Sunday, August 19, 2018

1946 Alternate Oscars

A truncated version of my long-delayed essay on It's A Wonderful Life. Full of SPOILERS.

Those who think Frank Capra made only family-oriented treacle haven't been paying attention.

During the course of his career, Capra became increasingly concerned with the question "Can one man alone make a difference in this cockeyed world?" Following a progression starting with Mr. Deeds Goes To Town in 1936, moving through You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) and culminating with his postwar classic It's A Wonderful Life (1946), the answer increasingly was "no."

"No" is not where Capra planned to go — or even where he thought he was headed. His first great success, It Happened One Night, was actually part of the same theme — the individual fighting to remain an individual — and by the end of that movie, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert have shown us that as long as you're willing to literally jump overboard, turn your back on your family, lose your job and sleep in a field, staying true to yourself is a piece of cake.

As a wise man once said, you have to lose your life in order to save it — sell all your possessions and follow, well, love in this case.

It Happened One Night being a screwball comedy, it was a snap, really.

After that, things got complicated.

It's A Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a small-town banker who sacrifices his own dreams to keep the family business afloat. Along the way, he marries, makes friends and keeps the rapacious Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) at bay.

For his troubles, George is rewarded with the looming threat of bankruptcy, scandal and prison. At the raggedy end of his emotional rope, he opts for suicide only to meet his guardian angel (Henry Travers) who shows him what a crapsack the world would have been without him.

Happy ending.

Or is it? When George wakes up tomorrow, he'll still have sacrificed his dreams for the happiness of others, which may be worth it in a Judeo-Christian Buddhist sense, but Bedford Falls isn't and never will be Paris, France.

And sometimes nothing else will do except April in Paris.

Those who talk about the good ol' days have either forgotten them, never lived through them, or are selling you something. For Frank Capra's generation, the good ol' days included World War I, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and after that, the white-knuckle uncertainty of the atomic age, and hard-fought battles for racial and sexual equality.

During the years Capra was making his best movies (1934-1946), tens of millions died a violent death and hundreds of millions more lived on the hardscrabble edge of oblivion. For a while it looked like the fascists would win and extinguish the light of civilization forever. Even after fascism's defeat, some must have looked back and realized what a close-run thing it had really been.

Which makes me wonder whether the troubling end of It's A Wonderful Life — stranding George Bailey in a reality where none of his dreams will ever come true — was Capra selling himself on the notion that after the near-disaster of World War II, all our victories were likely to be tiny ones. We'd be lucky if we could hold a job, marry a spouse who wasn't ashamed of us, hold back the tide of crap for a little while and not hurt anybody else in the process.

As Ernest Hemingway concluded at the end of his novel To Have and Have Not (in the fevered words of Harry Morgan), "No matter how a man alone ain't got no bloody fucking chance."

Or as Zuzu put it, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

That's right, Zuzu, that's right.

It's a small-ball vision, but maybe a realistic one.

Capra later didn't see it — in his dotage, he wound up spouting a rather simplistic reading of his own movies — but I'm convinced that no artist who is working with honesty and conviction is ever as in control of his message as he thinks he is. If he has a clear eye and is committed to putting on film (or paper or canvas) what he actually sees as opposed to what he thinks he's supposed to see, he winds up telling truths that don't necessarily square with his own convictions.

And Capra, the conservative, rugged individualist, knew on some level that we either swim together or we sink alone.

Amen, brother.

Anyway, my choices are noted with a ★. Historical Oscar winners are noted with a ✔.

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