It’s a Wonderful Life, but not for old maids

31 08 2015

What I admire about Frank Kapra, based on what little I have seen, is that he descends into depths of despair few filmmakers are willing to explore, and he does it in such a way that many viewers are unaware of how far down the rabbit hole they’ve come. Or rather, they don’t realize that, despite a happy ending, or what appears to be a happy ending, they’re still down there, deep inside the rabbit hole. Happy endings, in Kapra, are meant to reassure audiences, yet the slightest analysis reveals a more disquieting picture: the protagonist might have achieved a temporary moment of respite, or been saved from hell, or realized his worth as a human being, but what he has not done is solve the problems of the world, which he hoped to amend and which have brought him to his knees. Kapra shrouds the despair without nullifying it. What’s troubling in Kapra never disappears. It gets pushed to the background, but it remains there, waiting to burst forth.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a particularly obvious example (and to explain why, I am obviously going to have to spoil the ending, so avert your eyes, those who do not want to know or do not yet know): corruption wins. Smith’s famous filibuster, in which he attempts to clear his name and expose a graft scheme carried out by his unscrupulous fellow senators, is a disaster. The movie’s iconic shot, of James Stewart (i.e. Smith) standing next to a pile of letters, represents his final defeat. Those involved in the graft scheme have forged hundreds of messages, purportedly from citizens of Smith’s unnamed state, asking the protagonist to step down from his senatorial seat. The only reason we get an apparently happy ending is because one of the “villains,” Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), has a crisis of conscience, right there in Congress, and reveals all after a botched suicide attempt. There are two interpretations to make of this: either innate human goodness saves the day, in which case evil cannot win, because empathy and guilt eventually have their way; or rather, democracy is in the hands of the corrupt, who are the only deus ex machina capable of counteracting their own corruption. No one can sabotage their designs, except themselves. We depend upon the corrupt to regulate their own sins. The system cannot do it for us. It has failed, it has broken down. Idealists like Smith are powerless and their heroism is without consequence. Happy ending, indeed.

It’s a Wonderful Life is not much different (and to explain why, again, spoilers). George Bailey runs a savings and loans firm with a social conscience, lending to poor citizens who dream of owning a house. Mr. Potter, the most powerful man in Bedford Falls, wants his bank to be the sole financial institution around, and Bailey’s shenanigans prevent this from happening. Following a series of unfortunate events, Mr. Potter successfully and unscrupulously pins a case of bank fraud on George, which threatens to dismantle his firm and ruin his finances, and consequently, George contemplates suicide on the edge of a bridge, hoping his family can cash in on his life insurance policy.

Which is when, famously, his guardian angel descends from heaven and offers him a tour of a world in which George was never born, a dystopian Bedford Falls renamed Pottersville, a case of unchecked capitalism gone wild, as the town, now owned by Mr. Potter, has been overrun by the crassest of commercial interests, the charm of traditional Rockwellian America consumed by the expanding tumor of casinos and nightclubs. An unintentional moment of hilarity, which inspired the title of this brief post, is when George, having just learned that his brother has died in this alternate reality – because George was never around to save him from an accident, and thus more than a hundred American GIs died during the war, because they were meant to be rescued by George’s brother – having just learned such harrowing details, he then asks his guardian angel about his former wife, and so the angel recoils and tells him that, oh, he won’t like this, this is going to be really terrible for him. It turns out she’s an old maid! She never married! Apparently, in 1939, having your brother die was pretty bad, but being a middle-aged woman who had chosen to remain single – now that was tragedy.

Anyhow, the point is that George finally returns to Bedford Falls, realizing, after the angel’s tour, how crucial he is to his community, a lesson driven home when, upon returning to his family, he finds that all his friends and associates, seemingly the entire population of Bedford Falls, have agreed to pitch in and raise money for George to avoid legal trouble. So, happy ending? Not quite: George receives enough to stay afloat, but the years ahead, since he is the sole obstacle halting Mr. Potter’s domination of Bedford Falls, as revealed by the nightmare of Pottersville, will be years of struggle. The uphill battle against the amoral banker continues.

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