I’ve avoided Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life for most of my adult life. Capra’s films — from Meet John Doe to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — tread the same storyline of a populist hero who solves life’s problems in a predictable “Capra-corny” way. So I never understood what makes Life such a classic that, 60 years later, it’s still shown on primetime TV every December.
Then, through a serendipitous fluke, I watched the film back to back with Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut and discovered Capra’s facile bromide isn’t revered for what it is, but because viewers, like the protagonists of Life and Eyes, see only the version they want to accept.
It happened one December night when I was snowbound in an El Paso hotel. To avoid cabin fever, I turned to the one-eyed monster in the room, but it seemed every network and cable channel had Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life on tap. So rather than killing time in the dank hotel bar, I opted to give Capra a second chance.
I was glad I did. The film has a disturbing noir subtext: George Bailey (James Stewart) is a man on the verge of a mental breakdown. He’s suicidal; he wishes he’d never been born.
Later that night, I flipped to the hotel’s adult pay-cable channel for a presentation of Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. The TV guide promised an uncut version of the movie — once censored in the US for a graphic orgy sequence. But what did this film have to do with the approaching holiday? Was this a warped Merry XXX-Mas joke?
I awoke to the blinding whiteness of more snow. I’d have to spend another day stuck in the motel. Luckily, the Capra and Kubrick films were being repeated. The more I watched the two films, the more their basic premises and settings suggested that Eyes Wide Shut is an update of Capra’s holiday classic. Despite a 50-year gap both movies essentially tell the same story: A respectable man has a midlife crisis during the Christmas holidays.
In Life, George Bailey (James Stewart) owns a successful Savings and Loan in Bedford Falls, New York, where he and wife Mary (Donna Reed) are raising four children. Bailey is self-sacrificing to the point of forgetting his own dreams and happiness. In Eyes, Bill Harford’s (Tom Cruise)Manhattan medical practice caters to the wealthy; he even makes house calls. Bill and wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) have one child and live in tony Central Park West. On the surface both couples have charmed lives. The strength of their marriage bonds are tested, however, when they confront demons and temptations if only briefly, on the road not taken.
Eyes’s Harford thinks his marriage has gone awry when Alice tells him about her fleeting but nearly overpowering desire to sleep with another man. The doctor’s male ego is threatened when she asks if he has lusted after other women, if he too has committed adultery in his heart. His mind creates a blue-movie loop of her imagined infidelity on which he fixates for the rest of the film.
Capra’s George, meanwhile, flies into a rage after a bumbling clerk loses a deposit, threatening him with “bankruptcy, scandal, and prison.” He unwisely turns his ire on his family, verbally abusing his wife and children, getting drunk, and crashing his car.
The actions that trigger the central crisis in each man’s life illustrate how deeply flawed and insecure both are, and not coincidentally each man embarks on an introspective journey through drugs — George with alcohol, Bill with marijuana.
Through their intoxicated eyes, we experience the alternative Bedford Falls, now called Potterville, and the alternative Manhattan, a tawdry Greenwich Village. In Potterville, George is an unknown. Ditto Doctor Bill. No one believes in him, even after he flashes his medical license. To the world, they no longer exist. Both men acquire guardian angels, anima figures, who must first be rescued from death. Harford’s angel is a young beauty queen he revives after an overdose; George’s guardian is an elderly man whom he saves from drowning.
Further, both protagonists must confront a nemesis in the guise of a rich, powerful businessman whom the main character publicly abhors but secretly envies and emulates. In Life, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the unscrupulous town banker, offers to buy out George’s S&L — cajoling him with a large salary and bonuses. George refuses, and instead unleashes a self-righteous attack on his rival. He later crawls back to Potter when his S&L is on the skids. The old miser has the last laugh: “Look at you. You used to be so cocky! What are you now, but a warped, frustrated young man? You’re worth more dead than alive.”
In Eyes, millionaire powerbroker Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) tries to teach Harford how the world he’s attempted to infiltrate actually spins. Earlier Harford attends a bizarre ceremony (think Yale’s Skull and Bones) in a stately mansion where the super rich and powerful indulge their fantasies. Bill is discovered as an interloper and threatened with death by the group, but the young woman he saved from an overdose at Ziegler’s Christmas party sacrifices herself on his behalf. Harford foolishly challenges his wealthy patron to explain the young woman’s death and the disappearance of his college chum, Nick. Ziegler turns the screws: “OK, Bill. Let’s cut the bullshit. Somebody died. It happens all the time. Life goes on. It always does until it doesn’t. But you know that, don’t you?”
After his near brush with death, Harford happens upon a newspaper reading “Lucky to Be Alive.” George Bailey spots a similar headline, informing him that his brother (whose grave he saw in Potterville) is alive and a war hero. Back in real time, George’s financial problems disappear. But as he glares into the gaudily lit tree, he seems incredulous at this too-easy resolution.
Safely in his Manhattan high-rise, surrounded by the same sort of garish holiday decorations, a distraught Harford unplugs his illuminated Christmas tree. But the next day, as if the events of the night before were all a bad dream, Harford and his family are out
Christmas shopping. Is this a Christmas card ending?
Despite Bailey and Harford’s epiphanies, they return to their old ways and continue down the road to perdition. As a physician, Harford failed to report the overdose at the Ziegler mansion as required by New York state law. Nor does he order an autopsy on Mandy. Bill never informs the authorities of the death threats to his family, and most grievous, he seems unconcerned that his friend Nick is most likely the victim of foul play.
Bailey, we learn, builds a tract of low-income housing on what was once the town cemetery! And how long will it be before George has another breakdown and his abuse turns physical or his drunken driving results in a death? He is in dire need of counseling. And how can the bank examiners turn a blind eye to the charges against George? The ending practically suggests that crime does pay — for Potter, at least, who stole the deposit money but never gets any sort of comeuppance.
But, hey, lighten up. This is Christmas — no time to find help for our crippling emotional problems or take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. The moral: It’s a wonderful life — with eyes wide shut. Happy Holidays! •
It’s A Wonderful Life airs 7 p.m. Dec. 24 on NBC. Both films are available on Blu-Ray and DVD.