Thursday, January 6, 2011

Zen and the Art of Capra Corn

I just watched It's a Wonderful Life for the zillionth time.  I missed it before Christmas and was determined to view it before Valentine's Day.  It is, as always, a masterpiece, where what might be a cornball story is spun by a master and a masterful cast into a timeless treasure.  In Frank Capra's autobiography "The Name Above the Title," he writes about how tough it was to convince Jimmy Stewart to take the part.  It was right after World War II ended.  Stewart had been in the service for years and was questioning his career as an actor now that he was a civilian again.  He wanted to do something that would help mankind and feared that movies were too shallow a calling.  Capra finally convinced him to be George Bailey.  In the famous telephone sexual-tension-and-great-kiss-scene between him and Donna Reed, a few pages of dialogue were completely blown by Stewart.  It was his first screen kiss since before the war, and he was so nervous, he simply grabbed Donna, forgetting his lines.  She went with it.  After the scene was over, Capra yelled, "Cut!  Guard this reel with your life!" 

Still uncertain about how a movie star could do good for humanity, Stewart saw the impact of it when the film was released.  Apart from Harvey, he got more mail for It's a Wonderful Life than any of his other movies.  When it first came out, thousands of servicemen wrote to thank him, saying that after fighting in a war and then returning to some dead end job as a gas pump jockey or soda fountain jerk, his role as George Bailey helped them find perspective.  Some even wrote it stopped them from committing suicide.  These kind of letters continued until Stewart's death decades later. 

As for me, I cry every single time I've seen it, and I've probably seen it at least thirty times.  Two scenes get to me the most: the prayer he does in the bar and his hugging his little boy in the Santa mask as the kid puts tinsel on his head.  That's the beauty of great art, that it wrings emotion from a turnip, let alone a blubberer like me.  I am a great film fanatic.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Ikiru, The Burmese Harp, The Fisher King and Spartacus are probably my top five favorites but I love thousands of movies.  But It's a Wonderful Life has become a tradition for me, as it has for a lot of people.  Doesn't seem like Christmas unless I watch it, like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Grinch and Alistair Simm's A Christmas Carol. A Wish for Wings that Work is a favorite holiday cartoon as well.  George Bailey makes me introspective about my own life, and the people I've affected by my existence; mostly good, some bad, but all part of the tapestry of life.  Pull one thread and the whole thing looks like hell: something integral is missing.  Strange and wondrous to be part of a massive weave.  A part of me touches so many others, like degrees of Kevin Bacon.  And thousands of others have shaped my life as well, both good and bad but with something to learn from them all if I pay attention.  So you know what?  Despite trials and tribulations, real horror and gut wrenching misery, it really has been a wonderful life.  And Capra's movie will always be around to remind me when I get really low, that there's probably a slightly inept but enthusiastic Clarence hovering around me, just waiting for a bell to jingle when I finally wise up.

Love, R

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