September 9, 2020

“It’s a Wonderful Life” — George Bailey’s Bridge Is Nearer Than You Think

By Stuart Mitchner

Actually, the town I had in mind was Califon, N.J.

—Philip Van Doren Stern

The first sentence of the screenplay for Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life calls for a night sequence showing various streets and buildings in “the town of Bedford Falls, somewhere in New York State.”

Above the first sentence of the film’s primary source, Philip Van Doren Stern’s Christmas story, “The Greatest Gift,” there’s a drawing of a despondent looking man leaning on a bridge railing. The “little town” described, “bright with colored Christmas lights,” has no name. In a 1946 interview, the author, a Rutgers graduate who grew up in Jersey City, makes it clear that the place he had in mind was Califon, in Hunterdon County, 37 miles northwest of Princeton. As noted in Wikipedia, the center of town is “the historic iron bridge spanning the South Branch of the Raritan River, which divides the borough.” 

On the Bridge

I’m beginning in Califon because it’s the original setting of It’s a Wonderful Life, not Seneca Falls, New York, the town that has declared itself the model for Bedford Falls by holding an annual festival; it even named a hotel after Clarence, the whimsical angel who appears on the bridge in time to save George Bailey from ending his life. Clarence accomplishes his mission by jumping into the icy waters himself, knowing that George’s instinct to help others is so fundamental that he’ll take the plunge to save a life.

But look what just happened. Even as I’m trying to explain the motive for my online trip to Califon and its historic bridge, I’m still riding the emotional rollercoaster of the film’s final half hour as Clarence shows George the nightmare of Pottersville, a vision of the fate that would befall the community had he never been born and had the town been left to the mercy of Henry Potter, the unredeemed and unpunished banker from hell who makes Scrooge look like a sucker.

In fact, the actual town of Califon is located a mere six miles west of a town called Pottersville, which lies the same distance from the Trump National Golf Club at Bedminster, a domain known as Camp David North or the Summer White House.

Conventional Wisdom

“I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president,” Frank Capra said in a 1985 interview regarding the fate of It’s A Wonderful Life, a box office flop in 1946 reborn three decades later as an American Christmas Carol. It was  the surfacing of Capra’s masterpiece at the recent Republican National Convention that sent me back to the film and put me on the road to Califon. I’m thinking of the speaker who promised POTUS the “great gift the angels gave George Bailey – the chance to see what the world would be like without him.” Meaning that but for his enlightened leadership “we’d all be living in Pottersville.”

No need to point out the absurdity of Trump as George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s daughter having done just that in a letter to the “fake news” New York Times in the name of “decency, compassion, sacrifice, and a fight against corruption” claiming the “analogy to be the height of hypocrisy and dishonesty.” Assuming that someone so self-absorbed knew anything about the film or the humane self-sacrificing character played so sympathetically by Stewart, I’d have thought he’d have been puzzled if not insulted by the comparison, not to mention the perish-the-thought prospect of seeing, even hypothetically, what the world would be like without him. Or maybe he’s still fuming about last year’s Saturday Night Live travesty of It’s a Wonderful Life, and for all I know, SNL may be planning a sequel, bringing in a Joe Biden impersonator with a Jimmy Stewart stutter. You can already see the possibilities of a Bailey vs. Baldwin cold opening version of the first debate.

Oh Those Angels

Let’s say you’re seeing Frank Capra’s kid-who-grew-up-to-be-president for the first time. You’ve got no preconceived notions, no idea that you’re watching “a beloved holiday classic.” The first voices you hear belong to townspeople, friends and family praying for George Bailey. You follow the prayers up to heaven and find yourself listening to a conversation between two angels discussing how to help a man below who is on the verge of suicide. They decide to send a good-hearted but not very bright angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who is shown a film of Bailey’s life, this film, in effect, except he needs help seeing it because he has yet to earn his wings. “Keep your eyes open,” the head angel tells him. “See the town?” The screen blurs then clears around the first scene, a bunch of boys sledding, 11-year-old George Bailey among them.

For some viewers, the film never really survives that opening. The suspension of disbelief may give way now and again to the power of the acting and the brilliant cinematography, but for hardened film critics and film elitists the “vision thing” with the angels makes it hard to   take the picture seriously as a credible work of art. I may have felt the same, but not for long. The second scene, with young George (Bobbie Anderson) and Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner), the druggist he runs errands for, slapped all such doubts right out of my head. I saw it on an 11-inch Sony, but it might have been happening on a wall-sized screen. As the novelist Graham Greene observed in a review of You Can’t Take It With You, Capra’s “complete mastery of his medium” is such that the “screen always seems twice as big as other people’s.”

The Heart of Darkness

In past columns, I’ve stressed the range and magnitude of Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of George Bailey with an emphasis on his passion for the positive. Like the moonlit moment after a high school dance when George asks his future wife (Donna Reed) “What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down!” And when Mary says she’ll take it, he says, “Well, then, you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see, and the moonbeams’ll shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair!”

Jump ahead to the sequence that leads George Bailey to his Christmas Eve moment on the bridge and all is lost —he’s been reduced to begging for a loan from the unconditionally ruthless Mr. Potter; he’s terrified his wife and children, crashing into a Norman Rockwell Christmas Eve like a madman; he’s viciously berated his daughter’s teacher over the phone, and staggered into a roadside tavern for a drink, the camera moving in close, as he prays, and though it’s the standard unexceptional “I’m not a praying man — but if you can hear me show me the way — I’m at the end of my rope — show me, God” sort of prayer, it’s emotionally immense and at the same time crushingly intimate, so that the darkness seems to be consuming him as he speaks. Concerned, the owner of the tavern, one of the many people whose life and livelihood he’s impacted, calls him by name, is overheard by the husband of the teacher he just vilified, who slugs him, shouting “She cried for an hour!” — words you know must hit a caring man like George harder than the blow itself.

George and Clarence

The rest of the film lives up to James Agee’s quick study of “its pile-driving emotional exuberance,” and the way it “outrages, insults, or at least accosts without introduction, the cooler and more responsible parts of the mind.” One of the most admirable elements of Stewart’s performance is the way he accepts the reality of an angel named Clarence in the scene where they are drying off in the tollkeeper’s house after the plunge off the bridge. Dismissively humoring the angel, who is clad in the nightshirt Clarence says he “passed away in,” George is friendly and casually accepting (in contrast to the tollkeeper whose eyes grow wider at every word Clarence utters), telling him, “Look, little fella, go off and haunt somebody else, will you?” Even his self-pity becomes humanly engaging, Jimmy Stewart-style, “Yeah, you’re just the sort of angel I’d get” and “Yeah, I got a bust in the jaw in answer to a prayer a little bit ago.”

Writing of Stewart’s performance in the 1994 edition of A Biographical Dictionary of Film, the British critic David Thomson sees the “first hint of frenzy and gloom” haunting some of the actor’s edgier postwar roles in films like Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo. Much of the picture’s darkest force is delivered in the closing scenes, as Stewart ranges from absolute despair to absolute ecstasy, and the mother of all happy endings. Except that, as critics like Andrew Sarris have noted, the monstrous Potter is never punished, contrary to the Hollywood code that evildoers must pay the price. No wonder Sarris finds this Christmas classic “one of the most profoundly pessimistic tales of human existence ever to achieve a lasting popularity.”

Referring to the film’s “uneasy depths,” Thomson admits that he had not grasped it nor been gripped by it until he lived in America, where It’s a Wonderful Life was “an institution, all over the TV airwaves at Christmas, bringing good cheer without quite letting us forget a vision of dread. For happiness here was pursued by the hounds of living hell; the American dream was so close to the nightmare. The film that had failed in 1947 had become a token of uplifting fellowship, yet it was a film noir full of regret, self-pity, and the temptation of suicide. How could so many people convince themselves that it was cheery?”  Thomson credits the “the craft, the guile, the magic” of a “movie so beautifully made, so rich in texture and nuance” typical of certain landmark American films with their “uncanny conjuring of ‘genius’ and the unwholesome.” These “problem films, secret revelations of the medium” remind him of The Triumph of the Will.