Sunday, July 19, 2009


"It's a Wonderful Life": the film is falling out of favor lately, largely because it's been on the vintage favorites list for a long time and people are looking for something new. Too bad, it's a great film. Anyway, I brought it up because I want to talk about one of my favorite sequences in the film, the one where Potter tries tries to buy off George Bailey with the promise of a high-paying job.

It's an interesting sequence because Potter's been treated as a one-note villain up to this point so you'd expect him to play the sequence in a high-hatted, "Take this offer or else!" kind of way. Instead Potter uncharacteristically tries to sweet talk Bailey. Watch the clip. It begins 4 1/2 minutes into the video.

Did you watch it? What intrigues me about this is that it's a simple attempt at bribery that doesn't add anything to the story, yet it manages manages to be one of the best scenes in the whole film. Think about it. We already knew that Bailey and Potter were enemies. We already had abundant evidence that Bailey preferred integrity to money. The sequence tells us nothing new, and yet....

What I'm going to argue here is that the sequence exists for a theatrical reason. Up till now the Potter part of the story simply laid down information. It took great pains to let us know who the good and bad guys were. That's fine so far as it goes, but live theater people know that audiences crave scenes where they can boo the villain...where they're tempted to yell, "Don't go in there, Dick! he's got a gun!" Even in the middle of a story, they want sequences that end with the patriotic triumph of right exemplified with angelic choirs waving the flag and the villain being hissed off the stage.

Not only that, but actors need scenes where they can shine and not simply be pawns racing ahead to the next plot point. In this sequence Barrymore gets to be sunny for a while. This means he can anchor his performance in a deliberately insincere sing-song, which live audiences love to re-act to, and actors love to play.

That's all I have to say on the subject of live theater and film, but I have a copy of "Cyrano de Bergerac" on the desk in front of me and it wouldn't be much trouble for me to scan in a couple of terrific paragraphs that I read last night. Let's goes!

Great, huh? Here's an excerpt from the same scene, a couple of pages later:

Wow! Good old Cyrano...a real force of nature!


Anonymous said...
what do you think of Gregory Gallants work?

Kurdt said...

Wonderful Life is falling out of favor? Thats so sad! I adore this movie.
My favorite part is Jimmy Stewart wooing his future wife by saying he'll wrangle the moon out of the sky for her. It's Capra-corny but incredibly sweet all the same.

Anonymous said...

I've heard lots of people call this film "overrated." So many, in fact, that it's probably underrated in terms of quality. It's truly a great film, one of my favourite Capras.

I've been writing a screenplay, and I've been using your blog, and especially the COMMENTS pages in order to try to learn about the many theories of theatre, dialogue, drama, plot, story, character, and other things I need to know about in order to make it good. I've also been reading the books and theories of some of my favourite writers and directors.

The part of this post that is relevant to all that is where you say, "What I'm going to argue here is that the sequence exists for a theatrical reason. Up till now the Potter part of the story simply laid down information. It took great pains to let us know who the good and bad guys were."

This directly contradicts David Mamet's theory that every part of the plot, every line of dialogue, must advance the plot. What do you think of this opposite theory, Eddie?

Of course, Mamet is borrowing ideas from Aristotle, and his Unities. Eddie, what do you think about Aristotle's Unities? Should they be used? If so, to what degree?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jorge: Wow! I'm glad you picked up on that paragraph, which contained what I consider a very important idea.

Mamet's dictum only applies to tight stories with plots that would be injured if you treated them any other way. You wouldn't apply that law to books like "Tom Jones" or "Pickwick Papers."

Sometimes what appears to be a digression is actually playing to the subtext of the story and therefore isn't really a violation of Mamet's law.

Aristotle is only a starting point. There's an awful lot that he doesn't mention. Modern theater really starts with Euripides. Too bad he didn't write a how-to book.

My unproven hunch is that that all writers should act in amateur theater for a little while, even if they can't act to save their lives. It's there that they'll learn to write sentenses and scenes that are actor-friendly and which please a live audience.

Anon: The link was fragmented. It took me to Lambiek's index, which didn't include Gallant.

Anonymous said...

Check out William Wyler's "The Little Foxes" for loads of this kind of stuff. Wyler is America's greatest film director, and this film is the pinnacle of his craft.

Lester Hunt said...

As he so often does, Eddie picks out what is great about a movie.

I guess his point is that the bribery scene enhances audience emotional involvement with the story. Surely a legitimate thing to do, and very Capra-esgue. If we interpret Mamet's dictum strictly, it would seem to mean the scene should only be included if George accepts the bribe (because then it would change the course of events). That seem way too narrow. I hope that's not what he meant.

I would also point out that the scene advances characterization. It strengthens our sense that Potter really thinks Bailey is acting wrongly. He has a different theory than Bailey does. He is not just a greedy jerk. Villains are more interesting if they represent an idea that makes some sort of sense.

I should also point out that, to a considerable extent, Potter is right and Bailey, and the film itself, are horribly, disastrously wrong. This country is yet to emerge from a banking crisis that, by all accounts, was partly caused by banks doing just what Bailey does in this picture: giving loans to people because they are nice people and deserve to own their own homes, and not because there is good evidence they will be able to pay the loan back.

If you value your life, you should pray for more Potters and fewer Baileys!

Anonymous said...

Rusty Spell said...

What this scene has done for me is even more specifically demonstrates what George is giving up. Like other heroes who sacrifice their lives, there's the devil temptation scene in which the devil shows the hero what he's really worth and capable of.

This scene also gives some good audio clips that will be used later in the "regret" montage George has in his head right before Mary tells him that she's pregnant.

Lester: You're so right about Potter, but I'll try to forget that when I watch the movie :)

One more thing: I've always thought that *It's a Wonderful Life* was the inspiration for the best elements of *The Simpsons*.

mike fontanelli said...

Barrymore is really playing off-type here. He was usually too likeable and sympathetic to play the villain - especially late in his career. He was more often cast in grandfatherly, family patriarch-type roles. (Capra himself used him as such - in YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, 1938)

But he was so good - and so believable - as Potter that the performance more or less became iconic. Barrymore's voice and vocal rhythms in this film were aped for years on TV - like Simon Barsinister in UNDERDOG - a quintessential "mad scientist" type.

(P.S: Wish't I had money - I'd fund Jorge's screenplay.)

Justin said...

"The link was fragmented. It took me to Lambiek's index, which didn't include Gallant."

I didn't write the original message, but maybe I can clear something up: "Seth" is the pen-name of a cartoonist named Gregory Gallant.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon, Ignatz,: It's hard for me to be objective about Seth's work. I like happy comics and he likes sad ones.

Lester: I too think Potter was a more socially useful man than the film gave him credit for, but it's still a great film.

Anon: Wyler was great!

Mike, Jorge: I know what you mean. Somehow i get the feeling that Jorge would be good at it.

Anonymous said...

(Blush!) That's honestly the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me!! Thanks, guys!

Lester Hunt said...


You're right, Barrymore is acting against type here. That's one of the things that adds some multi-dimensionality to the picture. In that era, it was more typical for Edward Arnold to play a role like this.

Anonymous said...

Do you like "understanding comics" by Scott Mcloud?

lastangelman said...

Phew! Finally! All day kept getting errors trying to log into comments ...

Anyway, THIS is my favorite scene in this movie, and for the record, I am NOT a big fan of It's A Wonderful Life - on the television. Wouldn't you be tempted to take Potter's offer, and to hell with the S&L? Some people do and some don't. It doesn't do much on the small screen, but I was cajoled into a theater presentation courtesy of Humana, and that's where the power of this movie works, in a proper movie theater, especially the scene where Potter tempts George. I heard about a dozen whispers of varying ways of "Take the deal" or "take the money, George", and this was BEFORE the current recession.

Instead of putting this movie on NBC for one showing and on cable channels each holiday season, they should put it out in theaters at bargain matinee price during Christmas. I don't know if they'd clean up or go bust, but it's a very relevant and powerful piece of melodrama for the big screen for today's turbulent times.

mike fontanelli said...

Lester, did you know that Edward Arnold changed Uncle Eddie's diaper once? Ask Eddie to tell you about it. (Of course, Eddie was 25 at the time...)

buzz said...

re Mamet's dictum, the first rule of any art is to never bore the audience. If a writer/director/creator can make drying paint interesting, let the paint dry!

That being said, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a VERY tight script, and nothing in it is wasted. The face to face bribe offer may not contain new expository information but it does allow Potter a chance to see bailey up close (and, more importantly, to let the audience know he has seen Bailey up close). This way his later deceit and conniving is more rational insofar has he has knowledge of how he thinks Bailey will react.

pappy d said...

I'm with lastangelman. If it was my wonderful life & not a movie, I'd have taken the money & probably felt that I'd won a moral victory besides. When Barrymore pops into that little grandfatherly take at the end of the line,"...maybe a trip to Europe?", my heart just melts.

Happily, Frank Capra won't just settle. As the screenwriter, this does create problems for him later in the story & the only way to pull it out is to involve an active & engaged Supreme Deity.

Even so, Capra sure keeps me emotionally involved. It's what I imagine it must feel like to be Italian.

This purpose of this sequence seems to be to simply raise the stakes. I think he did it with economy.