I somehow went 25 years without ever seeing two of the most beloved American films of all time. It's a Wonderful Life has long been the movie that folks can't believe I haven't seen, and I daresay if Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was only set at Christmastime, it wouldn't be far behind. Upon finally sitting down and putting myself through this Capra/Stewart double feature, I'm not surprised by the feeling that I had already seen them several times. They've both been ripped off, retread and lovingly copied more times than I can count.
What is surprising to me is the disappointment engendered in my cynical soul by It's a Wonderful Life. I can't believe this is the movie that America tunes in to watch every year at Christmas (someone asked me, when I told them what I was going to watch last night, "Isn't it a little early?"). For starters, it's only a Christmas movie for the final forty minutes, and the wintry setting, in fact, isn't really crucial to any of the morals or lessons imparted therein. I suppose Christmastime and moralizing make good bedfellows, but I'd honestly be more interested in some bedfellow relations for Officer Bert and Taxi Driver Ernie (or their muppet successors).
Don't get me wrong. This is by no means a bad movie, but in terms of storytelling, it's pretty on-the-nose in the end. And as for the beginning, I've never seen a movie take an hour and twenty minutes to reach its inciting incident. Prior to Uncle Billy's dumbassery at the bank that lands the Bailey fortune into Mr. Potter's sniveling (and apparently slimy, if his handshake with George is any indication) fists, we're treated to an episodic chronicle of the life of George Bailey. This is all well and good, and I don't think little Bobbie Anderson (young George) has been out-charisma'd by a child actor ever since. Given this as a set-up for George's realization that he's "worth more dead than alive" and eventual start down a new path, it occurs to me that Up did this kind of thing better and in ten minutes. What's It's a Wonderful Life about? It's about a man who's going to kill himself because his twit Uncle lost a ton of cash, and then an angel comes down to give him a Dickensian lesson on life being worth living and he changes his mind. Correct me if that's an improper summary, because it also reveals the film as hideously off-balance.
I think the biggest kick I got out of finally watching this is that I can finally completely appreciate Saturday Night Live's alternate ending, which is inarguably superior to the real one. I'd have to go back through fifty years of review to see if anyone agrees with me on this (the sketch comedy speaks for itself), but seriously: Evil Mr. Potter gets no comeupance whatsoever? That is completely unacceptable. It's bad enough the crotchety old cripple never recieves a fatal beating; he never even gets exposed as having swiped the Baileys' money. He never gets so much as a talking to. It's nice that the townsfolk are so willing to throw piles of cash at George in an overwhelming ejaculation of Christmas spirit, but haven't we previously been told that Mr. Potter owns like ninety percent of the town? How much money can they really have to toss around? Exacting a socialist state in the Bailey's living room is, again, a nice idea, but they can't keep it going much longer with Potter still around.
It's easy to assume that Potter will die before Bailey (although the man's mortality is questionable - he barely ages over forty years and spends the whole time in a wheelchair at no visible detriment to his overall health), leaving Bailey to take back the town (Is there an heir, by the way, to the Potter estate?), but what if something happens to George first? Without him, we are shown quite explicitly, Bedford Falls will become something like the alternate 1985 of Back to the Future, Part II, all gin joints and burlesque. The failure of Capra or any of his screenwriters to bring their villain down - or give any kind of closure between him and Bailey - is unacceptable. I take respite in the fact that the main drag in Pottersville looked like kind of a fun place, and that Donna Reed makes for one damn foxy librarian.
What impresses me most, however, about the structural disarray of It's a Wonderful Life is that seven years earlier, Capra and Stewart (not to mention Beulah Bondi, who plays Stewart's mother in both films) teamed up to make one of the most dramatically perfect films I've ever seen in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Boy, America, did you choose the wrong Capra movie to watch every year.
Stewart's eponymous Senator Jeff Smith is a small-town rube who runs the local boy scout troupe (the actual Scouts denied rights to use their name; on a similar note, the entire film manages to unspool without naming Smith's homestate or noting his political party affiliation) and prints a one-sheet newsletter. He is selected to replace a freshly deceased senator for two reasons: he's popular enough that his selection won't cause a revolution and he's dumb enough that he won't be able to stop a backroom deal for a dam that's been hidden in Article 40 of the Deficiency Bill solely to make a local newspaper tycoon a ton of money.
The selectors behind Smith's appointment are Governor Hopper and Senator Paine, both of whom answer to Jim Taylor, the rich civilian who for years has been running the state behind closed doors. Paine, it's established early on, knew Smith's father, and loved him. He loves Smith, too, and this will prove to be his fatal flaw.
Of course, Stewart does catch on to the plot and in trying to blow the whistle, ends up framed in a scandal of forgeries and hearsay. About to be expelled from the Senate after less than a week, and with a lot of assistance from his secretary/love interest Jean Arthur (easily besting Donna Reed in the personality category and matching her in the gauzy close-up), he pulls out the dramatist's favorite check to the balances of power written into our books: The Filibuster.
According to the film's IMDb trivia page, there was a much longer ending, depicting a friendly make-up session between Mr. Smith and his malleable nemesis Senator Paine, the collapse of the "Taylor Machine" and a ticker-tape parade for Smith upon his return home. This ending was cut, allegedly, due to a preview audience's response.
At the climax of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart passes out in the 24th hour of the filibuster intended to save his name, his state and the purity of American democracy, and in the next minute-and-a-half, his nemesis Paine admits the truth, the day is saved, our hero is revealed to be "okay!" (to the delight of his paramour), and the film is over. In a minute-and-a-half! Now that's how you fucking end a movie. Did it really take a focus group to tell this to Frank Capra? Where were they on Wonderful Life? Or The Return of the King, for that matter? Or any of a thousand bloated endings to Hollywood entertainments? Sheesh!
And let me also state that it's easy to be glib about these things, but I feel I should put on the record that, for that entire minute-and-a-half ending, I found tears welling in my eyes. You may blame this on whatever you like: mental instability, the power of Capra's arguably naïve paean to democracy, or just Stewart's brilliance with the climactic epiphany. I think maybe it's a combination of all three. Perhaps I am a crier: but whereas Wonderful Life left me cold, Mr. Smith had me from the start right through to the end.