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Excerpts from a discussion of
It's a Wonderful Life

Capra's is finally a tragic sense of life. It's a Wonderful Life is a film of endless frustrations, deferrals of gratification, and of the complete impossibility of representing the most passionate impulses and imaginations of the self in the world–and yet the title is still entirely unironic. Capra wants us to know that George Bailey's life is wonderful–not because his neighbors bail him out with a charity sing–along, and certainly not because of the damnation of his life with the faint praise embodied in Clarence's slogan, "No man is a failure who has friends," but because he has seen and suffered more, and more deeply and wonderfully, than any other character in the film. This Cinderella, unlike the one in the fairy tale or That Certain Thing, is returned to the hearth, restored to being a char girl, with no future possibility of escape and with only the consciousness of what has just been lived through in the preceding dark night of the soul as consolation–but that, Capra argues, is enough. The adventure of consciousness that George has lived through in dreamland is greater than any of the romantic adventures he has talked about going on–but it is at the same time only an adventure of consciousness.

The final scene of the film enacts the same narrative movement we have seen previously in the final scenes of The Way of the Strong, Ladies of Leisure, Dirigible, The Miracle Woman, Forbidden, Bitter Tea, and It Happened One Night. In the last ten minutes or so, Capra does protractedly what he has done only briefly at crucial earlier moments. He retards or arrests the progress of the plot and silences the speech of the characters in order to move them and a viewer into a special meditative or imaginative relationship to experience. Capra briskly shifts from a scene involving vigorous physical movements and/or passionate talk to a scene of sudden stasis, stillness, and silence. In a kind of metaphoric transference, the physical, verbal, and social agitation of the previous scene is transferred into the following one as a psychological, emotional, or metaphysical agitation. The energy of the outward, public drama is suddenly redirected and released in the form of an intense inward, private drama of consciousness in a central character.

We move from eventfulness to meditation, from movements of plot to movements of imagination, from action to reaction. At the end of the terrifying dreamland experience, George is crying out loud and running for his life. Then, abruptly restored to his identity, he again runs, equally hysterical with joy, down the street, wishing Merry Christmas to everyone he meets, dashes into his house and up the stairs, crying over his wife and children and talking a blue streak. Then the shift occurs. Capra stops his tears, silences and immobilizes George, as we and he are suddenly moved into another realm. A crowd of friends, relatives, and neighbors pours into his house, surges around him, and comes forward, as they make their financial contributions one by one and he stands quiet and reflective at the eye of the storm. The whole of It's a Wonderful Life–and indeed most of Capra's work–might be said to exist simply to make possible and to legitimate this movement into the interior: In place of worldly movements, adventurous events, and public speeches, Capra substitutes possibilities of imaginative movement, adventures of consciousness, and silent revelations. George Bailey, like Jack Bradon, Megan Davis, Florence Fallon, or Kay Arnold at the end of their films, learns only to stand still, yet to make that standing still count for the most exciting movement of all.

In stilling ourselves in this way, in order to allow ourselves to become agitated in the other way, our consciousness can be enriched and complicated more than by a trip around the world. One can "gain one's wings" and make the most daring flights of imagination, without ever leaving home.

Whatever Capra may have thought he was doing, George, in his silent marginality and imaginative exile, is not merely integrated back into the society around him at the end of the film. He is irrevocably alienated from it, in both an exhilarating and an endlessly painful sense. The experiences he has had are untranslatable into its forms and incommunicable to its members. He is on the creative margin defining the modernist critical position, somewhere inside the text and yet outside it at the same time. He is on the margin of simultaneous susceptibility and detachment inhabited by modern heroes of American art and culture as different from one another as Hester Prynne, Huck Finn, Maisie Farange, Lambert Strether, Maggie Verver, the Chaplin tramp, Seymour Moskowitz, and Mabel Longhetti: living at home, but never able to feel simply at home; alienated and estranged to a critical distance from the society of which he is a part, but unable and unwilling to leave it, renounce it, or escape its powerful, threatening influences.

In the final seconds of the film, George's brother Harry arrives and toasts him as the "richest man in town." It is hard to know exactly what Harry intends by the remark. He is certainly wryly commenting on the nearly miraculous appearance of the money George needed to cover the bank loss, and he is probably also graciously alluding to George's social good fortune in having so many generous friends gathered around him in his house on this Christmas Eve. Yet the most important meaning of the phrase–the meaning that a viewer attaches to it and that George himself undoubtedly understands by it –is almost certainly unintended by Harry. George's true richness at this specific moment has nothing at all to do with either his social or his financial good fortune. It is utterly unrelated to the presence or absence of dollars and cents or of friends. It is imaginatively that George is rich beyond the wealth of kings, and it is not insignificant that even this fact can be communicated in Capra's film and in George's life only in the form of this private pun–a pun of which no one in the room except George is even aware.

With that silent pun (silent or inaudible to everyone but George and the viewer), as with the ringing of the bell on the Christmas tree or the sight of the copy of Tom Sawyer, we and George have left the group far behind. The significance of those events, like the significance of all of the crucial events in the film, is silent, inexpressible, and untranslatable into any terms that the society of Bedford Falls could understand. Their meaning exists only in the alienated richness of George's private consciousness and in the alienating enrichment of consciousness that the viewer undergoes in watching the film. George is inextricably embedded in the group, never to be released from its pressures or even able to want to turn his back on it, but with this imaginative movement he has also forevermore been propelled outside of it, at an infinite distance from it, reflecting on it.

George has traveled and, in his continuing imaginative movements, is still traveling at this instant, in what might be called the Keatsian realms of gold. Like Keats, or Keats' Cortez, a figure imaginatively wooed away from the pursuit of physical riches in the jungle to the possession of imaginative and visionary riches, as he stands silent on a peak in Darien, George has nothing to show for his truly excessive expenditure of imaginative capital but his visionary interest. Both imaginative travelers are left with nothing but a "wild surmise" to show for it all. George indeed is, in a sense Harry is utterly unaware of, the richest man in town–in a Miltonic, Keatsian, Emersonian, or Jamesian sense–not in spite of, but because of the absolute imaginative freedom his worldly bankruptcy has conferred on him. George–family man, burdened with debts, cares, children, and well-meaning but frequently inept friends–is the richest, most imaginative traveler in all of American film. In this film, he is second only to the god of the Moviola who created, edited, and screened it for us–himself, like George, half within it, involved emotionally with it, and half outside of it, looking critically and dispassionately at it from an infinite and unbridgeable imaginative distance as the envisioner and reviser of the entire fictional text....

Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.