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Frank Capra, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most challenging—maybe even disturbing—of all filmmakers. He asks us to accept things about which we have grave doubts—not because they’re nice or inspirational or comforting or helpful—but because they’re true.

James Stewart in 'It's A Wonderful Life.'

At Christmastime in the year 1974, when I was 14 years old, I saw an old black & white movie on television called It's A Wonderful Life. It was a very cold sunny afternoon as I remember; I was home from school on two weeks of Christmas vacation. I had been randomly turning the TV dial and just happened to get interested in a sceneabout ten minutes into the picture, as it turns outin which a young boy had just saved a drunken druggist from accidentally poisoning a sick child. At the first commercial break, the "Armchair Theatre" announcer told me the title.

Wracked as I was at the time with all the usual terrors and traumas of being fourteen years old, I wasn't at all sure that it was, in fact, a wonderful life here on Planet Earth. But I watched the movie anyway. And the longer that old picture went on the more the sound of that title (which had seemed at first so pat and sugary) began to change in my doubtful ears. It's A Wonderful Life. Standing there so unashamed in the face of everything going on all around it, that simplistic, illogical phrase began to sound... I don't know... defiant; like a challenge being flung at me or even an attack.

The cinema of Frank Capra is the cinema, not of blind faith, but of doubt.
I had no way of knowing at the time that this was supposed to be a corny old Christmas "feel-good" movie. It began to make me feel pretty bad, in fact. Certainly I saw that It's A Wonderful Life is full of wonderful things: charm and humor and unforgettable characters that have since become like a second family to me. But the longer the movie went on, the bleaker and blacker things got. George Bailey, the hero (played by James Stewart), the dreamer who was going to see the world and lasso the moon, struggles to get out of the dead end job that keeps him chained to the hick town where he was born. It soon becomes obvious, to us and to him, that he never will get out of it. And yet, somehow, with every commercial break, that announcer kept repeating It's A Wonderful Life. I myself had dreams very like George Bailey's: dreams of accomplishment, dreams of romance. But the plain reality was that I was failing in school, my first real romance was ten years away, and I was lonely, alienated, and ugly with that unique ugliness only possible to fourteen year olds. And yet with every commercial break, over and over at eight-minute intervals, the "Armchair Theatre" man insisted It's A Wonderful Life. Before long, George Bailey (because of a meaningless accidenthis lovable, doddering old uncle has destroyed his business by absentmindedly losing a packet of money) stands on a frigid overpass ready to drown his whole thwarted, aborted dream in an icy black river and we're not so sure we blame him. I stood there with him—my own dreams seemed (and sometimes still seem) just as hopeless. And still the man says It's A Wonderful Life.

I guess the repeated words of that corny title—proved surely to be a lie by the very story to which they had somehow been tacked—made me feel a little like Nero must have felt, listening in disbelief to the joyful hymns the martyrs sang as he fed them to the lions.

And then the final act of the movie began.

With a cosmic zoom the whole scale of the story changes—our perspective becomes eternal. George Bailey's plain homely little life is suddenly revealed (by a frightening side-trip to a dark alternative universe) to have been all along part of a reality which includes within its boundaries vistas so vast and dangers so deep that the thought of it seems, by turns, far too god to be true and far too frightening to entertain. George receives, in the words of an angel, "... a great gift... the chance to see what the world would be like without you." It's a gift of gravestones, a gift of dark and desperate glimpses into "awful holes;" but when the vision has passed, our minds have been expanded. We realize we have sinned. We have agreed with George Bailey; his shabby small-town existence is a bore. And thus when the sheer bottomless profundity of every tiny detail of that life yawns before us—Zuzu's pitiful flower petals, for instance—we are ashamed. We suddenly know forever that George Bailey really was "the richest man in town." We see what we should have see all along; that five minutes in the presence of such as Bert the Bop, Ernie the Taxi Driver, Cousin Eustace and Uncle Billy... one drink at Martini's bar, one kiss from Mary Hatch, one hug from little Zuzu—each of these things has been a staggering unmerited honor worth any price.

To me it was a staggering vision. The man had been right. It was indeed, by God, a wonderful life.

I remember sitting stunned—battered by a bewildering rush of conflicting emotions as the closing credits finished and for some reason the TV station wanted to go on now and show something else. What the hell had just happened to me? Why was I crying? Was I happy? Was I sad? Was this love or despair or what? I looked slowly around the room; everything looked the same as it had two hours before. But I knew I wasn't the same. Maybe I had taken the whole thing too seriously somehow. Maybe I just hadn't seen many movies yet. Maybe when you get older you get used to being slapped around like this. And probably that old movie doesn't show life as it really is. There probably aren't any angels and when the George Bailey's of the world get to the end of their ropes they just go ahead and drop off. It occurred to me that probably the whole thing was just a Hollywood fantasy. But then I found another voice rising up inside me"Then Hollywood has paid us a compliment we don't deserve; it has made man seem far more grand and sad and glorious than he is. But if this is so, then who, if not a man, made this old movie?"

I wandered somehow into the family room of our house and collapsed into a big brown wing-backed chair. I'm sitting in it now as I write; I've kept the scarred old thing long after my parents discarded it because of the memory of that moment. It had gotten dark outside while I was watching the movie and so I sat there quietly, the room lit only by the rainbow twinkling of our Christmas tree and the warm yellow blaze in our fireplace. Before long, my folks came in, engaged in the usual Christmas hustle and bustle. I'm sure the look on my face must have been precisely the look George Bailey wears as he sees Tommy and Janey and Pete again for the first time after returning from "Never-Born-Land." After all, I had gone there with him. I had lost my family when George lost his family and regained them when, with George, I realized that it is, in very point of fact, a wonderful life. I hugged both of my parents as if I hadn't seen them in years. I didn't even try to explain what had happened to me; how could I? I'm sure they thought I was on drugs, which I felt like I was. Yet with the joy It's A Wonderful Life brought there came a new fear. Or perhaps it would be better to say a new challenge. Some people say (they've been saying it since 1946) "It's A Wonderful Life shows that every person's life turns out okay in the end." It doesn't. It's A Wonderful Life shows that George Bailey's turns out okay in the end; and George Bailey is really not such a common "common man." After all, if Mr. Potter (or even the man who pushes Mr. Potter's wheelchair) had been shown Bedford Falls as it would have been if he'd never been born, he'd have seen a far different picture than George sees (which, by the way, is the plot of Dickens' A Christmas Carol). I saw clearly that George Bailey's life was wonderful because he was wonderful—wonderfully and exceptionally good. It's not circumstance or fate that keeps George chained to his "shabby little office." He has had one grand opportunity after another to leave town: a ticket to college. $2000 for a honeymoon. Sam Wainwright's "ground floor in plastics." Mr. Potter's $20,000 a year. George stays stuck in his hick town for one reason only—he cannot bring himself to sell his soul to get out of it. Though he doesn't know it (indeed, he can only see himself as a sucker for having done it) George has sold his dreams to keep Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville. It's A Wonderful Life is a passion play; George Bailey's sufferings have saved all those he loves best; he loses his dream so that Martini and Mary and Violet Bick and Uncle Billy may have theirs. George Bailey's love has been his defeat and his defeat has been his victory. When the tests came "Slacker George... the miserable failure" was able to do the Greatest Thing in the World; Greater love hath no man than this—that he lay down his life for his friends.

So there was the new fear—the haunting question that frightened and fascinated me as I sat there with the tears welling in my eyes and the strange look on my face and my parents blaming the whole thing on hormones. "What about me? What about my life? What would I see if Clarence the Angel showed me what the world would be like without me?" I knew that I was not good; I wasn't much like George Bailey at all. "When this young life of mine is finished, will it turn out to have been as wonderful as George's or as pointless as Potter's?" And the answer seemed to come back—"It will be whatever you most want it to be. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall have what they desire." That cheesy, corny title really had flung me a challenge—there's a sense in which my whole life has been an attempt to live up to that cold December afternoon in 1974.

At any rate, the purpose of this little bit of autobiography has been to point out that I was, as you may have noticed, rather badly shaken up by this old film that everyone else seems to find so mild and safe. I had no way of knowing, in my simplicity, that It's A Wonderful Life is old-fashioned, sentimental, and preaches an easy, cheap optimism. It seemed to me a rather horrifyingly costly optimism: take up your cross—for whoever clings to his life will lose it, but whoever lays down his life will save it unto life eternal.

Daniel in the Critic's Den

I remember sitting stunned—to me it was a staggering vision. It was indeed, by God, a wonderful life.
Not long after my Christmas encounter with It's A Wonderful Life, I took a trip to Tennessee to visit my grandmother. Once again, I found myself in front of the television, searching through the channels. Finding out what's playing on Channel Six or Ten or Twenty-Three (all those numbers that bring in nothing but static in your own hometown) was always a favorite activity there. Engaged in this pastime, my heart suddenly leapt as the spinning dial landed at a shot of George Bailey stumbling joyfully down the garlanded main street of Bedford Falls and wishing a Merry Christmas to his wonderful old Building and Loan. After a moment or two, I realized that this was not another showing of It's A Wonderful Life (which would have been welcomed, of course, then as I do now) but an hour-long American Film Institute documentary playing on a snowy Public TV station out of Chattanooga or someplace. As I watched this program, thrilled and curious, I learned the answer to at least one of the questions I had pondered after my first meeting with George Bailey—a man had indeed made It's A Wonderful Life. His name was Frank Capra and this was a show about his life and works. I eagerly swallowed and digested every scrap of information, amazed to learn that other people had also seen my special movie and remembered it. And even more amazing—one by one they showed scenes from and commented upon a whole litany of other Frank Capra movies! There were others where It's A Wonderful Life came from! I grabbed up a stubby pencil and wrote the titles on the back of an envelope: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Lost Horizon, You Can't Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe. The titles are well known to film fans, but the list was like a treasure map to me.

As I sought and encountered these films over the next four or five years, my own experience of Capra remained just as comically at odds with his sweetsie reputation. Bosley Crowther of the Times had called It's A Wonderful Life "a figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes," and The New Yorker had declared the picture "... so mincing as to border on baby talk." The film had seemed to me so profound as to nearly defy analysis. Of course, I had never heard of The New Yorker or of Bosley Crowther, just as I had never heard of It's A Wonderful Life. I knew nothing of film or filmmakers or film criticism. I had watched It's A Wonderful Life with the wide eyes and wide open heart so characteristic of the completely ignorant. But surely there is something very strange about a movie that sounds like baby talk to one person and feels like a punch in the nose to another. Before long I began to wonder if these critics and I were seeing the same films. Meet John Doe "lacked inspiration" according to The Los Angeles Times. I stayed up till three AM on a school night to see it and then lay awake thinking about it until the alarm went off that morning. Few movies classified as comedies (and they are very, very funny—only Preston Sturges did it as well), I was sure doing a lot of crying. I saw Lost Horizon in the cool depths of a marvelous old repertoire theater in Atlanta, now sadly gone with a yogurt store standing on it's gravesite. As the lights came up, I sat ravished in my seat with Dimitri Tiomkin's weird score ringing in my ears—and hearing the man sitting behind me suddenly ask his date if she'd "ever seen a stupider movie" is the closest I've ever come to believing John Calvin's doctrine of Limited Atonement. I had been told that Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a glib piece of populist propaganda. I rather resented that as I sat weeping through a distressingly little parable about innocence betrayed without having adequately prepared myself. Later, I found that almost all the criticism ever written about this obviously spiritual film is economic; people of the left find Mr. Deeds entirely too capitalistic and those on the other side damn it as socialism. At this point, I began to suspect that it might be the critics rather than the films that were defective. I had never heard the word "Capra-corn;" it might have saved me some uncomfortable afternoons at the movies.

Capra had and has his defenders, of course, but it seems to me that, as Chesterton said of Dickens, his reputation has suffered less from his enemies than from the enemies of his enemies. Their point always seemed to be that, after all, along with our usual diet of important, harsh, questioning films, there is room for soothing, pleasant, reassuring pictures like these. Capra is to be appreciated as a classic Hollywood entertainer—a manufacturer of slick, funny, technically brilliant crowd-pleasers. But if Capra is nothing more than an expert confectioner of highly effective but admittedly artificial "feel-good" movies, then his films are not merely unimportant but contemptible, because the joy and tears they stir up are produced by trifling with our deepest longings and most delicate hopes about courage, faith, God and our own ultimate meaning. There may be some point in saying that to show Jimmy Stewart goaded into committing suicide and rescued only by divine intervention is manipulative and melodramatic; there is none in calling the experience of watching it "soothing."

Just why these pictures inspire this stupendous polarity of opinions is a question I've struggled all my life to understand. I now believe that the answer is to be found within the very fabric of the theme being explored.

The Great Frank Capra Movie Mystery

If one had only Capra's reputation to go by, without knowing the man or seeing the films, I suppose that one might come to create a mental portrait of him as some smiling white-haired sentimentalist, perhaps a retired Congregationalist minister, with his eyes full of easy stars and possessing a fondness for quoting Norman Vincent Peale. In reality, Frank Capra was not only a hard-nosed, up-from-poverty immigrant with a rather acidic sense of humor (the biggest laughs in his films are cynical cracks from jaded sophisticates mocking the callow Capra hero), he was actually an intellectual—almost a rationalist. He was certainly every inch the Cal Tech Chemical Engineer of his school years. In fact, in Capra's unique background I've found what has been, for me, the whole key to the mystery of his films and their strange fate at the hands of the critics.

Frank Capra was raised a Catholic in a devout family of Sicilian peasants. He grew up watching these peasants live out a pathetic and backbreaking life of everyone working three jobs and going hungry anyway. The considerable happiness they found together in spite of these circumstances was largely sustained by their religious beliefs. Frank's father Salvatore also believed strongly in the old fable of "America as the land of opportunity." He died in a machine accident trying to improve their lot. Thus Capra was raised to believe in two ideals; democracy and the dignity of man—with the Christian Faith as the way to understand man and his destiny. Within this framework, he was encouraged to find the meaning of their humble lives and their very considerable troubles. Within this framework, Capra saw that his father, Salvatore Capra, though he was a dead, illiterate peasant buried in a hole, had been made in the image of God; he had mattered and still mattered.

In other words, Capra was raised a "true believer" and we can certainly find in this upbringing the origins of It's A Wonderful Life and what became known as "Capra-corn." Had these ideals never been challenged, he might well have gone on to become just the simple, faithful optimist he is so monotonously labeled. That is probably just what Frank Capra would have liked to have been; like Clarence the Angel—the simple, happy American untroubled by doubt. But his two ideals were challenged.

The young Frank Capra had another side. He wanted nothing more than an education; he saw it as his only way out of the peasant life of poverty he hated. He scratched and clawed his way into college and worked twenty hour days to stay there. Those eager to paint Capra as the Apostle of Easy Answers don't often see the need to draw attention to this thirst for knowledge and the hard won literacy and learning it brought him. Once in college, he studied not religion or poetry but chemistry—the science of what things are made of if you take them apart and boil them down. This sudden plunge into the world of natural science, this schooling in the scientific method in an atmosphere of skepticism and insistence on hard proof ensured that Capra would be denied the untroubled life of the "true believer." For the first time, he was presented with the possibility that Salvatore Capra was not an angel in heaven but a sack of bones in a box—so many grams of carbon and calcium. Of course, I don't mean to imply that all chemists are nihilists, but all chemists do deal, in their own various ways, with the specter of nihilism. They have all glanced into that pit and come up from their microscopes wondering, if only for a moment, whether it isn't all just a random arrangement of molecules after all and all their ideals just so much wishful thinking. Add this dose of rationalism to the street-wise persona he'd acquired as a short man growing up in the Italian ghetto (his first job offer as a Chemist, by the way, was the chance to make a quick killing designing stills for the mob), and you will get an idea of the forces that turned Capra into a skeptic. These things ensured that the cinema of Frank Capra would be the cinema, not of blind faith, but of doubt.

In fact, Frank Capra's skeptical outlook is so unmistakable that one can profitably consider the whole filmography of the scientist-turned-motion picture director as a series of scientific experiments. Out of his lifelong experience wrestling with this conflict in his heart, Capra has devised a series of demonstrations—demonstrations designed to present his hypothesis, apply his method of testing it, and produce his challenging result.

The world of family and democracy and human dignity is Capra’s hypothesis. Can it be believed? Does it correspond to reality?
Far from finishing in that "happy-ending-land" of Mom and God and Norman Rockwell that he has been supposed to inhabit so blithely, Capra actually begins there. That world of family and democracy and human dignity is his hypothesis. Can it be believed? It is certainly warming and attractive but is it sound? Does it correspond to reality? We want to know. We need to know before we can be asked to stick our necks out for it. And so, faithful to his training, Capra the Chemist begins dispassionately and systematically turning up the Bunsen-burners of doubt, despair, and tragedy. He turns them up until that hypothesis is boiling in a beaker of betrayal and disillusionment so hot that the test simply cannot fail to uncover whether this "Capra-corn" he grew up believing can actually stand as a viable picture of the way things really are—or whether it will be revealed to have been, as Copernicus revealed the Ptolomeic cosmology to have been, nothing but a comforting fantasy.

This does not, of course, mean that Capra is suggesting that there really is any such town as archetypically perfect as Bedford Falls or that the whole world is full of John does and Jeff Smiths. He has isolated the qualities he seeks to examine and presents them in their chemical purity. His cast of characters always falls into two simple and elemental categories—the idealists and the cynics. The idealists are the salt of the earth and the cynics are the acid. The Chemist exposes the two substances to each other: Mr. Deeds goes to town, Mr. Smith goes to Washington. And then Capra stands back and records the explosive result.

Our curiosity to see how the experiment will turn out is the engine that drives these stories along so compellingly. What will happen to Peter Warne, the newspaper poet, now that he's stuck his neck out to love a runaway heiress—and she has taken him for "a buggy ride with all the trimmings?" What will billionaire munitions magnate A. P. Kirby do now that his heartless maneuverings have killed and old friend—a friend who died with the warning "you can't take it with you" on his lips? What will Longfellow Deeds do when he finds out that "Mary Dawson" his "lovely angel" is actually wisecracking ace reporter "Babe" Bennett who has been making love to him for a month's vacation with pay? And what will she do when he finds out? You see, we are just as interested in Capra's hypothesis as he is... and just as dubious.

Running the Capra Gauntlet

Indeed, one of the most effective (and amusing) aspects of Capra's films is the way in which Capra the Cynic narrates (and really mocks and resists) a fairy tale dreamed up by Capra the Optimist. Thus Capra's films are full of cynics like himself: Saunders in Mr. Smith, The Colonel in Meet John Doe, Cornelius Cobb in Mr. Deeds (who even bears a strong physical resemblance to Capra). These cynics are Capra's stand-ins. We experience the story through their eyesthrough the eyes of doubt. In this way, Capra gives expression to that part of himself (and that part of us) which is afraid of being taken in, the part that is just as embarrassed by these proceedings as his most red-faced critic. We are encouraged to laugh at the impossibly idealistic hero—Mr. Smith brings pigeons "to send messages home to Maw;" Mr. Deeds plays his tuba and chases fire engines. But then, as we see the storm clouds gathering over his head, this Capra hero begins to worry us. The sap has brought it on himself, of course, for going out so far on his creaky limb, but we like him and don't want to see him get hurt. He's a little lost puppy about to be run over by a very big truck. "Go home!" says Saunders, on a Smith-inspired drunk. "Get out of here! Stop hanging around making people feel sorry for you." Then the Capra hero starts to make us a little angry: we see very clearly now that this person has somehow managed to stay pure and that we sold out a very long time ago. So we laugh at him some more, but most of the fun has gone out of it now. Finally, we have mocked the Capra hero until he hangs bleeding from his cross. And then we get to step back and have a good look at what we've done.

As we noticed of George Bailey earlier, these Capra heroes could have gotten off this funeral train at any time; their high ideals have brought them nothing but the defeat we foresaw from the beginning. But somehow we don't feel like saying, "I told you so." We have become morbidly fascinated. This hero has courted the worst of the chaotic forces that hammer our dreams into the ground. He has challenged them to single-combat, as it were. This fool has positively dared them to come out and prove to us what we've always feared most; that our ideals are just wishful thinking...self-maintained fantasies that we cherish in order to keep our sanity. But now that he's done it we are eager to watch the scene play out. The hero's life, dedicated to Capra's twin pillars of faith and human dignity, is to be tested in the chemist's furnace because we need to know the truth—we need to know whether that life or any life so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

And so, as we watch these martyrdoms, we come to the essence of Frank Capra's message:

These things have been exhaustively tested, tried, fired in the crucible. I—Capra the Scientist, Capra the Skeptic—have tested them for you in my cinematic laboratory.

I have mocked the gentle Vermont poet Longfellow Deeds until he could do nothing but mutely suffer, silent like a sheep before its shearers, while his "lady-in-distress" made him such a laughingstock that they finally railroaded him off to an insane asylum.

I took Robert Conway, the world-weary dreamer, to the top of the world where, in the Valley of the Blue Moon, I raised his hopes so high that when I finally yanked the Tibetan rug from under his feet he fell so far and so hard he vowed never to get up again.

I tricked a hobo named Long John Willoughby into believing he was somebody and had something to say and then I pelted him with rotten fruit for saying it. Then I drove him back out into the hobo jungles where I have him his choice between jumping off a skyscraper roof on Christmas Eve or going insane.

I sent young Jefferson smith, the Boy Ranger who "can tell you what Washington and Jefferson said—by heart!" to the U.S. Senate where I had him jeered at, lied about, unjustly condemned and betrayed by those whom he most admired. I slapped him down every time he raised his head and spat on him until even his friends begged him to give up his lost cause and I left him looking up at an empty sky and silently crying out "My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?"

And most of all, I made a visionary and a genius and named him George Bailey. I gave him a roaring wanderlust and set his heart aching for the stars. And then I put him in that hick town and never let him out and I never will.

I did all these things. Then I, Capra the Doubting Thomas, stood back to record what would happen—Deeds, going down for the last time with his faith gone, was caught and rescued by city slickers on the way up, city slickers in whom he had created faith without knowing it.

Conway saw with his own eyes the infallible proof that turned him back to Shangri-La and transformed him into a raging superman who turned all Asia upside-down.

John Doe, the aimless drifter who had cared for nothing but baseball, found within himself the strength to fling his life away for the people who had rejected him and they, in turn, found in his sacrifice the strength to believe when belief is so very, very hard.

Jeff Smith never gave up his lost cause. Jeff was saved because his enemy finally threw up his hands and was converted—his towering fortress of cynicism breached by the staggering proof of Jeff's words.

And George Bailey was sent the miracle for which so many, many people were praying that snowy Christmas Eve.

And having seen all these things, I record my testimony. This is my witness; this is the good news—the Gospel According to Frank Capra. These heroes bet their lives on what they believed...and what they believed was true. And now I now and am persuaded that their faith was not in vain. This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received. It's A Wonderful Life.

Avant-Garde Cinema

The idealists are the salt of the earth and the cynics are the acid. Capra the Chemist exposes the two substances to each other.
This is why Frank Capra, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most challenging of all filmmakers and in some ways the most disturbing. Most "serious films"—the "hard-hitting" "uncompromising" films—ask us only to accept, for example, that poverty is bad, relationships are hard, that politics is corrupt. In short, their "challenge" consists precisely in asking us to accept ideas that we already accept anyway, even if we struggle to know just what to do about them. In these comedies, Capra asks us to accept that the old-fashioned American ideals are still good, that David really can whip Goliath, that our prayers do not go unheard, that the meek shall inherit the earth. In other words, he asks us to accept things about which we have grave, grave doubts. And he is uncompromising in his asking: he doesn't ask us to accept these propositions as nice or inspirational or comforting or helpful—he asks us to accept them as true. That, my friend, is a challenging filmmaker. That is serious, avant-garde cinema, if you will.

Not many years ago, I was directed by a friend to another traditional Christmas movie, the 1948 comedy Miracle on 34th Street, starring Maureen O'Hara and young Natalie Wood: "You'll like it" he said "It's very Capra-esque." I appreciated the tip, but after watching the film I had to tell him that it was not Capra-esque at all. In fact, I had to tell him that Miracle on 34th Street is the exact and precise opposite of It's A Wonderful Life. The contrast between these two films has helped me to understand the uniqueness of Capra's challenge ever since.

Miracle on 34th Street is about a charming old fellow named Kris Kringle (marvelously played, by the way, by veteran Edmund Gwenn), who works as a holiday Santa Claus at Macy's Department Store. Trouble is, he claims there really is a true Santa Claus and he's it. Some people believe him and some don't; Maureen is inclined to have faith and little Natalie decidedly is not. The whole cast (idealists and cynics) spends the entire running-time of the picture attempting to prove or disprove Kris Kringle's claims. There's even a trial in a court-of-law, not unlike Mr. Deed's sanity hearing. Sounds just like a Capra movie, doesn't it? Actually, no. Miracle on 34th Street never does tell us whether the old chap really is Father Christmas himself or just a jolly old nut. As a matter of fact, the film makes a point of denying this information. Miracle makes a point of saying that it doesn't matter whether Santa Claus really exists or not. What matters is that, if we all got together and decided to believe in Santa (whether he's real or not), the world would be much happier and sunnier and we'd treat each other better and I dare say we would. But Frank Capra is a hard-headed, unsentimental realist. He'd rather know the truth than be happy and sunny. The Capra hero has already seen Miracle on 34th Street; when the curtain rises on a Capra hero, he is already the sort of person who believes in Santa. George Bailey is a Santa Claus man from way back. But it isn't enough. With a cruel realism, Capra knows that our hero must be handed over to sinful men and crucified if we are to know whether his cherished beliefs are worthy of him. If Santa Claus is a myth then our faith is in vain. If George Bailey's guardian angel hadn't jumped into that river to save him, George would have drowned himself in it; and we are not encouraged to accept that believing in Clarence whether he is real or not would have done just as well.

And there is the whole difference between these two classic Christmas movies... between these two universes. Miracle on 34th Street is polite. It tactfully let's us off the hook. Because of this, many critics see it as by far the more sophisticated—the more "mature"—of the two; just because your father fell down dead and worms ate him is no reason to lose your sunny disposition. But Capra is rude. He presses us on the point. Either be a cynic or be an idealist if you can, but don't be an idealistic cynic. Either rage away at the idiot forces that obliterated your father or go and listen—really listen—to the case for Democracy, Dignity, and Faith and see if you can believe it.

The essence of Capra's unique challenge is his claim to have made that choice and come away from that search convinced that the case for these things really can be believed... that there are good and sufficient reasons for maintaining that it's a wonderful life. I think this is the reason his films are dismissed with derision by so many critics. Capra believes he has faced his doubts and been true to his doubts by wrestling with them honestly until the doubts were resolved. It's that resolution that puts him out of step with the modern mind. His claim to be satisfied—to have looked for answers and gotten them—invalidates Capra's message for those who disbelieve that such certainty ever comes. When one has decided from the outset that there are no ultimate answers to be had, Capra's vision can only seem grotesque and mawkish. Capra's films require a more open mind. If a person has made up his mind that there are no answers, then any answers at all are easy answers, even those purchased with the blood of martyrs.

‘What about me? What about my life? What would I see if Clarence the Angel showed me what the world would be like without me?’
But now that I think of it, probably most viewers of It's A Wonderful Life and these other Capra movies don't have such doctrinaire objections to what they see. After all, if Frank Capra sides with Socrates, Aquinas, Descartes, and Pascal (not to mention Shakespeare, Lao Tse, and T.S. Eliot) in daring to suggest that there are answers—glorious answers—to man's questions, than surely his reasons for adopting this philosophy are not subjects completely unworthy of treatment on film. Probably most of the people who are skeptical about It's A Wonderful Life actually like the film—even love it deep down inside—or wish they could; at any rate, they have the good sense to be troubled by it. I suspect that many of these folks might express their feelings by saying that Capra's picture of the universe is simply too good to be true. God bless them, I don't half blame them myself sometimes. Perhaps they know why they are so convinced of this and perhaps they don't but certainly they know the stakes involved. Capra calls us to stick our necks out and that call is so very frightening. He is offering us a ticket into the wor4ld we would all most like to believe in—a world where every person matters and where no one is alone—but the price of admission is commitment. Capra is wooing us and, like shy country brides, we are afraid of him. Every instinct in modern man urges us to hedge our bets. "Remember," we tell ourselves, "if you don't expect much from life, nothing can hurt you very much." And this is very true and very sensible. But if we take this attitude we will also have prevented life from being very wonderful. It may be still manage to be comfortable, safe, even pleasant—but it can never be truly wonderful in the deepest, most ancient and "Capra-esque" sense of that word. In order to prevent the world from bursting our beautiful balloon, we will have taken our own needles and burst it ourselves. If we cling to this frame of mind—if we refuse the call to stick our necks out for something—Capra's wholesome, healing vision will only cause us pain; his sweet songs will only torment us and we will have to stop listening.

Weathering the Storm

Let me urge you rather to listen to Capra. Listen to him with wide open eyes and wide open hearts if you can. Pretend you are an unhappy, ignorant fourteen-year-old on two weeks Christmas vacation, if it seems to help. The next time It's A Wonderful Life comes on TV watch it and try to imagine, if only for 129 minutes, that it hasn't been conclusively proven to be nothing but "a simple figment of Pollyanna platitudes." Pretend for a little while that you don't know as an established fact that this world of dignity, destiny, and guardian angels is too good to be true. After all, what can it hurt to try Capra's faith on for size for an hour or two, just to see how it feels? Because Capra insists that if we will give him a chance he will prove his case.

Yes, it's true that if we hitch our wagon to George Bailey's star we will be crucified with him and buried under $8,000 worth of bitter defeat. But the director insists that if we are crucified with him then we will be raised with him. If we share in the Capra hero's dark night of the soul, we will be rescued by hard evidence and the fruit that will have sprung up from the seeds of faith he has planted. George's $8,000 defeat will be swallowed up in Bedford Falls' avalanche of victory poured into that old hat passed around in his drafty old house on Christmas Eve—and by a telegram from London—


Yes, George Bailey, there is a Santa Claus. You have proved it to us now. You were right. You were right all along. It is a wonderful life. You have weathered the storm and we who went along for the ride have been taught the Gospel..."To him that overcometh I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God."

Now, only now, can we have our happy ending, perhaps the happiest in Hollywood history.

January 7, 2007

ROD BENNETT is the author of “Four Witnesses”, a bestselling book about the early Church from Ignatius Press. His writings have appeared in CATHOLIC EXCHANGE, CORNERSTONE, and RUTHERFORD and elsewhere (including FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND!). Rod was also, for some years, the editor of WONDER Magazine, a cult-favorite Christian media journal. Recently, he has been discussing his work on national radio and TV programs such as CATHOLIC ANSWERS LIVE!, THE JOURNEY HOME, and BOOKMARK.

This article originally appeared in Wonder Magazine. Reprinted with permission of the author. ©2007, Rod Bennett. All rights reserved.

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02.17.07   Strider says:
Your cinematic and philosophical analyses were spot on. As a student of both disciplines, I have often wondered why something is only considered serious if it's nihilistic. Your thoughtful and thorough exploration of Capra's themes helped to vindicate this incredibly important filmmaker, and I thank you for the work you put into it.Strider

01.14.07   kdefoy says:
Your analysis of Frank Capra's film-making makes me think of J.R.R. Tolkien's word "eucatastrophe", which he defined as the unexpected happy turn of events that makes everything come out much better than seemed possible. For Christians, the Resurrection was the ultimate eucatastrophe after the catastrophe of Jesus' death. Christian believe that such things can and do happen. Many modern men and women do not. Therefore, The Lord of the Rings is called "childish" and "not serious", and Frank Capra's movies are called sentimental. I think that you're very right in saying that people wish that they could believe in happy endings, but are afraid to.

01.09.07   cityofgod says:
Excellent insights- I discovered "Wonderful Life" and "Mr.Smith" on my journey to the Church- they are touchstone spiritual events for me. They provide me with additional courage to go deeper with my trust in God, as I pursue political office. I even asked for a show of hands of those who had seen "Mr.Smith" during a couple of candidate forums. That film represents the essence of the struggle as I see it. Politics, just like life itself, is all about having a moral vision and pursuing that vision until it is completed- no matter what. Real life for me is fighting the Bankers, the Insurance executives, the Walmart founding family, corrupt Congressmen- the whole rot- and I know that clinging to the Catholic social doctrine is a ridiculous spectacle in the real world of Republican versus Democrats. But I know deep down it is the truth- my winning an election or two, gaining some measure of power and all, that may be something important and all- but I will let God be in charge. I'll fight with all my heart and passion just like Mr.Smith- but thanks to "Mr.Smith" I don't have to go through the phase of being disappointed with the world- the world is opposed to God, and I cannot serve both mammon and God, I must choose and continue choosing God over worldliness, temporary set-back one after the other over electoral triumph- if it means compromising the social doctrine and my values as a man. Frank Capra got it- and now I get it too. I'm glad to see I'm not alone, and I am overjoyed to find someone more articulate than I, who can go out and promote the Capra films and vision. Let's pray for Frank's intercessions for our ourselves, our families, our nation and the whole world.

01.09.07   Godspy says:
Frank Capra, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most challenging—maybe even disturbing—of all filmmakers. He asks us to accept things about which we have grave doubts—not because they’re nice or inspirational or comforting or helpful—but because they’re true.

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