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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 9, No. 5, 2010
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Robert J. Lewis
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Don Dewey has published 25 books of fiction, non-fiction and drama, including Marcello Mastroianni: His Life and Art, James Stewart: a Biography and The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons.

We all love It’s a Wonderful Life. We love James Stewart’s perpetually harassed George Bailey, we love Lionel Barrymore’s avaricious Potter, we love all the citizens of Bedford Falls, especially when they aren’t a mad mob of ingrates bent on destroying George’s bank. But there is something else we also love about Frank Capra’s bleak 1946 fable of small-town America --- the kindergarten religiosity represented by the character of the wingless angel Clarence. And that crush, grown stronger with the distance of fifty years-plus, says as much about some of the movies in our neighbourhood theatres now as about the relatively few people who went to see Clarence when he first arrived on the screen in the middle of another century.

Looked at today, the dramatic conceit of a Clarence in an otherwise naturalistic generational saga can strike us as esoteric to the extreme. Capra himself was reported to have called the device “shit” before being pressured by Stewart to proceed with the project. The director’s initial misgivings might or might not have been true in the specific case of It’s a Wonderful Life, but the fact of the matter was, the Clarence kind of figure was all but a norm for major features turned out by Hollywood in the 1940s. Both during World War II and in its aftermath, one story after another featured angels, devils, spirits or other presences not preoccupied with buying milk at the grocery store. The most casual list of these pictures, encompassing every genre from sophisticated comedy to gangster tales, would have to include Here Comes Mr. Jordan, I Married a Witch, I Married an Angel, A Guy Named Joe, The Remarkable Andrew, Happy Land, That’s the Spirit, The Horn Blows at Midnight, The Human Comedy, Heaven Can Wait, The Cockeyed Miracle, Angel on My Shoulder, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Bishop’s Wife, Down to Earth, and Portrait of Jennie. When he wasn’t being shocked, shocked by the gambling going on at Rick’s saloon, Claude Rains in particular specialized in walking through walls and materializing in the middle of rooms --- and this was many years after portraying The Invisible Man.

Analyses of this absorption with other-worldly characters have hardly been lacking over the years. When these figures appeared in pictures made during the war, they supposedly reflected a popular anxiety for a divinely guided victory over the Nazis and Fascists. When they popped up in postwar tales, they were said to be symptoms of the spiritual malaise afflicting the mass consumer society beneath all its new material gains. In other words, through subsequent outside punditry as much as within the plot machinations of the films themselves, as sociology as much as cinematic drama, the articulate figures who spoke in precise cadences, usually wore black and had a penchant for knowing how races would turn out before they were run, just about explained everything. As for the human beings all these spooks were dealing with, they were the opposite of American self-sufficiency --- their most noble feats negotiated by visible heavenly emissaries, their lowest ambitions charted by Satanic tempters, their bumbling around otherwise viewed as vacuous life sentences.

It is within this context that we have come to appreciate Clarence and It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday bauble --- not because the ending takes place around a Christmas tree or because one particular TV station has managed to demonstrate the meaning of private in public domain for its exclusive showings between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but because it responds to eggnog sentimentality for depicting the unreal as physically real (viz.. see Santa Claus). The further time has removed us from what was fairly typical story-telling in the 1940s, the more singular the mix of naturalism and fantasy has impressed us as being. There was really a period when people didn’t think twice about objectifying their beliefs that way? Wow!

The descendants of these almost-flesh-and-blood objectifications in our own time have had little of the divine or demonic about them; indeed, apart from the farcical God of a Morgan Freeman following the standup routines of George Burns, they have been non-existent. Instead, the cinematic reach for the esoteric has been very humanly grounded. On one level, we have had (over and over again) The Sixth Sense notion of a dead protagonist being the last to realize he is dead --- something Claude Rains would have straightened him out about very fast. But even more prominent have been the approaches to the paranormal through the technological, in both belief and representation. Computer effects weren’t invented just to fall in the middle of cyberspace for sparking debate about whether they actually fell. The computerized razzle-dazzle of an Inception, not to mention all its earlier matrixes with and without a capital M, has no time for kindergarten religiosity. Now it is the science that is kindergarten, and with the same dedication to passing off block games and erector set activities as profound insight. If human behaviour isn’t shown to be quite as helpless and vacuous on its own as back in the 1940s, it is shown to be arrogantly dangerous and still in need of a cautioning hand. Or, failing that and too many failures at the box office, even more sophisticated technology!

Welcome to Potterville.

Also by Donald Dewey:
Being and Disconnectedness
History of Humour in the Cinema
Cartoon Power



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