Death by suicide – make it a wonderful life

It’s a Death by Suicide—

Uh, Make That, It’s a Wonderful Life

The marquee of the historic Strand Theater in downtown Seymour,

Connecticut, advertising the Capra holiday favorite ‘It’s an exquisite Life,’ December 15, 2013 Tonight,

following a decades-long Yuletide tradition, NBC will air Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece,

                                                                                                                                                              It’s an exquisite

Life. to not dive into the realm of Bah, Humbug and beyond, but recall that this is often the story of a

quintessentially decent and normal American who decides to kill himself and is saved only by divine



intervention or the actor Henry Travers, take your choice. More to the purpose (well, my point), I’m

compelled to means that the suicide rate within the all-American classic films of Capra, almost all of which

features a happy ending, exceeds that in the other body of yank narrative art, be it film, plays, or novels. By

this metric, Capra makes Eugene O’Neill appear as if a cockeyed optimist. Consider: The climax not just of

It’s an exquisite Life but also of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, Lady for each day, and

Pocketful of Miracles may be a suicide attempt that doesn’t quite come off (of the protagonists played by,

respectively, Stewart, Claude Rains, Cooper, May Robson, and Bette Davis), to not mention the suicide

attempt that does come off of the protagonist of The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Even more telling are the

consummated suicides of secondary or maybe incidental characters that Capra completely gratuitously

inserts into State of the Union (which begins with the dying father of villainous Angela Lansbury ending it all

with a gunshot) and therefore the comedy You Can’t Take It With You, during which an unsuccessful

business rival of heavy-turned-good-guy Edward Arnold also takes his own life. But it’s the Jimmy Stewart–

George Bailey suicide attempt in It’s an exquisite Life that cuts the deepest, because his guilt, his sin is that

the one that Capra clearly felt most deeply, and therefore the one that resonates because of the most

distinctly American—particularly, horribly, today. That guilt, that sin, is a failure. At a time when the phrase

“deaths of despair” has entered the common parlance, the god who punishes failure, poverty, the absence

of prospects, stalks our land. And it’s that god that Capra furiously sought to propitiate, as his

autobiography makes painfully clear. Forty-two years ago, I interviewed Capra in his Palm Springs–area

home, abutting the La Quinta club. It had been 16 years since he’d made a picture; he was angry at the

studios for thinking him too behind the days and angry at himself for fearing any picture he’d now make

would be a failure. The walls of his home office—a room not much smaller than the Senate chamber where

he’d set Mr. Smith—were entirely covered with photographs, personally inscribed to him, of about half the

prominent figures of the 20th century, proudly of place getting to Churchill and Marshall. Confirmation, if he

awakened within the morning feeling down, that he’d been a hit. Happy holidays. As Capra knew, we all

could use a light-weight within the winter’s gloom

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