It's a wonderfully creepy life

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
It's a wonderfully creepy life

I always disliked this movie as a teenager, what with poor cavalier, intrepid George Bailey forced to discard his hopes and dreams for family security, his only reward is not losing his livelihood (which he never wanted) and not committing suicide. Furthermore, this was compounded with an innate suspicion of its pedigree since because Paramount forgot to renew its copyright in 1974, it entered the public domain and consequently became a "Christmas Classic" by virtue of being played ad nauseum.

Lately, this movie has become a personal obsession for me, as I've decided it's essentially a film noir in Rom-Com clothing. What strikes the viewer immediately nowadays is that the George Bailey-less world (Pottersville) is more like the 'real' America--dehumanized and debauched, run by a bloodless General Sternwood-esque crippled capitalist--while Bedford Falls (the reality of the film) remains some eery dream world. There is something uncanny about the opening shot with the sign "YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS" that rivals Rene Magritte's famous 'Ceci n'est pas un pipe''

Anyway, there was a wonderful article a friend passed on to me, printed in Salon, that articulates much of the weirdness of this film, albeit in a slightly different vein.

All hail Pottersville!

'Tis the week before Christmas, and all through my house and 250 million others, people are blubbering helplessly as George Bailey overcomes despair and discovers that he really did have a Wonderful Life. I have no desire to rain on Frank Capra's heartwarming, seasonally-sanctioned parade. Let cynics deny that a brief sojourn in a counterfactual limbo conjured up by a bumbling, liver-spotted angel can really produce a life-changing epiphany. Let jaded roués deride George as an infantile weenie whose courtship of Mary comes to fruition only because she prudently massaged her scalp with Spanish Fly before he arrived. Such criticisms are mean-spirited, if not downright un-American. But even a master sometimes flubs a brushstroke, and there is a glaring flaw in Capra's great canvas.

I refer, of course, to Pottersville.

In Capra's Tale of Two Cities, Pottersville is the Bad Place. It's the demonic foil to Bedford Falls, the sweet, Norman Rockwell-like town in which George grows up. Named after the evil Mr. Potter, Pottersville is the setting for George's brief, nightmarish trip through a world in which he never existed. In that alternative universe, Potter has triumphed, and we are intended to shudder in horror at the sinful city he has spawned -- a kind of combo pack of Sodom, Gomorrah, Times Square in 1972, Tokyo's hostess district, San Francisco's Barbary Coast ca. 1884 and one of those demon-infested burgs dimly visible in the background of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

There's just one problem: Pottersville rocks!

Does anyone else have any thoughts on this film that most North Americans have seen roughly 500 times?



My interest in this film also borders on obsession, Catchfire. In fact, my better half's parent's bought me a framed poster of It's A Wonderful Life, which I'll hang proudly in my place. You're right, it's weird, it's cliche, it's overtly sentimental, and it's ... well, it's wonderful!

Last year, we went to see it on the big screen at Bloor. Seeing it on a big screen made it so obvious that it was filmed in a studio, during a summer heatwave. The snow (which I'm told was a great special effect in its time) looks magically fake.

I'm going to give the article a read now. Thanks for posting it!


Ah, you people only care about art and symbolism and culture. How about technology?


In 1993, due in part to the confusion of the ownership and copyright issues, Kinesoft Development, with the support of Republic Pictures, released It's a Wonderful Life as the first commercial feature-length film on CD-ROM for the Windows PC (Windows 3.1). Predating commercial DVDs by several years, it included such features as the ability to follow along with the complete shooting script as the film was playing.

Given the state of video playback on the PC at the time of its release, It's a Wonderful Life for Windows represented another first, as the longest running video on a computer. Prior to its release, Windows could only play back approx. 32,000 frames of video, or about 35 minutes at 15 frames per second. Working with Microsoft, Kinesoft was able to enhance the video features of Windows to allow for the complete playback of the entire film - all of this on a PC with a 486SX processor and only 8 MB of RAM.

From [url=">]Wikipedia[/url][/b]....



Oh, and I don't know if the article talks about it, but George Bailey is an a**hole! Haha. From the very beginning, he can be kind of a jerk, especially during his courtship of Mary, who somehow sees charm through his often cantankerous nature.



I only started seeing the film as an adult, and more so living in New York, it is so American;

 it is  surprising to me that such a dour film is touted widely as a Christmas spirit boosterUndecided I don't quite get it ...




Wesen ist was Gewesen ist

ElizaQ ElizaQ's picture

 My main thought right now is that I think I'm one of very few in existence that actually hasn't seen it.   I've seen clips here and there but have never watched it the whole way through.  It's hasn't been out of any purposeful avoidance, the stars have just never aligned I guess.  Growing up the Christmas time movie tradition that our family always watched was the Sound of Music and then a Christmas Story.  

    It is however such a cultural icon and the story and themes so well known and talked about that I almost feel like I have. I have the cultural coles notes version in my head. :)   Every year as the holidays roll around I do think that maybe I should watch it.  I did come within 2 mins of seeing it this year but then noticed the Narnia movie was on at the same time, which I hadn't seen, so I watched that instead. 



I didn't watch it growing up, either. We were more of a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer kind of family. But I grew up watching Katharine Hepburn films religiously, which in high school eventually brought me to The Philadelphia Story, piquing my interest in Jimmy Stewart and some of his Capra-era movies, which are so pro-American, and so cheesy, and the good guy always wins, and if I saw any of those movies today I wouldn't have such a positive outlook. But, that said, I have a huge soft spot for the old ones, especially It's A Wonderful Life.


I thought the article was hilarious, Catchfire, but I don't kind of seems to be making the case that the worst excesses of capitalism are more fun than the alternative.

I agree with the author's assessment of Bedford Falls, but I'm not so sure I agree with him about Pottersville!  Although I like how he ties it all together at the end of the piece and tells us that our world IS Pottersville now.

I'm finding myself thinking about the thread drift in the CBC thread, about the simplicity of life in the past vs. the consumer culture we're in now.  I feel like there is a similar juxtaposition between Pottersville and Bedford Falls.

There really is kind of a binary set up, isn't there?  You either get sin city, or snoozeville.  There is no in between possible.  Which would you like?  

I'll take neither, thanks!


It comes down to:

would you prefer to be married to a radiant Donna Reed and have a nice house and children, or have a rowdy local tavern with a snarling bartender, loud music and provocative women....

 That is a tough one Undecided



Wesen ist was Gewesen ist


Catchfire is right, in that it didn't become a christmas classic until it's copyright lapsed, and the networks could start showing it cheap. Oddly, Capra did not initilly see it as a christmas movie.  It was released during the summer, did poorly at the boxoffice, and was soon forgotten.


I can appreciate it on a number of levels, as I think it's a competently done film on a technical level, with good direction, and serves as a good vehicle for Stewart's impressive acting range, something which may not have been appreciated at that time in his career.  It was the first film he made after returning from WWII, (Capra's first post war film also) and they were both developing a bit of a darker and more mature persona.  I'm not sure if I'd really call it film noire.  It flirts with a few elements of that genre but not enough IMHO.  

I've gotten a bit sick of the film due to it's xmas overexposure.  It's probably suffered from that, but as posters above prove I feel, there's probably a paper or two that could be written about the film from a political/sociological viewpoint.


This is a tagline. It has nothing to do with the comments posted above. Just a tagline...really. Please disregard.

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

"Does anyone else have any thoughts on this film that most North Americans have seen roughly 500 times?"


I've only seen it one a half times (first time I only caught the second half). I enjoyed it, but there'd have to a complete dearth of viewing choices before I'd watch it again - same as with the Alister Sim  "A Christmas Carol" (which is still oodles better than the remake).

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I mostly agree with oldgoat's evaluation of the film. There is little doubt that Capra is a highly skilled and accomplished director, and that James Stewart is  a brilliant actor. I admit I was being a bit provocative by calling the movie a noir, and many of the aesthetic similarities now considered part of the noir genre are simply characteristic of the time: voiceovers, flashbacks, chiaroscuro lighting--and Stewart's hardboiled irony is innate to his acting style. But mostly, I think he exemplifies the noir subject. A man with compromised masculinity who travels through life drawn by forces (mostly capitalistic) beyond his control, acting only as a pasive observer for the viewer. Of course, Potterville is as noir as any immoral urban streetscape in the 1940s.

Michelle wrote:
I thought the article was hilarious, Catchfire, but I don't kind of seems to be making the case that the worst excesses of capitalism are more fun than the alternative.

I completely agree with this, and it's where I depart from the article. Kamiya seems to think that Potter has won only recently--but he won long before the film was made, which is what makes it so weird. After WW2 there was rife unemployment, a crisis of masculinity and a violent rebuking of community and fraternity by a state apparatus scared of the red menace. Potterville is f'n America, man. Like it always has been. Basically, America dreamed Bedford Falls dreaming itself. Bizarre.

As someone else pointed out to me through this article in the Washington Post, George Bailey is too socialist for America (and Capra was investigated by the FBI for comunist leanings as a result of this film). And it's this communist fantasy (disguised as real life) that can save America:

In small-scale banking, then, borrowers and lenders can effectively see one another. They're rich with what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke calls "informational capital," and this has a stabilizing influence. As savings-and-loan chief George Bailey tells his panicked depositors in the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life, their money is safe because it's being loaned out to trusted friends and neighbors: "Well, your money's in Joe's house. That's right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others. Why, you're lending them the money to build, and then they're going to pay it back to you as best they can."

So maybe this movie can save us all yet.

Bookish Agrarian

I have to admit I love this movie and will watch it at any time. It isn't really a Christmas movie, other than the time the climactic scene happens to take place.

I think many miss the fundamental point of the movie. It speaks to two different perspectives of what is important in life. There is the great man view that is personified in what George thinks he wants and what Potter represents (with his name on everything including the town). Or life is lived in the small moments and these are the things that have a fundamental transformative effect on the lives of those around us. The enduring attachment to It’s a Wonderful Life has to do with the message that we can affect the world in a very positive way by simply being a good neighbour, sibling, friend, what have you, without building big skyscrapers and amassing tremendous wealth. The movie explores the redemptive power of love and the open hand versus the closed fist and a smallness of spirit.

So sure it is of its era, is clichéd, has some awful stereotypes in it and all the rest, but the underlying message of hope for a better kind of world is what makes me tear up each and every time.

All that said Harvey is a much better movie.


Absolutely, Harvey is a wonderful movie!


Catchfire wrote:

(and Capra was investigated by the FBI for comunist leanings as a result of this film).

I just stumbled upon this thread...

The funny thing of course is that Capra was essentially a conservative, or at least a Republican (as was James Stewart). He did, however, work with left-wing screenwriters.

Here's an interesting quote about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington I just found (from an excerpt from an essay titled "Mr. Capra Goes to Washington"):


The filibuster encapsulates Mr. Smith's political indeterminacy. To stage a debate between pro- and anti-New Deal Mr. Smiths, as if the winner grasped the film's political key, is to be false both to the political context that generated the film and to the motion picture's actual historical reception. Capra never voted for FDR, after all, while his Popular Front screenwriters Robert Riskin and Sidney Buchman never voted against him. The fight about Mr. Smith, like the fight within it, pitted the countryside against the capitol, not the left against the right. Because the battles within the Capra motion picture do not line up with the battles outside it, the film can generate anxiety from within a consensual space, operating inside the New Deal order without speaking for the New Deal.