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George Bailey (James Stewart) and the Angel (Henry Travers) in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1947)

The nice folks of Bedford Falls are singing Auld Lang Syne, the credits are rolling, and, once again, the tears are streaming down my cheeks. On the other sofa, 15-year-old Clo is watching me with her head slightly to one side like a curious bird. “You’re crying,” she says, accusingly. I know she’s wondering, as Potter, the wicked capitalist in It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), did of George Bailey, are you one of those starry-eyed dreamers, a believer in all that sentimental hogwash?

What me? Starry-eyed? Sentimental? Dreamer? No – three times over, resoundingly – not me! I’m one of those unblinking realists. Face me with reality, and I look long and hard at it, and the more I don’t like it (and mostly I don’t), the less I’ll blink.

But I don’t know how to explain, either to myself, or to my daughter, why it is I weep every time Clarence, angel second-class, shows George that his life has made a difference to the nice people of Bedford Falls. Or why the same thing happens to me watching Lady for a Day (1933), when Apple Annie, panhandler and drunk, is transformed into a society hostess to sustain her daughter’s misconceptions, by Dave duh Dooke. Or again, when the hero of Meet John Doe (1941) reads the radio speech that’s been written for him about the importance of the ‘little people’, and starts to believe it.

Curious about those tears, I’d been trying to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again, but Clo always vetoed it, because it wasn’t Christmas. Luckily, the Capra Collection has just been released on video, and, since it counts as work, I was allowed another viewing, out of season.

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Apple Annie (May Robson) dreaming of her daughter (Jean Parker) in Lady for a Day (1933)

Videos are a blessing to the secretly sentimental like myself, who want to keep the weeping private. At home, unlike in the cinema where the lights come up just after the crying hits so that you have to face the world puffy-eyed and mucousy, you can let the tears roll freely and blow your nose into an entire boxful of paper hankies. Only the sharp eyes of a semi-cynical adolescent have to be faced, and that, I suppose, is the price you pay for populating the world.

Time is also an able assistant in the crying department. I wonder, if they could wipe time from old movies (in the guise of the quality of the print, in the softened lighting tones, in the almost physically distant, crackling soundtrack), like they do when re-mastering old recordings on to CDs, if their power wouldn’t lessen. Billie Holiday, without the cratered sound of the decades, is stunning, but I always have a sense that something’s been lost in the cleaning. The distance between me and a movie is part of the experience of watching, and, paradoxically, perhaps the silvery blur has the same effect as the grey hair and wrinkles of an aged head and face, allowing us to trust the story to the storyteller.

Which is why, I suppose, remakes so rarely work. Isn’t the power of Casablanca (1942), or Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), something to do with feeling, in the print itself, the times in which they were made? The sharp tones and perfect focus of modern popular movies – Lethal Weapon 3 for instance, or Batman Returns – speak directly to us about quantities of dollars, and techno-wizardry. They are certainly of their time, but trust them? How could we; they are not speaking to us. They don’t call. The voice gets lost in their shiny brightness.

In a tribute at the beginning of one of the videos, Frank Capra Jnr explains that his father’s art was all about his “love of ordinary, common people”. Now it’s true that it’s the John Does and George Baileys of this world – hoboes, small-town idealists, panhandlers and hustlers – who are the heroes of Capra’s movies, but the heartbeat of each movie is the despair that each of them feels about society and their lives. Apple Annie, John Doe and George Bailey all contemplate suicide but are saved at the last moment, not by a faith in life, but by fairy tales and miraculous interventions. Capra may have loved people, but people aren’t the subject of his films; America is.

Capra’s America is not that geographical landmass just above Mexico, but a mythological place in the geography of the mind, whose boundary fences are flyposted with copies of the American Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg address. Inside its borders, great battles are fought between the forces of good and evil, for magical though it may be, it is a land where economic depression and spiritual destitution are rife. The bad guys are capitalists, self-seeking bureaucrats and totalitarians (Henry Potter, the Police Commissioner, D. B. Norton), but they are invariably beaten by democracy, which is to say, the decent, right-thinking will of the people, even if it does need a shove or two from someone quoting the seminal literature to remind them that they hold the safety of the world in their hands.

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Capra's true subject in It's a Wonderful Life (above) and his other films was America, a land where the bad guys are invariably beaten by democracy

Capra’s America (the diametrical opposite of Kafka’s Amerika) is the place where tough-as-old-boots realists like myself can howl. It’s a small compartment of the mind that retains unassailable notions of honesty, decency, goodness, fairness, and how things ought to be. They’ve been there forever, since they are fine ideas and proper ideals for social animals to possess, but they live, concealed for safety, behind a thicket of realpolitik; the world as she has to be lived; people as they have to be experienced.

With the aid of shadows on the silver screen, Capra describes the outline of his America and superimposes it on our own. The fit is simple and perfect: Potter has a bust of Napoleon in his office, George has a painting of Abe Lincoln in his; John Doe’s raincoat is always wet and open, D.B. Norton’s has a fur collar and is buttoned up.

But Capra is not an escapist. I’ve never understood how It’s a Wonderful Life is seen as a beacon of Christmas hope. It’s one of the darkest films I know. George Bailey’s lifelong struggle is to come to terms with disappointment, with a hatful of dreams that never come true. He never gets away from small-town America (a fantasy within a fantasy), he never builds his bridges and towers. He’s trapped into his destiny by the needs of others: he doesn’t want to run Building and Loan when his father dies, he doesn’t want to love Mary and be tied down forever. But he does both, watching his dreams shrivel as the decades pass and ordinary, pleasant enough life goes on, until, as if his good nature and sense of duty counted for zero, everything comes crashing to the ground, thanks to nothing more than mere accident. Having sacrificed everything he has longed for, he is about to become destitute and probably imprisoned as well. He comes to the conclusion, not unreasonably, that it would have been better if he’d never been born. “That’s what you get for praying for help,” he says, black and bitter. A nice family film, huh?

Under the circumstances, I tell myself and Clo, I’m perfectly entitled to weep, because things are not how they should be, and worse than that, they won’t ever be. It doesn’t mean I’m not a realist, it means I am, but I’m sorry for how things are. Isn’t that a thing to cry about?

“If you want a simple place where people are nice, and help each other, why don’t you go and live in Dunmanway?”, Clo suggests, ever practical (think rural Ireland, donkeys, no electricity and happy holidays). “I don’t want to live in Dunmanway”, I wail, hiccuping back the tears. “I want to live in the centre of London, where the air is poisoned, and bombs go off, and people sleep in doorways, and where fossil fuels are being exhausted just so that I can watch Frank Capra movies on the VCR, and remind myself of the way things aren’t.”

And the funny thing is, Clo nods her understanding at me and gives a little smile. I suppose she must have America in her head, too.

Further reading

As tears go by: why do film characters cry at the cinema?

From Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie to Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys, when movie characters watch films, it's often an intensely sorrowful experience. Could this be the way cinema expresses its self-conscious sadness about its own transience, asks Brad Stevens.

By Brad Stevens

As tears go by: why do film characters cry at the cinema?

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Originally published: 29 April 2016