In 1946, the two major contenders for the Best Picture Oscar Award were: Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
Both directors had established reputations by that time: Capra with his three Oscars (for “It Happened One Night,” 1934; “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” 1936; and “You Can’t Take It With You,” l938) and Wyler with one award (“Mrs. Miniver,” l942) and several nominations.
“Best Years” emerged as the big winner, sweeping nine Oscars. Its immense popularity, the top grossing film of the year, was a reflection of its artistic quality as well as the timeliness of its message and the cultural context in which it was viewed. The fact that “Wonderful Life” lost in all five categories, and that it was only a moderate success at the box-office, became the greatest disappointment in Capra’s professional career; it was Capra and Jimmy Stewart’s first movie after a long military service.
However, film history vindicated Capra. “Wonderful Life” is recognized today as his undisputable masterpiece. The film’s message would have fared better during the Depression, but not in the disillusioned mood of the country after l945. The most impressive element is its nightmare sequence, a bitter, harrowing evocation of life without George Bailey and his values. At the time, however, the upbeat (happy) ending must have overshadowed its more pessimistic sequences.
Throughout his life, George wishes “to shake off the dust of this crummy little town.” He wants to do big things, explore the world, build skyscrapers and bridges. “I couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of my life in a shabby little office,” he tells his father, “This business is nickels and dimes. Spending all the rest of your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe–I’d go crazy.” Ironically, George ends up actualizing his worst fears, running his father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan Company, and never setting a foot outside town. And he lives in a shabby house, with its knob falling whenever he climbs the stairs, signaling that George, like the knob, is falling apart.
Unlike other small-town films, the juxtaposition is not between small town and the Big City, but between life and no life at all. Life in this town is contrasted with nonexistence: the film suggests that any life is better than no life, thus diffusing the uniqueness of small-town life. In his nightmare, Bedford Falls has become Pottersville. Main Streets is now empty of people, and there are many nightclubs, flashing their industrial look and neon lights. His wife, Mary Hatch, is a spinsterish librarian, and Vi (Gloria Grahame), the good-time girl, is a prostitute.
Structurally, the film uses flashbacks to highlight crucial events in George’s life from age 13 to 39 (Stewart’s age when he made the movie). The narrative is composed of several crises and their (temporary) resolution, leading to the big crisis at the end. Alternation is another structural principle, contrasting bright and sunny episodes with darker ones, showing optimism and pessimism in equal measure. For example, George’s date with Mary, a funny sequence, is abruptly terminated by the news of his father’s death.
Visiting Mary, she is on the telephone crying; her boyfriend Sam is in New York (with another girl). “Now you listen to me,” says George, “I don’t want to get married…ever…to anyone…you understand that I want to do what I want to do!” But in the next scene, Capra makes a sharp cut to George’s wedding! The Baileys spend their honeymoon, not in Bermuda, but in a dilapidated old house; ironically, it is the same house George had earlier pointed out to Mary, telling her he wouldn’t be caught in this house “as a ghost.”
Though the narrative spans a generation (from 19l9 to 1945), Bedford Falls has not changed much over the years. The town not only looks the same, its economic structure and values have remained intact. Technology and the mass media (magazines, radio, movies) have apparently left no imprint on the town. Moreover, George has not experienced upward mobility; his fortunes are not better than his father’s a generation ago. The only change is in the extent of debts: his father had to raise 5,000 dollars, compared to George’s 8,000 dollars. And both father and son are at the mercy of that greedy capitalist, Henry S. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
Capra celebrates the heroism in living an ordinary life. George is meant to be an ordinary guy who becomes extraordinary in the most ordinary circumstances. George begins as a reluctant insider and ends as a willing insider: Throughout the film, his strongest wish is to become an outsider, literally and figuratively. If he can’t leave town, he should not get involved in other people’s problems. But the film rules out detachment or partial involvement, preaching instead impartial belongingness and total commitment to the community. Still, more than other small-town heroes, George is not a master of his fate: The film stresses the role of accidents and unanticipated events over which he has little, or no, control.
Capra, like other filmmakers, uses the train’s whistle as a reminder of the outside world, of potential excitement away from Bedford Falls (George is at the train station for the farewell or welcome of his brother, which is all the more frustrating). The train whistle will continue to remind George of lost opportunities and missed adventurism. In this respect, Wonderful Life is one of the gloomiest movies ever made.