The annual joy of last week’s TCM Classic Film Festival granted moi a welcomed chance to revisit an all-time favorite film of mine. One I never tire of and viewed in one of my favorite movie palaces, the revamped Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Inspiring me to pontificate about it once more. This time centering upon a meaningful scene from a movie already filled with them. A sequence that totally encapsulates Frank Capra’s masterwork, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in about a six-minute stretch.
Even though many warm weather Los Angeles area locations stood in for the fictional northeastern town for this Liberty Films production.
A feature film most associate with the yuletide season these days since it’s initially set on the Christmas Eve right after World War II in snowbound Bedford Falls. Yet, the telling of an angel coming down from Heaven to help a compassionate but despairingly frustrated businessman, one George Bailey, and show him what life would have been like if he never existed, is more than that. As I’ve mentioned before:
“For the elation audiences reach by the film’s end, it’s essentially a noirish-themed movie. Stewart’s George Bailey character is by accounts a good man wronged. Life in all her wisdom’s laid him low, paraphrasing Michael Franks. Kept in place by circumstances beyond his control. The Bedford Falls native’s boyhood dreams of travel and adventure seemingly crushed by a life of familial obligation.”
It’s also a love story between George and Mary Hatch. Their long-delayed courtship and inevitable marriage the crux of it all. Each key to the other’s happiness, but like most things in life, however heavenly the pairing it comes with its own little Hell. In other words, you’re not going to have a silver lining without that dark cloud to show it off. And one scene is the foundation, in my opinion. The ‘George Lassos the Moon’ sequence — the one that positions the couple for the best and worst to come.
Naturally, anything said about it entails revealing what would be spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film (which I contend is a must-see), so you’ve been warned.
Frank Capra by this time was a different filmmaker than the one who won acclaim for It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and others. The reason briefly, but not blithely, referred to in his ’46 motion picture — World War II. Capra deployed by the War Department documenting (including propagandizing) the country’s effort against the Axis powers. Many believe, as do I, it darkened and deepened his work, even if the material involved romance and comedy.
Like here with these two lovers.
As much as most associate It’s a Wonderful Life with Christmas, the bulk of its backstory lay outside of the wintry gift-giving season. The majority of the film told via flashback, the storytelling device used for the benefit of bringing both the angel second-class Clarence, along with the audience, up-to-speed as to why George Bailey contemplates suicide this very night. Vaulting us back years before this crucial point of his life, revealing the impetus behind it all.
What ‘Rosebud’ was to Charles Foster Kane, the upshot of his brother’s high school graduation dance that for George, Mary, and the whole of the story.
The elder son of hard-working, small-town parents, George helps his father keep the family Building and Loan going. Dad resolved to persist against the likes of Henry Potter. The greedy Bedford Falls banker determined to control it all. Hence, profit and the Bailey’s rarely meet, with little left to send children to college. George finally scrimped enough to go on vacation before heading there. Knowing that his younger brother will soon take over his duties before the cycle repeats for him.
It’s what George has dreamed and prepared for.
Brother Harry’s graduation affords this, even though “pop” sees his eldest as successor to his life’s work at helping others own a roof over their heads. The only one capable of keeping it together, George fears its weight will hold him down to small town life forever. Only guiltily agreeing to see the new school gymnasium he’s help build after his father expresses said wishes to stay on, George heads to the dance and his destiny.
Finding the other graduate there, Mary Hatch, the girl who’s had a crush on Harry’s sibling since childhood, suddenly seeing her for the first time.
Their meeting sparking mutual interest, and jealousy from Mary’s usurped young suitor left standing as the couple begins to dance soon after. Said grad piqued to open the basketball floor during the Charleston dance contest to the swimming pool beneath to try and spoil the budding romance as the musical number peaks. Backfiring as George and Mary continue their legwork and romantic envelopment after splashing into the water. Soaking them and the revelers getting in on the fun.
The walk home alone only deepens the bond between them, even as it’ll separate them a further four more years by its conclusion.
Not surprising our romantic couple, now wearing absconded dry clothes, opens the scene singing the very song they first fell into each other’s arms previously. The preferred version of the old American folk tune, Buffalo Gal, written by John Hodges1 that’s been adapted from the 1800s and long localized to whatever region it’s sung. Though not obvious, turns out it is a prophetic ballad — lyrics foreshadow their pairing — and lines up perfectly to what the filmmaker intend for this decisive sequence.
She was the prettiest gal I’ve seen in my life
In my life, in my life
And I wished to the Lord she’d be my wife
Then we would part no more
Even the, “…and dance by the light of the moon”, verse indicative; as is Mary and George’s strung out harmony. Their blended vocal bespeaks they are, in essence, already a duo…a twosome. Maybe not fully in body, they’ve yet to kiss to seal the deal, but certainly by now in spirit. The romantic tension building as they discuss Mary’s suddenly eighteen air. At least in the eyes of the clearly smitten, certainly daft, but better-late-then-never George.
George: “Eighteen! Why, it was only last year you were seventeen.”
Mary: “Too young or too old?”
George: “Oh, no no. Just right…you’re age fits ‘ya.”
Everything endearing about Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed as actors, separately and together, comes across their expressive faces as the scene plays out. Melds their interaction beautifully so that the chemistry radiates off whatever screen you witness it on. While the clip may not smolder with the same emotional intensity and frustration of their later ‘phone scene‘, it is a stepping stone toward it. Frank Capra without a doubt captured the sweetness of youth in the space barely separately these two.
The ‘hoped for kiss’ emblematic of the possibilities for the characters and in the viewer’s mind, only to discover soon enough that the remaining distance the widest of chasms for these two.
When George is offered the chance to do just that as Mary offers her hand, the pleasing possibility in his face causes Mary to chime Buffalo Gal’s chance verse, “As I was walking down the street, Down the street, down the street”, as she coyly walks away. The result, George looks up to realize where he’s at, which brings the unbeknownst symbol of their love into view for the first time, though it’s briefly glimpsed in It’s a Wonderful Life‘s preamble.
George: “OK then, I’ll throw a rock at the old Granville house.”
Mary: “Oh no, don’t. I love that old house.”
George: “No, you see you make a wish and then try to break some glass and you’ve got to be a pretty good shot nowadays too.”
Mary: “Oh no George don’t. It’s full of romance that old place. I’d like to live in it.
George: In that place?”
Mary: “Uh huh.”
George: “I wouldn’t live in it as a ghost.”
Take in that last bit of dialogue again as it foretells what George will have to endure later…literally.
Tossing a rock and breaking a second story window an indicator of good fortune, seemingly. Bear in mind, to this point George has been lucky no matter what life’s mishaps have befallen him2. Saving his brother from drowning and later his first boss’s druggist career as a child, a measure of the probability his dreams will finally come true by this superstitious act. Without a doubt, he’s more than owed.
As he dispenses his practiced soliloquy for Mary, the pivot of the scene offers a glimpse toward George’s event horizon:
Mary: “What you’d wish, George?”
George: “Not just one wish, a whole hatful. Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day, next year, and the year after that. I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”
Only then does Mary realize their chance at love together will be lost, if George’s spoken dreams come true. His ambition, previewed long ago when they were children, to see the world…maybe even get himself a harem or two while he’s at it, flits across her face. Whatever magic they have this night will be lost beyond the municipality’s borders. Perhaps, it sounds selfish in this day and age, but passion, especially the romantic kind, is innately and fervently self-serving. “The heart wants what the heart wants.”
So her next act is perfectly understandable to all of us who’ve come under love’s spell and clearly telegraphed in Mary’s eyes.
Bending down to pick up a rock, closing her eyes to make a wish, she then launches to set it straight. Undoing his dreams in the process as it breaks glass on the first floor. Never revealing to George what it aspires to, even as he pleads to learn. “If I told it might not come true.” Only then, bargaining to lasso Mary the moon for an answer. Finally exasperating the neighbor who’s been watching this all unfold from his porch. The old man frustrated with the young’un who has missed the opportunity.
Man on Porch: “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?”
George: “You want me to kiss her, huh?”
Man on Porch: “Ah, youth is wasted on the wrong people.”
The argument and attention ultimately drive Mary away, but without her robe as George’s big feet once again hold it in place. Only the nearby hydrangea bush offers her unclothed form refuge. Apart from the comedic and embarrassing aspects, Capra’s wonderfully staged scene, which has juxtaposed contrary feelings throughout, delivers its final laughs, and its real import, as a result. Fully committing the audience to George’s fate care of the bittersweet consummation about to materialize.
We’re all now fully preoccupied, holding our breath for the kiss that never arrives, to the reason George will never leave Bedford Falls as it rounds the corner. The anguished appearance by car of Uncle Billy and his brother to rush him back home. His father’s stroke and subsequent death George’s (and the tale’s) figurative black hole. As dad foretold, the only one capable of holding the promise of the Building and Loan, and the town, together. The savior and the light, never to escape as a consequence.
Given back her robe as a last act, George desperately returns headlong to a life of familial obligation, Mary left temporarily by the wayside of it all. Whatever joy they’ve shared, now delayed. Only later, as she embraces George on their wedding night in their rain-soaked Granville house domicile, will she eventually confess it3. But right now, cast to come to terms with what has transpired for the two of them. Her wish coming true in unanticipated ways before her eyes, Mary’s left to wonder if she’s responsible as the scene fades to black.
This lone scene hit me like a ton of bricks when I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life long ago, and it still does even when I know what’s coming.
- Also known as “Cool White”, an early blackface minstrel popular at the time, and an art form I truly disdain. ↩
- The clue: George always ignites the cigar lighter stationed at Mr. Gower’s drug store as he wishes for a million dollars. ↩
- Mary: [embracing George] “Remember the night we broke the windows in this old house? This is what I wished for.” George Bailey: [softly] “You’re wonderful… wonderful.” ↩