“I Could Never Get Past the Title”

That quote from “Batman:  The Animated Series” is Bruce Wayne talking about why he’s never watched the movie that I’m actually going to talk about in this post:  “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  I’ve developed a mild interest in watching some of the classic movies that I never got around to watching, and when I found this one on sale for a reasonable price — it’s labeled as the “Platinum Anniversary Edition”, which would mean that it’s a five year old edition — I decided that I’d give it a try.  And since it’s noted as a Christmas classic, it seemed appropriate to watch it on Christmas Eve (which is when Batman was supposed to watch it).

Now, as a Christmas classic, it’s obviously noted for being at least important, if not really good.  That being said, I’ve heard people complain about it dragging and being boring, although not that many people whose opinions on movies I really respected, so there’s that.  So I was interested in seeing for myself how the movie worked.

The one thing that is accurate is the fact that despite what everyone remembering about the premise is the part with the angel and with the angel showing the main character what his life would be like if he had never been born, that actually takes up a surprisingly small amount of the running time of the movie.  About an hour and a half of the two hour movie is instead dedicated to showing us the main character’s life up to that point and how he got to the point where he was contemplating suicide and all of his friends and loved ones were praying for him to get some help.  What the movie does do well is introduce the angel early and present that part of the story as the angel getting briefed on what he needed to know to help the main character, which then sets that up as a framing device and suggests that we need to know that as well.  The downside of that is that after bringing it up once in the first half of the movie as a reminder, we spend about an hour of the movie just following along with the main character’s life, which then causes us to lose that framing and turns it into more of a straight drama, losing the unique aspect that everyone remembers it for.

What this also does is make it so that there’s an imbalance in the movie between how the main character’s life went to get him to this point vs how things would have been if he had never been born.  The latter is given short shrift, but given the framing device and that it’s supposed to be what causes him to realize that his life really does have meaning it really would have been better to give it more time.  The movies and works that follow tend to do that, balancing showing us his life and all the characters and what has gone wrong to bring him to this point with what life would be like if he had never been born so that we can see that his life has had a strong and meaningful impact on the people around him and those he loves, and in this case on the town itself.  Here, we get a long look at his life up to this point, but what life would be like if he had never been born is a bit rushed.

This also, then, causes some issues with creating an alternate reality that can resolve all of the issues that were raised during the depiction of his life up to this point.  For example, one of the most important things that should make the main character want to live is the impact of his never being born on his wife, whom he clearly does love.  Except that the big issue for her is … that she ends up unmarried and working as a librarian.  Yes, in 1946 that would seem to be a worse fate than it would today, but even still that’s not exactly horrific.  It also doesn’t fit well with the rest of the story, because she was being courted by someone else — a wealthy man — and we would have expected that she would have ended up married to him.  Nothing in their history together suggests that she would have become some kind of wallflower or something, and so the only reason to think that she would end up unmarried is because she insisted that he was the only one she wanted to marry, which would probably not apply in a world where he was never born.  In other works, in general she would marry the rival and it would turn out to be a terrible life for her, but her beau there is actually ultimately a sympathetic character so that wouldn’t work here.  But it’s still a bit odd and a bit of a letdown.

His impact on other people is also a bit short.  He saved his brother’s life as a child, and the main thing they focus on is his saving a transport as a pilot in the war, and while their deaths when he wouldn’t be there are tragic, given the deaths in the war itself and that it didn’t seem to impact the battle at all it doesn’t really add any impact beyond the brother being dead itself would, which makes it superfluous.  While the impact on the pharmacist that he worked for is greater — he stopped him from making a mistake that would kill a child and get him sent to prison for a number of years — that’s just an aside in the story.  We don’t really see the huge impact that he’s had on individual lives that such a movie would generally demand.

The impact on the town is a bit better, as his work at his father’s Building and Loan business allows people to rise up from the “slums” of Potter and be able to own their own homes, which is something that they could take pride in.  However, again that only becomes clear because Potter is just a terrible person, and so seeing him win would make us want to see a world where he didn’t.  But the issue with this is that there was an underlying thread throughout the recollections of his life that the main character always wanted to leave Bedford Falls, but circumstances kept him there.  So there was an undercurrent that he cared for the people but not the town of Bedford Falls, and that if it wasn’t for the obligations that he felt to the various people in the town he would have left.  So at the end, what we would have liked was to see that he came to appreciate the town as it was and resolved that issue.  Instead, what we get is a callback to an earlier scene where he gives his honeymoon money to keep people afloat and keep the business open, as when his uncle has the money they need to keep the business running stolen and that loss would end up with the main character being arrested his wife manages to rally the town to put together whatever money they can to bail him out (and his wealthy friend also is tracked down and authorizes a loan to deal with more than the entire amount) and so we get to see that the people in the town repay him for his generosity in the past, which works well because Potter — who stole the money and called the police on him — actually says when the main character begs Potter for help that the main character should turn to the deadbeats that he supported in the past, and so they ultimately do indeed prove his faith in them.  But while that is heartwarming and fits with the movie, it does leave the thread of his constantly wanting to leave the town unresolved.

All of that being said … the movie does work.  The threads of the main character’s life are interesting enough and let us get to know him and his family enough for us to want to see him not commit suicide and get out of the jam he’s in.  Potter is also villainous enough that we want to see him defeated and can see it as a conflict between big, impersonal business and the local guy who cares for the people he serves.  So despite it running longer than we’d expect, the recollections of his life aren’t boring and aside from a few things that seem like asides do indeed seem to be things that we need to know to understand how he got to this point.  Once it gets to the point where we are seeing how life would be different if he had never been born, again the only real complaint is that it’s too short, and perhaps at times a bit too frantic and manic.  But the ending follows from a lot of the movie and is, indeed, heartwarming in its own way.

The movie, overall, is well-written and well-performed, which is why it could keep my interest for two hours despite losing the framing device for a while.  One oddity is that Mary — the main character’s wife — is supposed to be upstaged in terms of attractiveness by rival Violet, but Mary is actually always better looking than Violet is, although that can be explained by the fact that Violet is far more flirtatious than Mary.  Still, I think that most people and most people at the time would definitely prefer Mary to Violet.  At any rate, the movie is entertaining enough and I will likely watch it again at some point, although it is unlikely to become a full Christmas tradition for me.

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4 Responses to ““I Could Never Get Past the Title””

  1. Tom Says:

    Ha, it’s funny that even though I never watched that much of “Batman: the animated series”, I always remember that line when I think of this movie. I also recall that he did finally get around to watching it and when Robin asked him if it was a wonderful life he broke through his usual gloom and had to concede that “it has its moments”.

    Some of your criticisms are valid, like the fact that the “never having been born” stuff is probably shorter than it should be, though other stuff seems kinda nitpicky.

    As an aside, this is the only Christmas movie where, as we get to the ending, my eyeballs start sweating. It’s a really weird phenomenon: this watery stuff starts coming down my face. I probably should see a doctor about that…😏

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Some of your criticisms are valid, like the fact that the “never having been born” stuff is probably shorter than it should be, though other stuff seems kinda nitpicky.

      Well, other than the attractiveness difference between Mary and Violet, pretty much all of the rest is just showing why the “never having been born” stuff is given short shrift in the movie, so it’s more making a case for that than real criticisms. Overall, as I said, the movie still works, especially with the emotional appeal at the end, as you noted.

  2. Is it Worth Reading? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] a lot of works inspired by the idea that then brought the idea to different contexts, just as “It’s a Wonderful Life” did.  Those works are certainly worth reading, then, if you’ve read the derived works to see […]

  3. Thoughts on “Carrie” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] later movies following that model do focus on the protagonist, which means it really reminded me of “It’s a Wonderful Life“, as one of the first or at least the first movie of this sort to gain mainstream popularity […]

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