It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) ***(1/2)

Film purists, like myself, will need nearly no urging to watch this almost unknown cult classic the way that director Franz Kafka intended: the final colorized director's cut which first premiered in a limited re-release during the turbulent 1960s, when, after its all-too-short run amongst the grindhouses and speakeasies, it quickly (yet elegantly, in the opinion of this reviewer) died on the vine and was seen no more, until its long-awaited (by purists of the craft) release on videodisc in 1987. Two laserdisc versions were produced: the original, which was filmed in black and white, due to budgetary restraints in prohibition-era Hollywood, and the final director's cut, stunningly remastered and colorized with computers and the like, the way Kafka had always intended. So, if you have the chance to view this much-overlooked masterpiece, don't get "duped" by substandard copies in cheap and cruddy (in the opinion of this reviewer) monochrome; treat yourself to the garish, almost neon pageantry of gay sights and sounds that is the remastered, colorized version, the way the director intended. Kafka is on record as stating that the latter is the way he intended, so if you think you know better, then by all means "miss the boat" on what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza of gay sights and sounds for you, but then, if you do, you're not really a purist, so I guess it doesn't really matter anyway.

Never before, in cinematic history before or since, have I seen such an honest and unflinching portrayal of one man's slow descent into an alcoholic hell, in a world he did not create. Indeed, were it not for Kafka's honest and unflinching docudrama, three-day driver's intervention programs the world over would be deprived of such crucial fare as Sandra Bollock in 28 Days Later (2002) and Alex P. Keaton in The Clean and the Sober (2002). The semi-autobiographical screenplay, written by Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder, Bill Wilson (from his play by the same name), neatly encapsulates the complex web that is the harrowing world of addiction and recovery in a tidy package that slides in at just under two hours, in a rare display of efficiency sorely lacking in most of the "stuffed shirt", chronologically-lengthy (in terms of time), biblical epics and historical docudramas of its day. Perhaps this is due to Wilson's own terse “less is more” writing style, as evidenced in countless books and pamphlets given surreptitiously to me, over many years, by concerned family members.

The film's titular and seminal anti-hero, Jim Bailey (played in this, his signature role, by Johnny Stewart, who would go on to star in no less than fifty-two subsequent Kafka films) is, much like screenwriter Wilson (and therefore all alcoholics in the history of the world) may very likely have been in real life: a happy-go-lucky entrepreneur who enjoys an occasional snifter of bathtub gin with the boys, yet remains blissfully unaware of the impending personal apocalypse that lies, carbonating, within the demonic bubbles of his very glass. Bailey (a pseudonym for Wilson himself, thus keeping with the tenets of alcoholism), a sober (appearing) family man (to all appearances), from Bedford Falls, USA (Wilson's own place of origin), sits in a dingy tavern contemplating the wreckage of his life and we are treated to the first of what will be several hallucinations on the part of the square-jawed imbiber: a pair of anthropomorphic stars that swirl about his head, showing him visions which may or may not be real. Kafka employs a hitherto-unseen sleight of hand here, like that up a magician's sleeve, and we, the viewers, are like mere babes in the woods, as Kafka almost appears to be laughing at his own private joke. Although much more will be revealed.

NOTE: Much has been made of director Kafka's heroic choice to film It's a Wonderful Life in the desolate ghettoes of the real-life Bedford Falls, despite near-constant civil unrest and union squabbles in the war-torn city. When attempts were made, on the part of studio moguls, and even by Kafka's wife herself, to get the venerable director to film elsewhere--on sound stages and back lots, or the like--the brash young director is quoted as saying: "Damn you all! No mountain [is] too high and no ocean too deep [for me not to film in Bedford Falls]! I have miles to go before I sleep!" And film history was very nearly made that day. In that instance, Kafka became the first, but certainly not the last, film director to "make a stand" and show one and all that nothing short of an act of God (and even then, maybe not) would stand between him and "the little movie that could". Indeed, the real-life Bedford Falls, with its colorful (in the remastered edition) streets and postmodern alleyways, is so firmly embedded in the minds of purists, like myself, who have seen Kafka's tour de force, that the town is almost like a character itself, it is so integral. The gay streets, festooned with all manner of holiday accoutrements, make it look as if it’s Christmas all year round. Indeed, in another bold move, one that would be echoed in countless films of the twentieth century, Kafka eschewed any direct association with the holiday itself, instead making his use of Christmas, as a plot device, almost incidental and very nearly imperceptible. A purist can't help but imagine what things might have been like had the brash director taken a different route. Indeed, It's a Wonderful Life may have gone on to become one of the great holiday epics of our age, playing and re-playing on television, ad nauseum, until it became a bloated and grotesque caricature of its former self, much like Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962) and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006).

While Bailey sits in the darkened “speak”, hopelessly lost in an alcoholic stupor and haze, his young son and namesake, sorely neglected and in dire need of parental guidance, falls through the ice of a nearby pond, in Bedford Falls (in a scene in which it is heavily implied that the accident could have been avoided had Jim Bailey been sober and attentive to his young son's needs, instead of drowning his sorrows in a shameful pantomime of self-pity and an even greater display of self-loathing), and loses the hearing in one of his ears. The right or the left, it is not made clear. Bailey stumbles to one of his many entrepreneurships, at a Bedford Falls drugstore, where, in a truly horrifying display of alcoholic temperament, he savagely clouts his son and namesake about his newly-damaged ears. During this gory scene, his son refers to the unrepentant patriarch as "Mr. Gower" (a seemingly enigmatic reference that purists who are "in the know" will no doubt eagerly recognize, causing them to perhaps smile wryly at this "in joke" placed there, by Kafka himself, just for us). We are also treated in these seminal early scenes to the hopes and dreams of Bailey's eldest son and namesake, who is graduating from high school and is full of youthful and lofty ambitions. Ambitions that will, no doubt, be thwarted by his father's monstrous slide into active alcoholism, as any purist can see. We, the viewers, are also treated to a kaleidoscopic Busby Berkey underwater song and dance number, in which several fully clothed youths, including Bailey’s eldest son and namesake, dive into an cleverly-hidden swimming pool (concealed ingeniously, by Berkely himself, beneath the floorboards of a seemingly-innocuous gymnasium) and undulate endlessly in what is a carryover from Wilson’s short-lived off-Broadway musical. True purists will no doubt be giddily surprised at the inclusion of this august scene, long-rumored to have been utterly unfilmable; further proof of Kafka’s visionary prowess which was light years ahead of its time. “The little movie that could” indeed.

Through a montage of fevered and hallucinatory flashbacks, we are also introduced to Jim’s brother Harry (Sam Wainwright), a pilot in the United States Air Force, who received the coveted medal of valor in WWI. Harry, who incessantly urges his younger brother to enter a rehabilitation program, ends up leaving Bedford Falls forever, due largely in part to his wayward sibling's excessive drinking. Bailey’s father also dies of a stroke, brought on by undue worry regarding his son’s alcoholism, yet Bailey remains indifferent to it all, caught up in the throes of his devil-may-care lifestyle, in a world he did not create, and blithely goes about his business until John Barleycorn himself sits in the driver’s seat. And all appears lost.

Meanwhile, the town’s handicapped philanthropist, Mr. Potter (played here by Ebeneezer Scrooge, in a role that surely thumbed its nose at naysayers who had been attempting to typecast him as a withered old miser for years), attempts to help Bailey, offering him a ground-floor position at his own company, as well as help for his “dirty little secret”, but is met by heaping spoonfulls of scorn and ridicule from the perpetually-inebriated tippler, who quickly flies into yet another of his patented rages, and, after threatening violence toward the kindly old gentleman, storms out of the place and soundly thrashes his mentally-challenged uncle Billy (Sir Alastair Sims), over a matter of $80.00, in yet another shameful display of familial violence. Far from finished, the lanky inebriate staggers home where he subjects his loving wife (Patty Duke) and children, including his daughter, Zoso (a young Karolyn Grimes), to a foul mouthed, seemingly-endless tirade in which he reveals all of the sins of the seemingly-puritanical citizens of Bedford Falls, one and sundry, brought to light, in a piece of dialogue that, while almost unspeakably ugly in terms of brute shockingness, is nevertheless Oscar worthy, if nothing else. This high-tension mise en scene ends with Bailey smashing apart the banister and throwing the debris at the heads of his wife and small son (who is partially deaf, due to a sledding accident), upon which he has a “moment of clarity”, common to all alcoholics, great and small, and, horrified at the twisted shell of a man he has become, he flees the abode, into the swirling mists of Bedford Falls, as if the mists can hide the shame of what he has done. Conspicuously absent from this scene is Bailey’s eldest son and namesake, who has presumably run away from home, due largely in part to his father’s excessive drinking, as he always said he would. Again, thanks to Kafka’s deft sleight-of-hand, even purists may never know.

Following a one-car automobile accident, in which Bailey, in an alcoholic “black out”, murders the only witness to the crime, he crawls doggedly toward an overpass where, lost in a world of shadows, he intends to take one last final dark journey beyond this vale of tears (NOTE: In an ironic twist, the filmed location would be none other than the very selfsame bridge where screenwriter Wilson found himself in similar straits a mere three years before). However, before Bailey can take “the coward’s way out”, he sees a portly man, obviously quite intoxicated, floundering helplessly in the icy waters of the Bedford River. He rescues the man, who introduces himself as Clarence (played ably by Jim Backus), and mutters semi-incoherently about angels “getting their wings” and other such falderal, in a scene in which Kafka, definitely of the old school “show, don’t tell” variety of film director, shows us that the man is as inebriated as Bailey himself is prostratized by grief, although Bailey is inebriated as well. (NOTE: As true purists will verily realize, the character of Clarence is a thinly-veiled incarnation of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder, Dr. Bob Smith, Wilson’s former drinking buddy and future co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).

The two “lovable lushes” go on to wreak all manner of havoc, against the backdrop of a blood red (in the remastered edition) moon, stopping only to “feed the beast“ at various juke joints and flophouses on Bedford Falls’ Lower East Side. One scene in particular shows just how far Bailey’s mind has slipped into the nether realms of alcoholism’s cruel stranglehold: In a bar, while drinking martinis and rum punch, Bailey insists that the bartender (a seminal Jack Nickolsen in his introductory role) knows him well, yet the younger man obviously has no recollection of Bailey at all. This tense mise en scene culminates in Bailey being sprayed by a seltzer bottle, wielded by the demonic Nickelson, and subsequently given the “bum’s rush”, along with Dr. Bob, into the swirling snowy mists of Bedford Falls. Even drunker than before, and out of his mind with grief, Bailey runs through Bedford Falls like a boozy juggernaut, terrorizing young and old alike. Even (in one particularly poignant scene) violently accosting an innocent young lady, insisting that she is his own wife, who is, in actuality, safely at home, doubtlessly out of her mind with worry. The drunken rampage of Bailey and Dr. Bob eventually necessitates the involvement of the police. As they take Bob into custody, Bailey, drunk beyond all reason, assaults a police officer and runs, drunk, back to the bridge itself. Back to where it all began.

Meanwhile, in his absence, deprived even more completely by the lack of a sober father figure, Bailey’s youngest son and namesake, in an attempt to impress his rolling stone of a patriarch, plummets through the ice of a nearby pond, to his untimely death. Bailey’s brother Harry also dies, while piloting planes for the United States Air Force in Korea, possibly due to excessive concern over his brother’s burgeoning alcoholism. The whereabouts of Bailey’s eldest son are still unknown, even to purists.

Then, in yet another bold move by Kafka, who is seemingly bending all rules of time and space, Bailey reaches into his pockets to find a pamphlet on alcoholism, entitled Zuzu’s Petals, which was, in real life, written by none other than Bill Wilson himself! I won’t reveal the exact circumstances of how this deuce ex machina plays out, so as not to spoil it for much-envied first viewers of Kafka’s “little movie that could”, but purists are no doubt chortling up their own sleeves at this point, as well we should. Bailey, upon reading the pamphlet, admits that he has a problem and runs back home to the open arms of his loving wife and children, who have already forgiven him. Holding Koko, with tears in his eyes, he vows never to drink again and then, as if to say to the spirit of Dr. Bob (who apparently passed away in police custody): “I’ll never engage in that sort of ‘drunk talk’ again”, Bailey winks at the sky and repeats Bob’s former drunken ramblings about angels and wings. Now his epitaph.

As I probably stated earlier in this review, It’s a Wonderful Life is an amazing little honey that can be enjoyed on different levels by both purists and more casual moviegoers alike, each in their own measure. Although produced in Wilson and Kafka’s days of smoky jazz clubs and breadlines, the honest and unflinching portrayal of alcohol abuse still rings true even now, in these, our own troubled times. Indeed, had this film been more commercially successful than it was, and watched by countless millions each and every holiday season, the world might be a much more sober place indeed. However, drunk or sober, it is a world Kafka and Wilson couldn’t have imagined even in their most fervent deleriums. Happy Holidays and God Bless!

Jim Bailey (Stewart) comes to believe in a power greater than himself, as Dr. Bob drinks on (still from the remastered, colorized version of the film, just as director Kafka intended).

No comments:

Post a Comment