Movie Classic

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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). No one ever accused Frank Capra of being subtle, but his best movies have a jaunty optimism that can be irresistible. How could he not be optimistic, this immigrant son of illiterate Sicilian peasants who worked four jobs and slept five hours a night and still won scholarship prizes at the California Institute of Technology? In It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), both funny movies, the immigrant boy’s fantasies meshed with those of moviegoers eager to forget the Depression. Even the too heartfelt Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), with James Stewart as a naive senator, has charm that outweighs its long-winded patriotic speeches.

By 1946, however, Americans had come home from World War II with a new attitude, and the Capra corn, which was always close to the surface, had overwhelmed the Capra humor. Also, Capra made the mistake of confusing sentiment with sentimentality.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a relentlessly cheerful movie about a happy small town with a much-too-good-to-be-true hero James Stewart and a much-too-bad-to-be-believed villain (the town banker Lionel Barrymore). It doesn’t help that Capra, never noted for a light touch, wrote the script himself instead of relying on Robert Riskin, the screenwriter of his early movies.

Although It’s a Wonderful Life is almost saved by Henry Travers as Clarence, an Angel Second Class sent to keep Stewart’s George Bailey from committing suicide, and by Stewart’s earnest charm, it drowns in the treacle of Stewart’s adorable daughter praying, “Dear God, help Daddy,” and in speeches about the little man’s deserving to own a house.

Typical of the unreal world of It’s a Wonderful Life , no one dies or is maimed in World War II, and Stewart’s brother wins the Medal of Honor. For an antidote, compare the armless sailor and uneasy postwar world of the movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives .

Underrated

Ace in the Hole (1951). Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is by no means a great movie. It was a commercial and critical failure when it was made in 1951. Re-released by Paramount several months later under the title The Big Carnival , it was even more of a failure. Too nasty and pessimistic to make American audiences comfortable, the movie was, however, a success abroad, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

The “ace in the hole” is the owner of a flea-bitten New Mexico trading post who has been trapped in a mine. The player who holds the ace is Kirk Douglas, a failed big-city newspaperman stuck in Albuquerque and looking for the big story that will get him back to New York. Leo (Richard Benedict) could be saved in 16 hours, but Douglas, with the help of a corrupt sheriff who carries a rattlesnake in a cake box, milks the story for days. In the end Leo dies.

Ace in the Hole was the first movie Billy Wilder made after splitting with Charles Brackett, the 14-year-older conservative Republican co-writer and producer of such Wilder movies as The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard . Unleashed from Brackett’s restraint, Wilder, who had left Hitler’s Germany in 1933, indulged his cynical view of human nature the way a six-year-old indulges in a triple-scoop ice-cream cone. Excess floods the screen, including Kirk Douglas’s hyperbolic performance.

But the dialogue crackles. And stings. Before Leo, news is so scarce that Douglas complains about a “tornado that double-crossed us and went to Texas.” Leo’s dissatisfied wife (Jan Sterling) has some of the best lines. “I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time,” she tells Douglas. “But you, you’re 20 minutes.” And when Douglas tries to send her to church in the role of grieving wife, her response is, “I don’t go to church. Kneeling ruins my nylons.”

The brilliance of the movie is in its portrait of a public that feeds on disaster. License plate by license plate—California, Arizona, Oklahoma—the empty desert fills up with people willing to pay two bits to get close to the mountain where Leo is trapped. More than 40 years before the trials of O. J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers, more than 50 years before Michael Jackson’s alleged hanky-panky with a young boy was splashed across tabloid television, Wilder skewers both a sensation-seeking public and a sensation-providing press. It is no wonder nearly all the important reviewers denounced the movie.

Wilder, who knew that in Hollywood clout comes only with commercial success, was never so uncompromising again. His not exactly heartwarming but much less pessimistic next movie was Stalag 17 , and the film after that was Sabrina .