Frank Capra is now as inescapable at Christmastide as Dickens because he created a film classic that sums up the American Christmas as completely as A Christmas Carol crystallizes the British Yule. The Dickens novella is evangelical-Protestant; It’s a Wonderful Life is democratic-populist and, despite the voice of God in its prologue and the intervention of Clarence the guardian angel, completely secularist in its concerns.
A Christmas Carol is a blast against Malthusian pragmatism and the cold-heartedness that Dickens thought must accompany that pragmatism. If Scrooge had not learned to interfere for human good, he would have been damned. But James Stewart in A Wonderful Life has spent his whole life interfering for human good by opposing the town’s corrupt plutocrat-banker with a more humane savings-and-loan operation.
Stewart’s brush with damnation (suicide) comes about when he realizes that the accidental loss of his depositors’ funds will make him appear to be a fraud. At the end of Christmas Carol, Scrooge doesn’t mind that some people call him lunatic for his drastic change in behavior. But in the American film, Stewart knows that appearances are everything, that he is indeed disgraced if everyone believes him to be disgraced. At the end of the film, he learns his final lesson: the community, having experienced Stewart’s benevolence for decades, simply won’t let him be ruined. His friends—practically everyone in town—pool resources and bail him out. A Christmas Carol shows us a powerful hero-villain, Scrooge, learning that he must do his part to reform society. But It’s a Wonderful Life shows us an equally powerful hero, after a lifetime of service to society, receiving society’s reward and benediction. In Carol, God has spoken (through the Christmas ghosts), and the hero obeys. In Wonderful Life, democracy has spoken, and the hero is vindicated.
What’s the pattern of most of the films of Capra’s maturity, from Lady for a Day (1933) to It’s a Woderful Life (1946). A hero, usually supported by a more worldly-wise heroine, sees an opportunity to do good and does it over and over again, without self-doubt, without hesitation or equivocation. The gambler in Lady for a Day rescues Apple Annie and reunites her with her daughter. Reporter Clark Gable behaves like a gentleman towards the runaway heiress in It Happened One Night and doesn’t exploit her. The hayseed millionaire in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town creates a job corps for the victims of the Depression. Mr. Smith goes to Washington and fights corruption. Gary Cooper becomes a beacon for the forgotten man in Meet John Doe.
Then the evildoers frame the hero, and he is seemingly disgraced in the eyes of society: the gambler is arrested; the heiress thinks Gable is exploiting her for a scoop and throws him over for a rich nincompoop; Mr. Deeds is tried for insanity; Mr. Smith is nearly sabotaged when his political enemies forge letters of denunciation from the voters; the press accuses John Doe of being a charlatan.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, Capra’s heroes flounder because, being true democratic heroes, the approval of the masses means everything to them: Mr. Deeds falls into a self-induced aphasia and refuses to defend the sanity of his actions; Mr. Smith collapses on the Senate floor; John Doe tries to commit suicide. But then, rallied by the loyal females at their sides, the heroes justify themselves in rousing speeches, the populace cheers them on, the villains get biffed in the jaw or commit suicide, and the hero is once again acclaimed by the very force that nearly pulled him down: Demos.
With Demos playing such a godlike role in their plots (Demos as beneficiary, as accuser, as destroyer, as cheerleader, as court of last appeal, as benefactor it’s no wonder that Capra’s pictures have been (as James Monaco puts it in The Encyclopedia of Film) “alternately seen as fascistic and libertarian, conservative and liberal, reactionary and progressive.” For we judge thinkers and artists to be fascistic, libertarian, conservative, etc., precisely on the basis of how they portray Demos. And Demos, in Capra’s films, first smiles in gratitude at the hero; then, manipulated by the press, snarls at him, hauls him into court, hears him out, vindicates him, cheers him on to glory. These shifting faces of Demos have encouraged critics in their wildly divergent views of Capra.
My view? I think Frank Capra saw America as one big village. Villages are rife with gossip of both the friendly and malevolent variety, and a village can express its unified opinion of a person in a way that no city can. A village will stone a poor old crone to death if it thinks her a witch, serenade a hero under his window, call down blessings on a widow’s head, break into song at a funeral, defend itself mightily against invasion, or suddenly capitulate in an epidemic of cowardice. If you are of the village yourself, you want it to be known as a decent place; you want to be proud of it. So, when it behaves badly, when it listens to malevolent gossip and persecutes the innocent, the singer’s song may turn sour even when the singer is trying to warn the village of its folly. Nevertheless, good or bad, the village is your village.
That is what was so extraordinary about Frank Capra. This Sicilian immigrant saw all America as his village. He saw America, good and bad, as his.