It's a Wonderful Life: 3 Reminders of Great Screen Direction

SPOILER ALERT: (Wait, it’s 70 years old, never mind)

I've seen it a hundred times, but recently I included an It's A Wonderful Life virgin in my annual viewing of Frank Capra's holiday classic . As I thought about how he might be receiving it, one of the things that struck me about the film is how modern it feels. My friend was one of those individuals that occasionally has issues with older movies: "Oh, is this in black and white?" This led me to think about why this movie doesn’t feel like a 70 year old film.

Here are, perhaps, a few reasons:

Active Reaction Shots

Everyone knows how important reaction shots are. These are the shots that cut-away from the main action or character to reveal the reactions of another character watching. They emphasize an emotional arc of a character through the observations of another character. They help slow down a scene to make sure you get the crux of it, ensuring you didn't miss a fleeting line or a quick shot of action.There were a few examples from IAWL that wonderfully display the effectiveness of the reaction shot, yet takes them even further.

A few scenes into the film, after George is given the task of delivering poison, young Mary sits at the drugstore counter. She watches the boy, who "she will love 'till the day she dies", get reprimanded by his boss, Mr. Gower. Mr. Gower smacks young George on his bad ear. Cut to Mary jumping as she hears the slap on the side of his head. This way we get it twice. We have empathy for George of course, and with a single insertion of a cut-away shot, our empathy is expanded to two characters that we will quickly learn to love.

Another wonderful little shot is a reaction shot to Potter. Of course Capra does a great job introducing us to "the richest and meanest man in the county". But in the scene where George defends his caring attitude to the rabble of the town, and questions Potter's contempt for them, a cut- away reveals Potter covering his mouth to feign a yawn. A simple cut away to Potter listening, or eye rolling in the midst of listening to George's speech would have been effective, but I love his yawn. First, it motivates an edit because it is an action, but also communicates once again the character of Potter. He is bored with, and tired, of hearing these socialist ideals spouted continuously from the Bailey's. As we will see later, this weariness will lead him to do whatever he can to destroy the Building &Loan.

Another one of my favorites is Nick's reaction to Clarence and his status as an angel. This example may seem to go against the category of Active Reaction, but not when you consider it a set-up. George and Clarence are ordering drinks at “Nick’s” Bar after George’s life has been taken away. As Clarence tells George all about his "angelness", Nick watches from the other side of the bar with a stone cold stare, until he can't bare it anymore and throws them out. In true comedic fashion, Capra is setting up a joke here. And, in order for our hero being kicked out of a bar to be amusing and not depressing, a cut-away to the statuesque Nick, allows for the action-filled reaction of him kicking the both of them out. It's hilarious.

Slow Down Important Moments

It's all to easy to skip over important moments when shooting a scene, and then even later in the edit when you are concerned with boring the audience. The real trick is knowing when to slow down and when to move things along. When you get that down, you can start thinking about how to slow those important moments down.

Early on, we begin to feel the tension and frustration felt by George, as he is once again hindered from following his dreams of world travel. Harry is finally back home to take over the family business, but at the dinner table, George’s father asks him if he’d consider staying to continue operating the Building & Loan. In the midst of this shocking offer, Annie the maid interrupts their conversation. It’s just a pause in the scene, but it gives us a chance to catch up. “Did he just say what I think he said?” And, perhaps, it even gives us enough time to wonder how George will respond. He does respond, and let’s his feelings known to his father, setting up the crucial conflict that will carry the plot forward from that point.

Later on, when George’s frustrations come to head with an apparent way out, Potter offers him a job. At first, it seems like George will finally give in to his life-long adversary, and take hold of the opportunity to achieve his dreams of experiencing the world outside of Bedford Falls. Of course, that would mean bowing to Potter, and abandoning the town’s people who have learned to rely on him. Pleased with the offer, but requesting time to think it over he shakes Potter’s hand. And he holds it, and looks at it, and then looks inside of himself. Capra has once again given us enough time to recall all of the events of George’s past so as to calculate what must be going on in George’s head. Finally, George wakes up, and stands up to Potter by refusing his offer, ashamed of himself for even considering it.

Also, to track backwards a bit in the same scene, I love the decision to have George drop his lit cigar in his lap upon hearing Potter’s unbelievable offer. Again, we have just enough time to chuckle, but also calculate what this opportunity will mean for George and his family. These are the little things that set the pace, and keep the audience in the story, not only as fly-on-the-wall observers, but as empathetic compatriots with our friend George Bailey.

Don’t Just Say Things, Break Things.

When people are frustrated, they complain. When they are at their wits' end, they break things.

For the first half of the film, Mary’s story has been tangental. Although she reveals her intention to love George ’til the day she dies in the opening scene, her presence in the story seems nothing more than yet another source of George’s dissatisfaction. Mary makes another advance on loner George after Harry’s wedding party. To her dissatisfaction, he confirms her biggest fear: George does not want to be married. All is lost. As he storms out of the house, and her mother encourages her courtship with Sam “Hee-Haw” Wainwright, she is at her wits' end, and smashes the “Buffalo Girls” record to pieces. It is at this point that Mary becomes more than a side character. Her emotions are charged, and we empathize with her. Our frustrations can only now be erased if and when they finally get together. And, in a cathartic relief a few moments later, we are ecstatic when they finally do, but the pleasure in that moment would have surely been lessened if she has simply let that record play on.

Later, as George’s life is falling apart, as he waits for the authorities to come haul him off to jail for losing eight thousand dollars, he regrets everything his life has come to be. He regrets having so many kids, and being forced to bring them up in a broken down, drafty house. In the midst of these regrets, he finally accepts that his boyhood dreams will never come to pass. However, he does not say this, he shows us. He shatters a model bridge set up in a small corner away from the kids, presumably a hobby he has picked up to hold onto that boyhood dream in a small way. It’s over; it will never happen for him. And, at the moment, he has nothing else to be happy about. Of course, after being given his gift of perspective from Clarence, he comes to realize how wonderful his life is. Although his childhood fantasies never came to pass, the life that eventually happened to him was indeed amazing, and one that he could be thankful for.

Although I don’t think these moments can be considered ground-breaking, then or now, these simple choices in scene direction are wonderfully efficacious in adding spice to the narrative, and they help transform “Its a Wonderful Life” from a nice little Christmas movie into one of the most inspiring films ever made.