty boring (in that it passes by without comment, mostly, and is different to no other day except in that we all have holidays and lots of shops are shut), but to watch this then would make it downright bleak. And as for watching it repeatedly every year – No. Way. It sent me to bed with a migraine & a death-wish, that’s how sad it made me. It baffles me that it’s considered so widely an incredibly uplifting movie – I guess I can sort of see why, with the whole easy Christian consolation thing at the end (“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends!”) – but to accept that still doesn’t redress the fact that George Bailey’s life is a seemingly-endless series of thwarted dreams, hopes, and ambitions. In so thinking, I realised that it was fundamentally selfish and awful of me to think this way, favouring the personal over the communal and the superficial (holidays!) over the meaningful (friends! love!) etc etc, but I can’t help it. I honestly do feel this way.
So many things to say about this movie – I’m going to dispense with the plot summary, because quite frankly, the SVT book copies it almost wholly (plus/minus a few modern references and romantic subplots), & also, I’m sure everybody knows. If you don’t, like Gandalf I must say to you, you shall not pass…go watch the movie.
I’ve been blitzing through the James Stewart cannon in largely (though not wholly) chronological order, so my run through specifically Stewart-Capra films began with You Can’t Take It With You (1938), went on to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), & finally came to rest here, with It’s A Wonderful Life in 1946. Between the first two films and this one came the war (in which J-Stew fought with great distinction & bravery, or so we are told, & in which Capra also enlisted, though neither of them was required to, I think, or even – in Jimmy’s case – met the requisite physical specs demanded of combatants!). This was the first film Capra and Stewart made after the war, and it was the last film of their grand eight-year, three-film collaboration. As such I was curious to see if it represented a sort of zenith in their work with each other, a culmination of things that had been growing very perceptibly from film to film (the difference in quality – both directorial and acting! – between You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith, for example, is immense).
Capra, who had churned out a whopping two to three films per year throughout the 1930s (& scooped up three Best Director Oscars in the space of five years – wheeeewf!), only made five more films after this one. I don’t know exactly what happened there, and how much of it was precipitated by the fact that It’s A Wonderful Life, believe it or not, was a loss-making movie for Capra, though not quite a flop either. (Saddens me incredibly, because I think Capra was a brilliant director – he should have made many, many more wonderful movies; it would have been nice to see, perhaps, more worldly-wise cynicism from him in later films.) Nonetheless, I can see some sort of continuity between this film & Capra’s earlier films – notably You Can’t Take It With You (1938), which deals with almost exactly the same themes and dishes out (almost) the exact same moral sentiments. Lionel Barrymore (who plays a brilliantly evil Mr. Potter/banker in IAWL) played the eccentric hero-sage in YCTIWY (phewf: long title!!), the one who rejects the wretched world of corporate finance & banking in order to live a life of whate’er you please — doing good & having fun. Says Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff (Barrymore) to the pompous, evil, greedy banker that is Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), in a speech worthy of Occupy Wall Street itself…
Scum, are we? What makes you think you’re such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you’re a dull-witted fool, Mr. Kirby. And a poor one at that. You’re poorer than any of these people you call scum, because I’ll guarantee at least they’ve got some friends. While you with your jungle and your long claws, as you call ’em, you’ll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend.
The film (itself actually based on a play) gets its title from the Bible – “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (I Timothy 6:7) – and this is deftly adapted to modern parlance, and then brilliantly delivered by Barrymore in a great ‘showdown’ scene in a jail cell. (Long story…)
Maybe it’ll stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can’t take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.
Such ideas are echoed, though perhaps not as precisely articulated, in IAWL – only this time, James Stewart has to deliver them to Lionel Barrymore: “You… you said… what’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they… Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000?”. (I find this contextual reversal quite ironic/amusing; Stewart is pretty insipid in YCTIWY, both as a character and consequently, perhaps, as an actor – it’s all the more amazing for me to compare these two films, only eight years apart. How much Stewart has grown as an actor – !!! It’s blinding! But this will be raved about later. Conversely, I must add, Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter is not as interesting a banker-villain as Edward Arnold’s Mr. Kirby is — Barrymore is an incredible actor — THOSE EYES!! — but the character lacks three-dimensionality; he’s too flatly villainous, with no compunctions or motives.) Banker-villain movies from the ’30s & ’40s are quite amusing to me, because… well. We’ve got our banker-villains too, haven’t we?! Seems like nothing has changed. (Only, where’s our Grandpa Vanderhoff, our George Bailey?)
This is the moral premise behind the whole 1946 film too: it’s why George Bailey ‘wins’ at the end (so to speak); it’s why we rejoice (so to speak). Bailey doesn’t have money, but he has friends, we think – oh hurray! For some reason, I buy this sentiment entirely as presented in YCTIWY – but I can’t fully buy it in IAWL. Maybe the sufferings of George Bailey are just too much, and too dark, for it to be elided or forgotten with such a pithy, clichéd consolation at the end. Now, that’s something that can be said about how subtly but radically Capra’s directorial Weltenschauung had shifted: there’s suicides, evictions, poverty, broken love-affairs, embarrassments, humiliations, & moral guilt a-plenty in You Can’t Take It With You, but never, never, never does it ever feel as dark or as solemn as It’s A Wonderful Life contrives to do. Perhaps that’s why the fairy-tale ending works there but not here. (Mr. Smith comes somewhere in between, where it still works, albeit with qualifications.) I can’t really pinpoint why: is it because the darkness in IAWL is so psychological & personal, whereas in YCTIWY it’s more of a narrative necessity? But then, too, Capra films are always geared towards tugging the heartstrings & unclogging the tear-ducts — maybe he just does it really well in IAWL. Unlike Lubitsch, who seems to entrap everything that’s ‘human’ or ‘Life’ about life in almost ineffable ways (so “light & airy” – Kael? – as to almost pass unremarked), Capra invests everything with overmuch tangibility/intensity – he practically slugs you in the face with emotion (and moral sentiment!) in a scene every five minutes. From childhood romances & ambitions to a more adolescent courting, to marriage & children & jobs & dreams – all this big, heavyweight stuff is in IAWL; the narrative is basically a series of moments centered around these! In that famous Lubitsch-Stewart Christmas tale (underrated in comparison to IAWL), you need to really strain to catch such moments amidst the department-store hustle & bustle (they’re probably somewhere in between fetching things from the stockroom & wondering about bonuses). You don’t need to exert yourself so much with Capra; he gives it to you pretty eagerly. (This comparison is not meant to elevate Lubitsch over Capra or vice versa: I just find they have two very different, but equally wonderful/enjoyable, styles, & since there’s a small confluence in that they both worked with Jimmy Stewart on Christmas classics, I thought I’d mention it.)
Oh boy. Where to begin with how amazing Jimmy Stewart is in this movie? Three spectacular scenes from IAWL I need to single out: the scene in Mary Hatch’s drawing room (before they answer the phone call), where you can see that George Bailey isn’t as ‘nice’ as he used to be but instead a bit more cynical & impatient, oh-so-subtly; the phone call scene (has any scene ever been invested with more electricity, eroticism, and tension than this one????); and the small scene towards the end, where George Bailey is thrusting newspapers proclaiming good news about his brother onto unwilling by-standers. This last one is absolutely heartbreaking; dunno how anyone knows how to bring out “Middle-aged man who used to have hopes & dreams but who’s lived out none of them, instead just sort of subsisting in the same town for decades while watching everyone around him leave and do stuff, & now he’s just a middle-aged man with not much to say whom people are just sort of tolerating” in your character’s stroll through town with a newspaper, but that’s everything Stewart manages to convey in that small scene. It’s heartbreaking!
Now, in the great Jimmy Stewart film marathon (no pun intended….) I’ve been doing over the past month, I’ve by & large stuck to his early, pre-war work. It began with The Philadelphia Story (1940), where my side-note gushings over how great he is in it slowly blossomed into a kind of creepy obsessiveness about him/his life/photographs of him on Tumblr/his movies. Oh my god, I thought in my third re-watching of TPS, he’s actually pretty fucking brilliant. Suddenly the movie wasn’t all about Hepburn & Grant. So then I started hunting down this & that with James Stewart in it. I had seen Vertigo and Rear Window (my favourite Hitchcock film) a few years ago, but I (insane & embarrassing admissions upcoming) [a] never really noticed Jimmy Stewart as ‘brilliant’/otherwise while watching them [b] didn’t know he was ‘Jimmy Stewart’ [c] actually, I think, didn’t even realise it was the same actor in both (I watched them some time apart/ago, and my powers of memory are evidently pathetic). In my defence, I was young and stupid. So as far as I’m considered, this grand marathon begins with his (Oscar-winning) drunken, cynical-but-still-innocent, really, Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story.
George Bailey is probably as plum a role as any actor can get – the sheer range of emotions alone that it requires of you is incredible (as any proper ‘life story’ must require, I suppose). But having said that, what makes the movie something slightly more than just sweet (or saccharine – a favourite word o’ mine when it comes to Capra, since his films do veer so very dangerously close to it! Watching ‘The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life‘, I was introduced to the word “Capracorn” – summarizes everything beautifully!), and slightly more than just fairy-tale-esque, is James Stewart. (Allegedly the script of IAWL was initially intended for Cary Grant — I cannot even imagine, love Grant though I do.) The whole horror of the film is entirely lost if one sees George Bailey simply as a “good man” – the way you could say, maybe, that Mr. Smith is, or the way Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff is in You Can’t Take It With You. For the film to reach the extremes of darkness that it does, it’s very important that George Bailey be a good man and more – rather, a man who’s good but at the expense of his own desires & ambition. And it’s quite important too that that sacrifice is a painful one. There are countless scenes in the film where James Stewart shows precisely this, and without words even – this is way beyond the script or the dialogue. When his face falls upon learning that his brother has been offered a job by his wife’s father – or when he enters the dilapidated ‘honeymoon’ house on 320 Sycamore Street for the first time (having postponed his glorious honeymoon, having given away all his money to save Bailey Building & Loan — yet he doesn’t say a word throughout this scene). I already mentioned the drawing-room scene & the walk through town scene. His face at the bar, when he’s getting drunk at Martini’s. These scenes are incredible; I don’t know how anybody gets so much expressed, leaving virtually everything unsaid. There’s something incredible about the way Stewart uses his eyes and eyebrows; raising his brows ever so slightly, maybe half a centimetre, less? – & he speaks worlds.
In reviewing a Jimmy Stewart biography, Geoffrey O’ Brien writes (NYRB, so might be behind a paywall):
He had preserved into middle age just enough of the boyishness and naive enthusiasm that animated his pre-war performances in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) to keep that earlier impression alive for his longtime fans. It was only gradually that one registered just how completely the war years, when he was a bomber pilot, had altered him, within & without. Yet despite how much he may have changed, some part of him managed still to embody the ideal of the small-town boy.
I agree with most of this analysis wholeheartedly – only I take exception with the words “only gradually”. It’s almost impossible, for me, to reconcile his performance as George Bailey with his pre-war performances – and this transition hardly feels gradual (although within the scope of the film itself, Bailey’s transformation from young noble idealist to bitter middle-aged man is pretty gradual, yes). No way — I mean, no way. True, the majority of roles Stewart played in pre-war years were ‘nice’ ones — not too much darkness, sometimes not any; the most they ever brought out of Stewart was a laughter-inducing sort of cynicism à la Philadelphia Story or Shop Around the Corner. (In After the Thin Man, one of Stewart’s earliest ‘big’ roles, he does have a pretty sinister piece to play – but it is so relatively small & muted a part, it seems like a strange narrative aberration rather than something you can take seriously as a facet of this actor.) This film, IAWL, makes it worse because it does its level best to remind you of precisely that gawky awkward pre-war Jimmy – the entire first part of the movie plays off precisely the early Jimmy persona he had crafted & done so well. And ultimately the whole pathos of the thing rests, to some extent, on the fact that you’re watching not just George Bailey but Jimmy Stewart (!!), “Aw shucks”, small-town boy, break down on screen in a way you could never even have conceived of in, say, 1940. “Yet,” continues O’Brien later on in the same piece, “undoubtedly, to revisit the pre-war Stewart in light of his later career is to be startled by a fresh-faced charm, almost eerily unmarked by experience, which was never to be seen again.” No; never. It stopped right there with It’s A Wonderful Life — whether because of the war (perhaps he was really changed inside), or because of this movie (maybe it forced him to discover new dimensions to his acting), who is to say? After IAWL came the famed Hitchcock-Stewart films (dark), the Mann-Stewart films (dark), and odd one or two’s like Harvey (1950; profoundly tragic in some undefinable way) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962; dark). Perhaps it was not just Stewart, though — after all, the screwball era was pretty much over too by 1946, and even if Stewart isn’t known as a ‘screwball comedy’ legend, I think it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that his pre-war films certainly channel the madcap, light-hearted, footloose/fancy-free ethos of that genre. Perhaps what changed with the war was the sort of glorious, happy simplicity that people could depict in films or enjoy at the movies. So people start tapping into the darker recesses of human nature – and that’s when you get the James Stewart of Rope, Vertigo, Rear Window; the Cary Grant of Notorious.
It almost feels as if Capra was drawing things out of Stewart with each further film they made together, and in IAWL it really does reach a certain zenith: if Mr. Smith is merely disillusioned, George Bailey is brought to the very brink of life & despair. Capra first put that mild-mannered, ‘fresh-faced’ (yep – he was!) stringbeanish sort of fellow in You Can’t Take It With You, in what can only be called a fairly characterless supporting role – the real star of the show is Lionel Barrymore. Then Mr. Smith: so much more full-bodied, and a brilliant filibuster scene for Stewart where he really comes into his own, for the first time perhaps, as an actor. And then this. Capra drew something out of Stewart for the very first time in this film — & god knows what! — that people like Hitchcock and Mann then pounced on. They wanted precisely this sort of darkness, this sort of psychological two-facedness (which Hitchcock utilizes somewhat in Rope (1948), though I still feel Stewart is miscast in it — the Stewart of Rope is not the Stewart of Vertigo, who is still ten years away at this point; & that’s the sort of Stewart Hitchcock probably needed). I know I keep waffling on about ‘darkness’ without being able to say precisely what it is: it’s the anger with which Bailey flips out at Uncle Billy, the look on his face as he waits for his clothes to dry after saving Clarence, the way he weeps on the bridge, the way he shouts on the phone. All of this I guess. Darkness. The look on his face as he considers the thought that he’s worth more dead than alive.
* * *
Before it was a wonderful life for James Stewart, though, it was a wonderful world. Not many people seem to have heard of It’s A Wonderful World (1939), a film directed by W. S. Van Dyke and co-starring Claudette Colbert (who is great!). W. S. Van Dyke had previously cast Jimmy as the villain in After the Thin Man (1936) — now, he’s no villain here, but he’s certainly not the most palatable hero either. Among some of his more awful deeds are lines like, “I’ve thought to myself, `Well now, this, this just can’t be—that all dames are dumb and all men ain’t,’ but that’s the way it seemed to me…I don’t know, I always figured they all ended at the neck…” (feminist film critics – take note), & a terrible sock in the face for Claudette Colbert when she gets to be a little too annoying. As a side-note, it’s fascinating how licentious old films are in some respects: copious smoking, for one, as if any scene in which an actor’s hands were idle were sinful somehow (all of them!); drunk driving (IAWL & The Philadelphia Story!); casual violence against women, usually manifested as a slug in the mug (It’s A Wonderful World & The Philadelphia Story).
(Claudette trying to worm her way out of trouble; Jimmy ain’t impressed, though. Nope. Isn’t that just about the best unimpressed face you’ve ever seen?)
It’s A Wonderful World (1939) isn’t a blindingly brilliant film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s damn good fun, and everyone should give it go for this reason alone. (All I ask of my films is that they be fun, fun fun fun! And this one is.) Stewart plays a horribly cynical, misogynistic (see above), mercenary little private detective, whose client has just been framed for murder. The promise of riches if he can discover the real killer and get his (very wealthy) client off the electric chair seduces him into a series of adventures, mostly alongside poor Claudette Colbert. Colbert plays a poetess, who goes (bizarrely) from loathing & fearing Stewart (who, to be fair, does threaten and abduct her, in addition to stealing her car) to clinging onto him relentlessly. He does his level best to rid himself of her through interminable meanness & ploys, but she won’t have any of that — and it’s just as well, since she pretty much saves him (repeatedly), his client, his promised reward, and captures the real criminals. Not bad for a dame, huh! All’s well that ends well.
It’s a sweet film, and nothing exemplifies better the stark differences in Stewart’s pre- & post-war careers than the differences between the way you’ll see him here and the way you’ll see him in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s not, strictly-speaking, a ‘nice’, goofy, romantic lead in this film, but he’s so very…well, “fresh-faced”, even in his unpalatable meanness! It’s interesting that W. S. Van Dyke (a director I don’t know anything about!) cast him in two unflattering roles in the ’30s (Van Dyke also directed After the Thin Man, in which Stewart plays — cover your eyes if you haven’t watched/don’t like spoilers! — a murderer!). Perhaps Van Dyke prepared Stewart for Capra who prepared him for Hitchock….??? Exciting chain of influences. Now I haven’t watched all of the pre-war stuff, but I’m fairly sure that these Van Dyke roles were amongst the ‘worst’ Stewart got in those days. And it’s pretty telling that in this movie Guy Johnson isn’t really a ‘bad’ guy; bad-tempered and money-grubbing, sure, but still fundamentally lovable/attractive, as indeed Colbert finds him. (There’s a few sly directorial nods to Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) in this film, which also starred Colbert.)
It’s A Wonderful World (1939) & It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – only seven years between them, but oh, nothing shows just how different Stewart was in 1946 than juxtaposing these two films. (You could probably do it with many of his pre-war films, but these two have similar names, so….obviously you should do it with them). It’s practically like two different actors; & when you realise it’s not, well then, you realise that he’s just a very, very, very good actor. Thank you Margaret Sullavan, for giving the world Jimmy Stewart.
VERY IMPORTANT QUESTION — Geek chic. Who wears it better: Cary Grant as science nerd in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Jimmy Stewart as Boy Scout in It’s A Wonderful World (1939)?
Now Jimmy’s grand & all… but I… I think I’ve got to go with Cary Grant! Jimmy wins a little prize for more ludicrous facial expressions though. And also for having his eyes preposterously magnified behind those lenses.