Frank Capra (U)
Frank Capra's seems to have survived everything, from an initial lukewarm reaction upon its release in 1947, to its eventual promotion to the status of sacred cow of American cinema, and the inevitable critical backlash. It has also survived the ugly process of colourisation, which saw it released on video in the 1980s looking like a box of pale watercolours had been spilt all over it.
Thankfully, the new print, which is released this week to commemorate the film's 50th anniversary, is in crisp monochrome, and it's a comfort to find that its power is intact. But while it may still have the ability to make you sob into your bucket of popcorn, repeated viewings are inevitably complicated by a growing awareness of the picture's dark undercurrents. Far from being a celebration of wholesome small-town American culture, it seems to be shot through with both pity and affection for its characters. The gentle features of James Stewart may have equipped him to play the resident saint, George Bailey, who puts his own life and ambitions on hold to help those around him, but Capra gives us enough glimpses of George teetering on the brink of his own personal hell to qualify the film's supposed optimism as deeply problematic.
The wealthy villain, Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore), is not punished as he would have been in a traditional fable, and there is nothing to suggest that George won't find himself steeped in despair again. While the picture ends on a chiming, humanitarian note, it doesn't placate us - we walk out of the cinema with the film's melancholia gnawing at us. The definition of the term Capra-esque comes largely from a misinterpretation of as a work of unfaltering hope and sentimentality. When Joe Dante included an excerpt from the film in Gremlins, many people assumed it was supposed to be an ironic contrast. But the two movies are quite similar in spirit. The difference is that in Capra's film, the gremlins have human faces.
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