Great Characters: Clarence (“It’s A Wonderful Life”)

December 21st, 2012 by

This month’s Great Character theme: Christmas. Today: Jason Cuthbert’s guest post features Clarence from the 1946 movie It’s A Wonderful Life [screenplay Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, story by Philip Van Doren Stern].

When it comes to “trixter” characters in movies, those who can keep us entertained while manipulating the protagonist to get their way – Clarence the “Angel Second Class”, in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, is one who will do what he must to earn his wings. But he also has enduring “mentor” traits in his screenplay DNA as well, as he guides the suicidal George Bailey (James Stewart) through his unlived alternate reality.

The affable angelic one – Clarence – was played by Henry Travers (Shadow of a Doubt, The Invisible Man), who was practically 60 years old when he released his first feature film performances in 1933. But Travers was already a veteran of the British theatre stage prior to the silver screen – and before playing the heavenly Clarence for the beloved director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night) in 1946.

It’s a Wonderful Life plot summary from IMDB:

An angel helps a compassionate but despairingly frustrated businessman by showing what life would have been like if he never existed.

As far as the specific scribes involved in crafting this timeless tale, it gets rather complicated, as can often be the case. Philip Van Doren Stern received story credit, with the screenplay duties being split between Frank Capra himself, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich – with a little magic sprinkled in from Jo Swerling for “additional scenes” and a few uncredited contributions to the screenplay from Michael Wilson. With these 12 eyeballs hovering over the pages, the end result is a fantasy film that has thought of everything. They brought the humor, the humanity, the heart break, the well-developed 2nd and 3rd string characters, and the subtle set-ups, like George Bailey’s idea for a pool under the floor of a gymnasium, followed by consistent pay-offs, like when a jealous rejected lover later opens up that floor for revenge.

The writing team saved the idea of having wasted scenes for the pesky amateurs, and allowed every idea that is introduced to come full circle, including Clarence’s angel assignment. Even with all of the wonderful life emerging from high concept elements like angels and Bailey seeing his world without him in it, there is still a smart book-ending framework. We begin with Clarence as a spirit without “flight flaps”, and end off with Clarence going from the human form of a senior citizen, back to his spiritual splendor.

We learn all about the life that George Bailey took for granted right along with Clarence – from his point of view. Clarence gets the early sympathy points as soon as we find out that he is not quite the most respected ethereal guardian to grace the unseen higher plains of existence.

CLARENCE: Sir, if I should accomplish this mission, I mean… um. Might I perhaps win my wings? I’ve been waiting for over 200 years now, sir, and people are beginning to talk.

He may be considered quite the late bloomer in graduating to the upper echelon of the after life, but on Earth – Clarence elevates to the level of a gracious, humble, otherworldly motivational speaker.

CLARENCE: Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?

George Bailey may not realize that he is worth his weight in love, but Clarence does.

CLARENCE: [In book inscription] Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.

Clarence is like that hilarious, but really wise uncle that has aged long enough to stop putting on airs to gain the approval of others. He has no problem showering Bailey in the truth about life, with answers that have “been there done that” juice spilled all over them. If Bailey is going to take any advice about not dieing, it might as well be from someone like Clarence, who has literally crossed that threshold already. Angel wings weren’t exactly available on a payment plan over at the Bailey Building and Loan Association. So unless Clarence wanted to wait another 200 years to fly high – he had to get creative to keep George Bailey breathing.

When you suddenly swoop down to planet Earth and try to convince a frustrated soul like the penny-scraping George Bailey that you are his guardian angel, and you look like you could use one yourself for even suggesting that – well, yeah…there might be a bit of resistance in the air. Especially when you are making a super outdated fashion statement – the “man blouse.”

Clarence spends his Christmas Eve enduring a freezing winter lake, getting the “stop your lying” glare…often, and aggressively getting kicked out of a bar for his angel talk – and never once stoops down to anyone’s level. Clarence gives service with a smile; all in the name of proving that love never loses value on the emotional stock exchange. All he wanted for Christmas was to be a truly airborne angel, so that he could do this guardian gig fulltime, and save even more lives, which makes Clarence a merry, merry GREAT CHARACTER.

I concur that Clarence wears a trickster mask a good deal of the time, but when you drill down to what his primary narrative function is, clearly he is a Mentor. He’s like the anti Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandalf: has the same white hair and aged presence, but a completely different, even daffy tone, a great example of how variable character archetypes can be.

What do you think of Clarence as a character? See you in comments to discuss.

Thanks to Jason (@A2Jason) for another great analysis.

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