A blog about imaginative learning
Recently I had the great blessing of directing a theatrical production of It’s a Wonderful Life in our Children’s Theatre Troupe: Riverside Theatre. Every Christmas there are all sorts of reflections on this classic movie. It is a story that is close to the hearts of millions of people, and it continues to inspire new generations. I grew up, like many, watching It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas. To this day, and I’ve seen the film about fifty times, I still tear up when George is praying in Martini’s Bar, and at the end when all his friends come pouring in to the Bailey House. Frank Capra, the director of this film, was an inspired man, and I am deeply grateful for his legacy of great filmmaking, especially this masterpiece.
His son, Frank Capra Jr., in a delightful little documentary about the movie, said that it all began with one idea: what if a good man got to see what the world would be like if he’d never been born. This theme strikes a deep chord in all of us. Why? Because it asks the main question, how have I lived my life and who will remember me? Or, what have I made of this brief time granted me? Have I lived a happy life, or one that was nasty, brutish, and short? Was it a bad night in a bad inn, or a beautiful adventure on a pilgrimage back home?
Frank Capra once said: No man is born to be a failure. This is the kind of thought that makes one step back and consider life from a grand perspective. And this stepping back to consider life and gain perspective is exactly what Capra does in this story about George Bailey, and his life in Bedford Falls. The movie begins with one of the most creative first images in film history: a simple snow laden American town on Christmas eve, a chorus of prayers for a man in desperate need of help; and then a starry sky and...enter angels in conversation about George’s dilemma. The idea of divine intervention in the life of man is of course nothing new, from ancient mythology to the Christmas story itself, but there is something utterly unique about what Capra does here. It is always difficult to capture sincere prayer in film without it looking cheesy, but Capra does it. He begins a Hollywood movie with prayers ascending to heaven, and the commission of an angel, Clarence, to help a human being who in an hour's time will attempt to throw away his life. Here we see a cosmic drama at work--heaven looking down upon the world stage. Clarence the angel responds with enthusiasm to his commission: Oh dear dear...well then I have only an hour to dress. To which the senior angel responds: You’ll spend that hour time getting to acquainted with George Bailey.
Most of the story is spent watching George Bailey’s life, from a young boy when he saves his younger brother from drowning, to his time working in old man Gower’s Drugstore--a simple small town American life. But like all of us, George yearns for something more. Ever since he was a kid he wanted to do something big, to explore, to invent and build things...to see the world! In one of the most iconic scenes in movie history George Bailey says to Mary, his soon to be wife: I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and next year, and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I’m gonna see the world! No matter what critics say about Capra Corn, and schmaltz, just ignore them. This is some of the best writing in film history. Not only is it authentic dialogue, but it is one of the best portrayals of the young aspirant dreamer hoping for a better life. It also happens to be the crux of the whole plot theme--how one can man can lose sight of the wonderful world in which he lives, and how he regains it, without ever leaving his hometown.
Every scene of George’s aspirational dreaming touches the heart of anyone who has ever dreamed of doing something meaningful with their life.
No man is born to be a failure.
We all have a sense that there is something we are called to do, a gift we need to develop, a vision to express, a best life to live. There is a restlessness, greater in some people for sure, to break out of the confines of the system or place that keeps us from going for it. And there is something deeply American about George Bailey’s dream--not to say that this yearning is not in every person. But there has always been the theme in our country’s history of the humble ordinary Joe who breaks out of poor circumstances to become “somebody” in this life. We all yearn for it, and so does George. This is one of the most touching aspects of this story, and one that never ceases to inspire.
Like every great storyteller, Capra paints a picture of ordinary life in the story’s setting: Bedford Fall, an ordinary American small town. We feel at home there, and enjoy all of the scenes developing George's ordinary life: joking with friends in town, lively family dinner at home, a high school dance, a romantic walk home with a beautiful girl. But before reflecting on some of the Bedford Falls ordinary life scenes, I need to say something about directing this play, for it is very much connected to the theme of ordinary life and gaining greater perspective, and part of the reason I am writing this.
As a Theatre Director one gains a unique perspective on a story. Here I had a script that was as familiar as apple pie with the audience. My task was to recreate this world and characters, the tone and feeling of the scenes, and dialogue. My hope was that it would inspire the audience in a way that the movie has done for decades. And so I entered deeply into Bedford Falls, and the heart and mind of George Bailey. One thing I often tell the actors is that in order to make the magic of theatre work, you need to see the invisible. You must actually enter into the place, and minds of these characters through the imagination. An actor’s experience is a bit different from the director’s experience, but both have the marvelous experience of catharsis. This is when you enter into such an intense experience of life, hopes, dreams, sufferings, an all is lost moment, a death like experience, and then the awakening, or joyous turn that gives you new vision, when you see that life is much more wonderful and grand than you ever imagined. It is a reawakening-a rebirth.
I know I am going off on a tangent at this point but really when you are dealing with a story of such depth, and having just experienced it as a director, there are just so many angles to take. What I am trying to say here, in a long-winded way, is that directing this play gave me, and the cast, a more intense experience of this story, different from watching it on screen. When you step outside your life and enter into the drama, it can change you. In a very short period of time, you have the feeling of living a whole life, and then you come out on the other side and normal life is can seem less real and strange. It's as though the life you lived through your imagination was more meaningful in some ways than your daily life. And yet, is this not the greatest function of story and drama?? What a gift story/drama is to we humans! Where would we be without these divine gifts?
Now, back to the story! Consider what happens to George in his ordinary life. He is a man of great talent, personality, and ambition-a magnanimous man. His joyful and enthusiastic embrace of life have affected many of his friends and relatives in his hometown. But he loses the vision of what a wonderful life he has. Why? His life in Bedford Falls is not what he dreamed of as a boy and as a young man. He wanted to get out, to travel, do big things...to shake the dust of the mundane and ordinary off his pilgrim shoes, and see the world! Instead he finds himself married (albeit to a beautiful woman) with lots of kids, poor, in debt, and not doing any of the things he had hoped for as a young man. At various points Capra shows the inner struggle of restlessness that so many experience in their lives. In one scene George is talking with his friend Sam Wainright, who left town and made a fortune in plastics. Sam says: still have your nose to the old grindstone? After Sam leaves George, standing next to his wife Mary, staring off down the road. He kicks his clunky old car door shut, and you can see the grimace of discontent on his face. Once again Capra’s brilliance in planting in the script the simmering restless of a character who is refusing to accept his lot in life. Is my fate a blessing or a curse?
One of the main themes throughout the whole thread of this narrative is that George, though he never got to leave town, has touched the lives of so many without knowing it. One of the most poignant scenes is the moment of decision when George’s father dies, and Potter, the town’s malevolent miser is trying to liquidate the Building and Loan, the Bailey Family business. Once again, one of the most famous scenes in movie history: George defending his father’s memory in the face of Potter’s cruel comments: Peter Bailey was not a businessman. That’s what killed him.
George lets him have it with a legendary speech: This rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working, paying, living and dying in this community. Well is it too much to ask to let them work and pay and die in a couple of descent rooms and bath? Anyway my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!
Here we see George’s noble heart in a way that will define the rest of his life, and why he will live such a wonderful life. As a young man he desires to do something great, to leave town. But in this speech to Potter, we see a huge vision in George--a vision of what it means to live a truly human life, even in a small town- a vision of how a man can make a town more humane- not just another cog in the wheel in the machinery of business and politics. George, like his father, has in his heart a deep awareness that one man’s life can make everyone else either happy or miserable. One man can change the hearts of so many. George has the opportunity to leave town after this speech, but as he is walking out to go to college, a board member runs out exclaiming that the board chose to keep the business going as long as George becomes director. Here George faces the real challenge of his life. Will I sacrifice what I see as my dream to take on a noble responsibility? He does not see it at first as a noble task--he thinks of the Building and Loan as a shabby little office, where one is only concerned about nickels and dimes, and how much to save on a length of pipe. But George, because he has a great heart, says yes. And from then on his life is meant for Bedford Falls--his great cross, and what will become his great glory.
While directing this play, and witnessing our actors enter into the emotional space of George, and his life, I experienced the brilliance of Capra’s writing. He had such a knack for capturing real human moments that reveal something deep and grand--a depth that lies hidden behind the curtain of the ordinary and small. I remember directing the scene when George is eating dinner with his dad, while his brother Harry is getting ready to go to the high school graduation dance. His dad is tired, and tells him as he’s fiddling with his soup, that he had “another tussle with Potter” that day. His pop begins probing what is on George’s mind for his future. After George tells him about college, traveling, building things, his dad asks him if he would consider coming back to the Building and Loan. The acting in this scene is sincere and amazing. We see the interior struggle of George expressed in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes, his tone of voice, and most importantly we see the heart of this character, his interior world come across with such power, that in a moment we know who George Bailey is. He is a young dreamer with a great heart who will be called upon to take up the cross--and direct his joyful heart and vision of life to transform his hometown. His adventure will be closer to home, and will seem mundane and ordinary, and yet all of heaven is watching.
This is the kind of reflection we all need in our life. In my ordinary day to day, do I see that there is a great cosmic drama at work, and that somehow the small things of ordinary life are packed full of meaning--that they are the stage on which we are called to play the role of the great hearted hero? Sometimes our small actions and dreams can feel like tiny pebbles tossed into the waves of a great ocean...insignificant dreams of a man or woman who will walk this earth for a short time, and then be forgotten. This is the nightmare we all have: that we will die, and see that we did not live life as we were called to live it, or that it all was meaningless, sound and fury signifying nothing, a random tumble with no story.
There is a nightmare sequence in this play which bears this eschatological weight. I remember when directing part of the play how important the music and lighting was, but also how the actors had to make the world of Bedford Falls transform into the nightmare of Pottersville through their faces, tone of voice, and expressing feelings of listlessness, anger, and disdain. C.S. Lewis once said that we all have the power to bring heaven or hell to any situation by the way we act. Here we see this reality when George wishes he had never been born. Clarence, his guardian angel, rescues him after George, on Christmas Eve, is about to commit suicide. Uncle Billy lost 5,000 dollars, and the Building and Loan was on the verge of collapse, as was George’s life. And so Clarence visits him to show him what a wonderful life he actually has, and that he ought not throw it away over 5,000 dollars. After George’s death wish, Clarence leads him around the upside down of Bedford Falls (Pottersville), and there George sees how his joy, his heart, his friendship, and sacrifice had made his hometown a truly human and good place to live. He sees what the world would be like without him.
Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?
George sees the void of the world without him. He sees how his father’s dedication and his generous sacrifice saved the town from Potter’s inhumane heart, and how his family, his friends, all create a truly good place to work, and pay, and live, and die--a hometown where there is joy, fulfilling work, the warmth of hearth and home, family, and friends.
For as Clarence note reads at the end: No man is a failure who has friends.
After our play was done, after the lights went out, and the props, costumes, and set pieces were put in the truck, I prayed and thought about my experience directing my favorite story and film. The intensity of a life lived on stage through the imagination is something that actually affects your heart, and life. Story has the power to open up the cosmic drama of our own life, by pulling back the curtain, and revealing that no matter how small and insignificant one’s life can feel at times, all of heaven is watching. God cares for each of his children more than anything else, and that our Guardian Angel follows us everywhere we go, hoping that we will realize that No man is born to be a failure, and No man is a failure who has friends.
And so, Merry Christmas Bedford Falls! Attaboy Clarence, attaboy!
Thank you Frank Capra. Thank you. And God bless the cast and families of Riverside's production of It's a Wonderful Life!