SocraticGadfly: Does 'It's a Wonderful Life' need a remake?

December 01, 2012

Does 'It's a Wonderful Life' need a remake?

"It's a Wonderful Life" is on TV again (Updated, Dec. 1, 2012). I am at home tonight, and per the linked follow-up blog post in the third paragraph, if I watch it tonight, it will be, contra past years before 2011, not be such a saccharine tear-jerker as usually has been for me. Indeed, I may turn a strongly critical eye on it, and a more introspective one on my past emotions.

And, I know that it is such a tear-jerker because it leaves me longing, more than just wistful, for a life that I never experienced that much growing up. (Since I didn't experience it, I can't be nostalgic about it.)

(Update, June 2, 2012: I've now come to the conclusion that behind the saccharine and my own tears, I loathe the ideas and philosophy behind it.)

Anyway, let's think of some alternative ideas for this movie, since it's a tear-jerker precisely because Frank Capra pulls  formulaic strings, while actually making it "Bentham’s Panopticon with picket fences," per a link below the fold.

What if Capra had ended the movie 20 minutes early with George Bailey, aka Jimmy Stewart, jumping from the bridge? Or, had run it out another 30 minutes after the tear-jerker ending? Would we see George take a more skeptical look at Bedford Falls? Would he perhaps wonder if a little bit of Potterville actually did lurk beneath the surface?

If you want to get more thought on that line of thought, go here; is IAWL "the most terrifying movie ever"?

Before I saw the Salon story, when I watched it (and, yes, cried again) this year, I thought that the end of what Rich Cohen calls "The Night Journey of George Bailey" had a major-key riff on the melody of the medieval church hymm of the Apocalypse par excellence, the Dies Irae. Cohan makes me wonder more.

The occurrence is just before Bert pulls up and says, "Where have you been, George"?" It just caught my ear. [That said, that's part of why I love Rachmaninoff, and I will hear the Dies Irae wherever it pops up. More on that "aha" here.] Given that Dmitri Tiomkin, who wrote the score, was born in Old Russia 21 years after Rachmaninoff, and studies there under Alexander Glazunov and later, in Berlin, under Ferruccio Busoni, it adds to the possibility. However, the original score was even darker.

Per the link, which talks about George's "resurrection," I think that IS a Dies Irae riff. (More on that thought here.) That said, to riff on some of the ideas in the link ... it would have been interesting if, in the "salvation by friends" scene at the end, the actual Dies Irae had been playing, sotto voce.

Anyway, Cohan says there's a darker meaning underneath the saccharine. I think he overstates his case, but may have something going on here.

So, per Cohan, and my own thoughts, maybe it's time to do a remake? Either cutting it short, or else extending it?

I think you could extend it, by about 15-20 minutes, cut about 4-5 minutes from the original, and do something "interesting." Along Cohan's line, could we make this an "Occupy Main Street" movie for today, taking "Occupy Wall Street" to the local level? Or would we have an "Occupy Shrugs," in which our updated George Bailey is crushed, bribed or otherwise taken out of the picture. Could we "darken" it further? Should we? Or make it more ambiguous in general?

Anyway, more thoughts on a remake, including suggested actors and directors, below the fold:

George Bailey? That's Tom Hanks, of course.

(Sidebar: After reading the short story "The Greatest Gift," from which the movie screenplay was written, Cary Grant wanted the part. Ugh. Just not the right person.)

Old man Potter? Maybe an aged Russell Crowe?

Who would direct? Who would play Mary? Meg Ryan teaming up with Hanks again? How would you update it for what George Bailey did, what Potter did, the breaking point, etc.?

That said, although Cary Grant fortunately didn't get the lead in the actual IAWL, Stewart was not the only serious candidate. According to Wikipedia, Hank Fonda was in the running, too. If Capra had wanted a more ambiguous tone to the movie, Fonda, the Fonda of, say, "There Was a Crooked Man," would have been fantastic. Damn, I'd pay to have seen that. Maybe a Daniel Day-Lewis type would pull that off today.

As for Potter alternatives in the original, Rathbone had played Scrooge on radio, so was a good choice. Vincent Price would have been interesting ... probably less bitter but more oily. And, he would have been too young. Raymond Massey might have been too ponderous.

What if Orson Welles had been asked to do the Potter role? Apparently his star power was too much to get consideration; he might also have been too pricey for Capra's budget. That said, he did play Potter in the gender-reversal "It Happened One Christmas."

The danger would have been that a Welles at the height of his powers would have been a scene-stealer. On the other hand, given that, and a few more dollars for Capra's budget, he might have challenged Stewart to even greater heights himself.

Or, what might have taken this in a MUCH more "noir" direction would have been Welles and Fonda playing off each other. I could picture Fonda as Bailey with a darker anger at Welles as Potter while hearing an edge of resigned doubt and skepticism about the community in the back of his mind and the back of his voice.

Or, whether or not he played the Potter role, what about Welles as director? Hmmm, in black and white, with his love for the use of shadows?

At the same time, while Cohen's own blog/column has stimulated some speculative thinking on my part, I have to disagree with both him and the American Film Institute. On him, I think he's reading too much into the movie, even if I'm right about the Dies Irae riff. On the AFI, IAWL may be one of the top 100 movies ever, but it is NOT one of the top 10 ever. (It slipped to No. 20 in a revised, updated rating 10 years after the original list, but it's not that good.) If it had been made the way I'm thinking, and the way Cohen thinks might underlie it, it could have been one of the top 10. But, it's not as it stands. (Besides, the AFI is too stupid or whatever to have "Fiddler on the Roof" anywhere in the top 100. And, it's also stupid enough to have "Jaws" in the top 50. "Jaws"? Really?)

Stupider yet, neither "Fiddler" nor "Music Man" are on AFI's top 25 list of musicals.

That said, Gary Kamiya, also of Salon, has a far different take on Capra and the movie, with its "Currier and Ives veil," than does Cohen. (And, he's right; that's why in my alternative scenario, Orson Welles would be a MUCH better director, whether he also played Potter or not.)
There is no such thing as privacy in Bedford Falls. The place is like Bentham's Panopticon with picket fences. ... Nightlife? Geneva in the days of Calvin had more action. ... When Marx penned his immortal words about "the idiocy of rural life," he probably had Bedford Falls in mind.
That said, per Kamiya, he and Cohen agree on one thing:
We all live in Pottersville now. Bedford Falls is gone. The plucky little Savings and Loan closed down years ago, just like in George's nightmare. Cleaned up, his evil eyebrows removed, armed with a good PR firm, Mr. Potter goes merrily about his business, "consolidating" the George Baileys of the world.
Indeed. As our post-TARP world wears on, maybe "It's a Wonderful Life" has moved beyond saccharine tear-jerker to cheap escapist fare. It's an America that not only was simpler, but often simplistic. Of course, so are large swaths of today's America.

So, maybe we could mash up two Jimmy Stewart movies: "It's a Wonderful Life Goes to Washington." That said, for those of you who saw my recent book review saying that Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" wasn't dark enough, this shouldn't surprise you.

I wouldn't mind multiple remakes, that last snark aside. One, with new actors, etc., but overall similar to the original. A second, not too, too dark, but somewhat more ambiguous than the original.

And, a couple of darker ones. In one of those, Bailey decides to stay alive, but, in an Occupy Wall Street riff, Potter's already used Uncle Billy's misplaced money to lock up much of the town. Nobody can bail out George Bailey and he winds up being convicted. In another, he sees a more ambiguous "life without him" and decides to jump off the bridge after all. In yet another, he sees an overall positive "life without him," but including the "go to jail" part and he decides to jump. In yet another, he "feels the heat" and decides to kill Uncle Billy if he's going to jail anyway.

And, there's yet more. Let's put this in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and run it for Hanukkah. If you really want to jump the shark, substitute Hanukkah Harry of Saturday Night Life for Clarence. Or put it in a secularist household. And, in that case, of course, there's no angel; secularist George Bailey has a simple flashback sequence, with life/the movie then playing out in various ways.

(Per a 1992 bio of Capra, one director has another idea: George should have actually committed suicide. I could buy into that angle, too.)

In any case, Kamiya is right. Especially for secularists who see things in shades of gray, but for anybody who recognizes the difference between good, and thin, eventually tiresome escapism without nuance, IAWL, even for those of us longing for irredentist pasts, eventually becomes too much.

And, while I saw all the final five minutes in 2011, per the note at top, while it pulled a bit at emotional strings, no tears were jerked.


Unknown said...

Jim Parsons would be a great George Bailey.

Anonymous said...

It's obvious who should be George Bailey in the remake, Nicholas Cage.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I would be open to seeing a 21st century reboot of this Christmas classic. My dream cast...

Steve Carell as George Bailey
Embeth Davidtz as Mary Bailey
Mary Tyler Moore as Ma Bailey
Henry Thomas as Harry Bailey

Undecided when it comes to the roles of Potter, Clarence, Uncle Billy, Bert, Ernie, Violet, Martini, Pop Bailey, and the Bailey children (Pete, Janie, Tommy, and Zuzu).

If there were to be a reboot/remake, I'd want for it to be something respectful to this classic film's legacy.

Anonymous said...

If a remake or reboot of this classic Christmas movie were to become reality... I could picture either Warner Brothers, Sony, MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, or Universal acquiring film rights.

Thomas Jones said...

Good piece!

In a larger context, ask whether you might want to sit through "Miracle on 34th Street" or Capra's classic? In this case, I'll take the latter and largely because, despite its sentimentality and American Dream naivete, there is serious socio-economic and political content underlying it. So, yes, a remake is interesting in theory, but would probably flop at the box office without the special effects of, say, the remake of Cameron's Titanic, a movie that IMO is a bombastic and insulting piece of treacle.

When all is said and done, there are only two seasonal movies I can tolerate:

1. A Christmas Story (you'll shoot your eye out)

2. Scrooge (which invariably resurrects the pointless debate of which movie version is preferred)

Gadfly said...

Thomas wrote the year that Joyeux Noel came out. (I don't know if he saw it or not.) THAT is a real Christmas movie. (And, as a war movie, it doesn't get into war porn, unlike the typical modern American war movie.)