The Success of Catastrophe
Published on December 15th, 2011 | by Paul Anthony Johnson0
Running time: 130 minutes
Few movies have benefited from copyright purgatory more than Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Beloved/tolerated for a generation after a lapse in ownership made it a ubiquitous television companion during the holiday season for about thirty years (until it eventually fell into the hands of NBC, which now only airs it a couple of times during the Thanksgiving to Christmas programming abyss) and thus redeemed a film that had marked the end of Capra’s career as a Hollywood golden boy and a brief detour in James Stewart’s reign as an evergreen leading man. It’s of course part of the film’s legend that the film flopped on first release, a mild overstatement for a movie that did semi-respectable business and scored a best picture nomination. But given Capra’s 1930s success and the hoopla that surrounded James Stewart’s return to the home front following distinguished service in WWII (the latter exemplified by an elaborate “Life” magazine photo spread published in September 1945), the film was what could fairly be called an underperformer. The evidence abounds that nobody could bother getting too excited about it at the time. Why a sentimental Christmas movie about despair, claustrophobia, suicide, economic devastation, defeat, insanity and alcoholism failed to win the hearts and minds of war-weary audiences in 1946 remains one of film history’s great mysteries. It would take repeated distracted viewings where too much eggnog and too many commercial breaks inevitably diluted the film’s schizophrenic bleakness to render a misfire into an adored holiday ornament.
So why did the film fail to click in 1946? I mean, besides the fact that it’s kind of depressing as hell if you pay attention, and that the seesawing between golly-gee Capracorn populist exuberance and kill-me-now Capracon elitist misanthropy can give you vertigo. Well, part of the reason may have been Stewart himself, since the film can be seen partly as the undoing of the Jimmy Stewart myth as it existed in 1946. It took half a decade for his career to fully recover.
No one wanted to see Jimmy Stewart have a nervous breakdown on camera. Not in 1946 anyway. The film finds Stewart at a crucial moment in his career, and a bit off-balance. His most celebrated roles before the war, “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), and even “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), all traded on evocations of the Jimmy Stewart of popular memory, the swell sap next door whose every stammer betrayed his utter sincerity. Not that an observant eye can’t find cracks in that façade even when it was fresh. After all, his first film appearance, in “After the Thin Man” (1936), was as a (spoiler alert) murderer, and much of his famous filibuster scene in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” prophesies the neurotic turn of his post-war performances. The most intriguing performances from the pre-war period are in Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940), which hints at a certain smug iciness that would flower in the westerns he made with Anthony Mann in the ’50s, and a relatively small part in the 1941 film “Ziegfeld Girl,” where he plays the obsessed boyfriend of Lana Turner’s chorus girl flirt and reveals a manic intensity that augured the dangerous amorous euphoria of “Vertigo” while throwing what is ostensibly a light-hearted musical comedy seriously off balance.
Still, in 1946 people thought they knew what they wanted from a Jimmy Stewart performance, and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Stewart’s wide-eyed desperation, bitter suicidal tears, and raging sense of resentment at the town of Bedford Falls and its hapless inhabitants, wasn’t it. Then again, the following year Stewart made “Magic Town” with William Wellman, an attempt at a waxwork reenactment of the populist everyman persona he had perfected in the 1930s, and no one was biting then either. It wasn’t until the double-whammy of his holy imbecile in “Harvey” (1950) and his vengeful gunslinger in “Winchester ’73” (1951) that Stewart truly found his post-war commercial footing (and it took getting rather unceremoniously gunned down mid-picture in 1949’s “Malaya” to arrive there). So “It’s a Wonderful Life” constituted something of a chilly homecoming for the returning war hero.
As eternally put-upon savings-and-loan manager George Bailey, Stewart often seems to be slowly losing his mind, especially in the film’s final third. Look at him in the scene in which he loses his cool at Thomas Mitchell’s idiot Uncle Billy, telling the old man that he’s going to jail, tearing at the sorry fool’s collar and combusting in a sputtering outpour of rage and desperation that threatens to throw audience sympathy into the gutter. In his flailing, almost inarticulate expression of defeat, Stewart is channeling the same kind of jangly, spastic energy that would become the Method’s mannerism-in-trade. But in 1946, poses of resigned composure were all the rage. Witness the two lead male performances in William Wyler’s contemporaneous and thematically similar (and hugely popular) “The Best Years of Our Lives.” On the one hand, there’s Fredric March’s alcoholic bank manager, a man who’s returned to the ordinariness of post-war responsibility facing the disappointment of life lived timidly. He can only channel his deflation into slap-happy inebriation. March remains a very noble and even rather poised drunk, his alcoholic stupor largely being that of the semi-respectable society drinker variety, without the sense of pathetic, teary oblivion which characterizes Stewart’s big drinking scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And then there’s Dana Andrews as a cuckolded pilot, mostly stoic despair and muffled anger over his wife’s wartime dalliances, a noble knight whose weary, elegiac acceptance of home front defeat and humiliation (even when he snaps and socks a guy, his expression barely registers a shift in feeling) works as well as any performance in 1946 at providing the ultimate model of post-war masculine resignation. In contrast, Stewart’s boy-man-next-door keeps his feelings right at the surface, dramatically and unnervingly radiating every heartbreak.
The result distances Stewart’s George Bailey from most movie heroes in 1946, and in fact the closest parallels can be found in portraits of neurotic villains and wounded misfits, from Claude Rains’s broken shell of a sadist in Hitchcock’s “Notorious” to Tom Neal’s haunted all-time champion loser in the previous year’s “Detour.” Stewart’s quavering vulnerability made him a man out of time in 1946, coming as it did a few years before exhibitions of anguish would become a mark of male authenticity. For an audience looking for reassurances that the world might return to the bearable, consoling hell they already knew, Stewart could offer no solace. But for a contemporary audience perversely inclined to mistake yesterday’s defeats for signs of an innocence lost, George Bailey continues to merrily reassure.