From my piece originally published at the New Beverly
Mr. Emil Gower: I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father.Giuseppe Martini: Joseph, Jesus and Mary. Help my friend, Mr. Bailey.
Ma Bailey: Help my son, George, tonight.
Bert: He never thinks about himself, God, that’s why he’s in trouble.
Ernie Bishop: George is a good guy. Give him a break, God. Mary: I love him, dear Lord. Watch over him tonight.
Janie Bailey: Please, God, something’s the matter with Daddy. Zuzu Bailey: Please bring Daddy back.
“Get me! I’m giving out wings!” – Nick, the bartender
It’s a wonderful nightmare – and the nightmare starts rolling downhill and snowballing, not only by James Stewart’s suffering George Bailey, but by Thomas Mitchell’s sweet, absent minded, animal-loving Uncle Billy. Think of his scene – when he can’t find the money. Jesus, imagine being Uncle Billy? On that fateful Christmas Eve in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s Uncle Billy who louses everything up by his innocent mistake – losing the deposit money to Lionel Barrymore’s rotten Mr. Potter, who then steals it. Cheerfully filling out the 8,000-dollar deposit slip in the bank, he notices Mr. Potter wheeled in by one of his henchman, and bids him a somewhat disingenuous hello. He’s not happy to see him. No one is happy to see that greedy, no-feeling blight on this community. Nevertheless, Uncle Billy, greets him, and grabs Potter’s newspaper – bragging about George’s brother winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, “written right there in print. “You just can’t keep those Bailey Boys down,” he says with pride and gloating glee. Mr. Potter doesn’t give a rat’s ass (or secretly, he does) and snarls about that “slacker” George Bailey (I always think of the Senior Lebowski in this moment, even if George Bailey is nothing like the Dude – “The bums lost!”). Uncle Billy folds the deposit money into the newspaper and hands it back to Potter: He continues to exult for the Baileys with a smirk, messing with Mr. Potter. He’s having a good time shoving this in Mr. Potter’s face! He’s being cocky, even. But… don’t go too far Uncle Billy, for, let me repeat myself – he hands over the money to Mr. Potter – something one fears so much that one might go crazy thinking such fear actually formed itself and happened.
So evidently Uncle Billy isn’t allowed to just slightly gloat in this Wonderful Life universe – he can’t even walk away from a party without crashing into something and falling down – he’s a lovably disorganized, slightly kooky guy until he’s not so lovable – at least not to George Bailey anymore. So, every time I see Uncle Billy smile and fold that newspaper with the money inside and just hand it over to Mr. Potter I nearly scream. I scream thinking of myself, too. That moment of recognition in yourself – the nightmarish thought of committing some kind of easy blunder that results in consequences so dire, that you wish you’d never left the house that morning. Or that week, for that matter. The “what if?” spiral that leads to catastrophizing – a “what if?” that will become a grim alternate reality for George Bailey, when one wishes that, one not only never stepped out of the house, but never stepped outside for a week. In Bailey’s case, he wished he had never stepped into life
I realize there would be no movie if Uncle Billy didn’t hand that 8,000 dollars over to evil Mr. Potter and I’ve seen it enough to anticipate the moment, but it’s still horrifying to watch – knowing that Christmas Eve-happy Uncle Billy will soon turn to sinking-dread Uncle Billy. And then, that panic, that anger, that suicidal ideation infecting George Bailey, who has been storing up dread and regret and running away fantasies for years. Bailey will lose it, turn on his family, get punched in a bar, crash a car, run through the snow to jump off a bridge only to be saved by Henry Travers’ lovable second-class guardian angel, Clarence. He’s shown what Bedford Falls would have really been like had George had never been born. It would be Pottersville – a seedy, mean (admittedly, more interesting) rough town, controlled by Mr. Potter; and a place where no one knows George. No one knows him? He yells at friendly faces desperately in this “Twilight Zone” journey – and George goes crazier. Clarence is sending him over the edge faster than jumping off that bridge – and he’s waking George up as if the cold water below jolted him alive. It’s like George fell asleep after crashing that car, and fell into this nightmare – this Dickensian Christmas ghost story about a man who was never there.
But before that descent into madness, Uncle Billy informs George of the loss, and you can feel both of these men unraveling, just vibrating from the screen. They rush outside, retracing Uncle Billy’s steps through Bedford Falls, “Did you buy anything?” George demands, and I wince for Uncle Billy franticly thinking. Who hasn’t been there? Who hasn’t been in Uncle Billy’s place? They wind up in Uncle Billy’s study with an enraged, panic-stricken George hollering at what is now a totally broken man. Uncle Billy is weeping.
George: Maybe-Maybe! I don’t want any maybe. We’ve got to find that money!
Uncle Billy: I’m no good to you, George. I…
George: Uncle Billy, do you… Listen to me. Do you have any secret place hiding place?
Uncle Billy: I’ve gone over the whole house, even in rooms that have been locked ever since I lost Laura.
George: Listen to me, listen to me! Think! Think!
Uncle Billy: I can’t think anymore, George. I can’t think anymore. It hurts…
George: Where’s that money, you silly, stupid old fool?! Where’s that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal, and prison! That’s what it means. One of us is going to jail! Well, it’s not gonna be me.
“Rooms that have been locked ever since I lost Laura?” “It hurts?” Someone has not been having such a wonderful life, and it’s not George Bailey. Uncle Billy is a widower who lives with multiple animals – among others, a monkey, a dog, a raven (Jimmy, who would appear in all of Capra’s movies after You Can’t Take It with You) and a cute little squirrel who sweetly crawls up Billy’s arm for comfort when he’s sitting at his desk, sobbing. Mitchell’s mixture of gentleness and, at this point, deep, heartfelt loss, not just of the money, but of his wife, is both bracing and moving. It’s the moment you truly realize Uncle Billy has his own demons and maybe Bedford Falls is all he’s got – never mind how George feels stymied all the time. Or, rather, maybe Uncle Billy would like to get the hell out of there too. We don’t know. It’s not all about George Bailey.
When Uncle Billy says, “It hurts.” I’m sure it does. You realize this man’s been living in sadness with furry friends for … we’re not sure how long. (Nothing wrong in living with lots of animals – it may have kept Uncle Billy sane, in fact, it’s just others who find him eccentric) And now he’s sent his nephew spiraling into madness and despair, and feels he’s destroyed everything. My God, the guilt. And, remember, this is the second time Uncle Billy has fucked up. How did Uncle Billy not attempt suicide that night? Where were the angels watching over Uncle Billy? He has loving pets – perhaps, that was comforting enough. Perhaps. The horror movie begins.
And I mean it gets really scary at this point – full-blown level ten panic attack. George is going to have to take the fall for Uncle Billy, which is respectable of him, and seems to be his continual helpful duty (and submerged dread) in the town, but watching him yell at vulnerable Billy – it’s so violent. Stewart is so tall and overpowering and nearly deranged and Mitchell looks so small and sunken in this moment. The two play off of each other perfectly – and you are worried for both of them. Stewart expresses his manic anger brilliantly and with such visceral emotion – the pained face, that flop of sweaty hair on his forehead, his distinct voice, so folksy and charming before, now twisting into an almost warbling howl, unlike anything anyone’s really heard. No one sounds like James Stewart in the first place, but when he’s enraged, he doesn’t even sound of this earth.
Capra understood his capacity for the swooning mental breakdown in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as if decency will make a man go nearly insane (you see this in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town as well), but he dug into something much thornier and angrier here – and a mysterious darkness lurking under all of that wholesomeness. The darkness later tapped into via Anthony Mann and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, who saw the obsession, madness, kinkiness and repressed anger within the All-American movie star.
But this All-American “wholesomeness,” not just in Stewart, but in the very idea of anything purely “All-American” and wholesome, specifically, is full of complexity, mystery, much of which is not wholesome. Obviously the All-American contains darkness, madness, rot or horror – we’ve experienced it, we’ve seen it, we’ve read it (read writers like Hawthorne, Melville, Poe and more … Horace McCoy, William Lindsay Gresham … the list goes on). Wholesome? Is that even possible? No one is that good or that innocent and never have been. People are angry and obsessed and repressed. And what is more All-American than repressed anger boiling to the surface? Of being spitting mad and calcified that the so-called American Dream didn’t work out for you? And never mind the American Dream (so many Americans have different dreams – many just dream to survive), just that one (George) is stuck in what others might consider the dream – a beautiful, charming wife, lovely children, a gorgeous old rambling house, a good job. Young (and older) George Bailey wanted to do things, go places – be his own man. He didn’t want to stay in Bedford Falls, he didn’t want to take over his father’s business. He could have made money and enjoyed a posh life, or he could have rambled and walked into a seedy situation, like John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
So, he’s sacrificed, become a pillar of the community, has a great love with Mary (a sublime Donna Reed) and he appears happy – but that lingering “what if I had done this, what if I had lived there?” flickers across his face, sometimes clearly, sometimes in just a flash of his eyes. Sometimes when he looks at Gloria Grahame’s Violet. But with the money missing, that “what if?” has now exploded into the catastrophic. And hurled at Uncle Billy who is wishing a lot of things were different too. And soon, again, George wishes he were never born.
But if that had been the case, he wouldn’t have stopped his old boss, the broken-down pharmacist Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner, a Capra favorite, and Jesus Christ in Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings) from accidentally poisoning a customer. Another dark, layered confrontation in which an accident could have led to death – and George has to do something about it. In a few scenes, we learn a lot about one man’s misery and a young, scared but caring George’s reaction to it. Here, however, it is George who is on the other end of wrathful sadness, batted around and hollered at like Uncle Billy. Sensitive young George notices an open telegram on view – that Mr. Gower’s son has died from influenza – and that a grief-stricken Mr. Gower is drunk. Mr. Gower is so intoxicated that he’s mistakenly mixed a prescription with poison – cyanide. It’s for an emergency delivery and George, noticing the grave error, isn’t sure what to do. He seeks the advice of his father, who is getting a nasty ear-full from Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter is deeply insulting, calling George’s father a failure: “Are you running a business or a charity ward?” It’s a traumatizing thing for a kid to see. And he’s standing there, holding poison.
A shaken George returns to Mr. Gower with the prescription and is … yelled at. It’s the first scene of violence in the movie – Gower lunges at George, slapping his bad ear (he lost his hearing from saving his younger brother in a sledding accident), and poor George is trying to collect himself while crying: “Don’t hurt my sore ear again … Don’t hurt my sore ear again!”
When Mr. Gower realizes this kid has just saved another’s life, and him from ruin – the look on Warner’s haggard face is so mournful, full of such a powerful, sinking self-recognition that when he embraces George – it’s one of the most moving moments in the entire picture. As George (so beautifully played by Bobby Anderson) backs away, Mr. Gower holds him. Both are crying: “I won’t ever tell anyone!” George cries. “I know what you’re feeling. I won’t tell a soul. Hope to die, I won’t.”
And he never did. Hope to die. To die, not to have never been born, as he wishes. But Clarence gives grown-up George a strong sample of his later wish, because had he never been born, he would have never been known. And George learns he doesn’t want that either. Not just because the alternate reality Pottersville is a noir-soaked sin city without him (and frankly, I prefer Nick’s bar over Martini’s, save for the cruelty, but it looks more fun, and with the boogie woogie piano player Meade Lux Lewis at the keys), but because no one knows who in the hell George is. And, worse, if they do, they might view him as insane.
There are people who go through life like this, alive, with no one knowing who they are or giving a damn to find out. Invisible people. Or outsiders people cross the street to avoid. And this idea reveals itself when a wrecked vagrant walks into Nick’s and it turns out to be Mr. Gower – drunk and vulnerable and beaten down by life. Nick (Sheldon Leonard), tells that “rummy” to get out and humiliates the man by spraying Gower’s face with seltzer water – he’s a pariah. George is horrified, yelling for his old boss and friend. But Gower did twenty years for poisoning a kid (aha) and if never-been-born-George knows him, then, according to Nick, he must be a sicko “jailbird” too. Quickly, in Pottersville, George has gone from a nobody no one knows to a creep, possibly a criminal and certainly crazy – aligned with Gower and Uncle Billy, whom George’s mother (Beulah Bondi) informs him is in an insane asylum. I am not surprised Billy has been placed in an insane asylum. He lost his business – probably when someone trusted him with a large sum of cash and that “old fool” left it all in an umbrella in a cab – something of the sort. Poor Uncle Billy.
There is more of the down-and-out in Pottersville – chiefly, Mary, who becomes a dowdy librarian had George never been born, which would almost be a laugh (she’s still lovely to me, and at least she has a good job and reads books – she’s not as desperate and tragic as Grahame’s flirtatious Violet) – but it’s more saddening that George sees that she is now an invisible person, that, she like him, has vanished, that she’s never experienced love, that she’s never met him. And she has no idea who he is (The movie was apparently personal to Capra – he could relate to the fear of being forgotten, unseen – returning from World War II, making this picture, which was not a flop, but not the success he wished it to be. It received mixed reviews, but the bad reviews hurt him.)
In fact, Mary may be quite an interesting, intelligent woman a person would love to talk to, just as she was in Bedford Falls, but Pottersville doesn’t seem to care. She’s not … what? Pretty enough? It’s absurd but the world is mean. Seeing her quickly walking from the library makes George even crazier, and he starts yelling and grabbing at her like a maniac, and she screams and screams for help, and he is desperate for her to see who he is and he’s probably going to get arrested for accosting a woman and … when is the nightmare going to end.
It’ll end – and George Bailey will be running through Bedford Falls wishing every person and thing a manic Merry Christmas. “Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!!” He even wishes Mr. Potter a Merry Christmas. After the dark night of the soul, he appreciates quaint Bedford Falls. The famous finale will happen – the family reunited and all of the town’s generosity pouring into the Bailey home, saving George from the slammer, and we cry for such giving, and it’s beautifully crafted and magically shot by cinematographer Joseph Walker (snow is so hauntingly beautiful in this movie – gentle and gorgeous and then, at times, foreboding), but the darkness of the picture lingers. And it’s a darkness that we felt even before Pottersville – all of those scenes of nice people cracking up.
As corny as some have thought this movie was or is, and as old-fashioned as it may have seemed to some critics who, at the time, much preferred William Wyler’s masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives, it’s too dreamlike and strange, too uniquely told, too, in fact, scary, to seem antiquated and purely sentimental to me. And it’s sometimes unhinged – melodramatic isn’t the right word – unhinged seems more appropriate, and to the point of feeling unexpected jolts even if we’ve seen the picture a hundred times. When Stewart is standing outside his mother’s boarding house in Pottersville, and the film goes so close on his face, eyes wide and terrified, he looks right at us for a second. I honestly don’t know what to think at that moment. I certainly feel for him, but I also marvel at how intense and bold the filmmaking is here. I’m waiting for a quivering theremin wobble and a bat to bite the head off a rat – a la The Lost Weekend – like Bailey’s suffering delirium tremens. But of course, he’s not – he’s not hallucinating. He has simply switched realities, which is much more terrifying.
This may seem odd, but when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life, I often think of Hitchcock’s small-towners in Shadow of a Doubt (also co-starring Henry Travers), wherein Teresa Wright is like young George Bailey – she wants so much more out of life, and she thinks she’s made of different stuff than the others. She doesn’t yearn for anything like her parent’s life and laments that her mother works “like a dog” – hoping a miracle will come to lift her up. And then a miracle does come – but that miracle isn’t an angel – it’s her charming, sociopathic Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). James Stewart will have the angel on his shoulder, Teresa Wright gets the devil. Both appreciate their lives after their dark rites of passage in which, to quote Uncle Charlie, “the world is a foul sty.” She’s not going to forget Uncle Charlie. George is not going to forget Clarence and his nightmare of Pottersville. But how often will he think of it? Will it be too painful? Will he become a bit more like Uncle Billy? Not disorganized, not crowding his house with critters, but avoiding any revisit to the horror. Like Uncle Billy said: “I can’t think anymore, George. I can’t think anymore. It hurts.” Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls.