George Bailey: “Now we can get through this thing alright, we’ve got to stick together though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”
I hadn’t sat through Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946) for a very long time until a few days ago, and not surprisingly it floored me. The heartbreak that has been 2020 lingered in my thoughts as I watched this beloved holiday classic. In particular, the alternate universe to which George Bailey is sent by the Angel Clarence so he understands what life would be without him having been in it. “Strange, isn’t it?” Clarence muses. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” It feels like this entire year we have been living in “Pottersville.”
The scene that provoked the most emotional reaction from me was watching George and Mary dancing at the graduation party at the high school. Unbeknown to them, pranksters have turned the key and the gymnasium floor starts to divide – exposing the pool below. Doing the Charleston, George and Mary keep nearing the edge – the precipice – almost falling into the water. We – as the rest of the attendees – know they’re about to fall – and the camera does a close up of their smiling faces – making the best of what they have in the face of uncertainty. A few scenes later, George will declare to his future wife, “What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.” Don’t you wish we could be in Bedford Falls right now?
For many years, a jaded side of me made me not appreciate this film. I found it too sentimental. Keep in mind that my life trajectory had been the opposite of Bailey. I got out of my hometown and pursued my dreams. Bailey stays at home – guaranteeing that the town thrives. His heroism comes from his deep sense of duty to his family and his community. This whole 2020 I’ve been thinking about all the George Baileys out there – from the courageous workers at the front lines keeping us safe – to the employees at the supermarket who have been keeping our shelves stocked. There are so many exceptional people out there who do not know how exceptional they’ve been – who haven’t been thanked by us. What a difference they make in our everyday lives. Director Frank Capra had done service in World War II, and “It’s A Wonderful Life” was a commemoration of the ordinary citizens of America who had made sacrifices for the greater good of our country.
The film was based on a self-published story by Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift.” It received a mixed critical reception when it first opened, and financially it wasn’t much of a success. It was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture – but that was the year of “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Because of a clerical mistake that led to it not being copyrighted, the movie started showing regularly during Christmas and by the 1980s it was playing repeatedly on networks because they didn’t have to pay royalties. It became a holiday tradition – and it made audiences and critics alike rediscover this masterpiece.
This recent visit I was admiring the structure of the narrative that Capra and his writers devised. The entire film is a flashback of George’s life. After hearing the prayers of friends and family concerned about George’s despair, Clarence is shown his history. It’s not until about two thirds through when the past and present converge on the bridge where George wants to commit suicide, and then the story becomes a what-if sequence. After seeing the cruel possibilities of life without him in it, George literally begs for his life – and then things are played out in real time for the last fifteen heartwarming minutes. “Clarence! Clarence! Help me, Clarence. Get me back. I don’t care what happens to me. Only get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please. Please! I want to live again. I want to live again. I want to live again…..Please, God, let me live again.”
Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors. I’m particularly fond of his work with Hitchcock. He is indeed terrific as George Bailey. Who else could have played an extraordinary man who doesn’t know he’s extraordinary? He’s so likeable. It’s heartbreaking to see him being harsh in the last reel when facing despair. Donna Reed – who will eventually win a Best Supporting Actress for playing an embittered social club hostess in “From Here To Eternity” is so wonderfully wholesome and loving.
George Bailey: “You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider!”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Sling and NBC and to rent on Google Play, YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, Apple TV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra
Based on the story by Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by Frank Capra
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen and Gloria Grahame
Bringing “It’s a Wonderful Life” to the Screen
Before James Stewart was sent off to fight in the Second World War, he was one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. He’d appeared in 28 films, had been nominated for an Oscar for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and even won one for Best Actor a year later for “The Philadelphia Story.” He was riding high. But after spending three years fighting the Nazis in the US Air Force, the 37-year-old returned home in 1945 to find that everything had changed. His contract with MGM had run out, his agent had left the movie business, and he was suffering from what would later be recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder. “I was just a little bit scared,” he later recollected of his newfound circumstance. Then Frank Capra called. Capra – who had directed Stewart twice before, including on “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – wanted to pitch a film called “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The idea had come from the author Philip Van Doren Stern, who had become frustrated that he couldn’t get a short story published, and had sent it to friends as a 21-page Christmas card instead. When producer David Hempstead came across it, he bought the movie rights immediately. “You play a fella in a small town,” Capra explained to Stewart, as the latter would later recall. “You get married, you have all these kids, and your father dies, and you have to take over the building and loans. And finally, you’re going to kill yourself, you’re going to jump off a bridge, and an angel, by the name of Clarence, comes in to help you, but he can’t swim, so you go down and save the …” He trailed off. “This doesn’t sound very good, does it?” Stewart, desperate to work again and trusting in Capra completely, had just one question: “When do we start?”
That was a complicated question. The film, which was originally going to be produced by RKO Pictures, had a stuttering beginning. After creating three inadequate scripts – one of which was worked on by Dalton Trumbo – RKO had decided to shelve the project, before Capra came on board and immediately saw its potential. When he did, he recruited husband and wife writing duo Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett to help him polish the failed scripts into something coherent. The three did not get along. “Frank Capra could be so condescending,” said Hackett. “When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you’ll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We’re finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.” The pair were still given final credit, but it was Capra, with uncredited help from writers such as Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker, who finally cobbled together the rest of the screenplay. In April 1946, production finally began on the film. Immediately, the cast and crew felt certain they were making something special. Bedford Falls, the sleepy fictional town in which the story unfolds, was one of the largest American film sets ever created; sprawled across four acres, with 75 fake stores and buildings, a three-block main street, and 20 full-grown oak trees. For the wintry setting, the special effects department, unhappy with the traditional method of painting cornflakes white in place of snow, invented an innovative, exponentially more convincing chemical flurry. It wasn’t the scale or innovation of the film that had everyone on set so excited, but the power of the story itself. Stewart plays George Bailey, a young man with dreams of “shaking off the dust of this crummy old town”, becoming an architect, and travelling the world. But, gradually, he feels the walls of Bedford Falls closing in on him. Driven to the brink of suicide after a lifetime of sacrificing his own dreams for others, Bailey is visited by an angel called Clarence, who shows him what the world would have been like without him. “Each man’s life touches so many lives,” says Clarence. “When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” (independent.co.uk)
About Author Philip Van Doren Stern
Mr. Stern was born in Wyalusing, Pa., grew up in New Jersey, and graduated from Rutgers University. During his career as an editor, he worked for Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf. He served during World War II as general manager of Armed Services Editions, which made books available to the uniformed forces…Lewis Gannett in The New York Herald Tribune called Mr. Stern’s major Civil War novel, ”The Drums of Morning,” published in 1942, ”the long overdue fictional answer to ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ” The story centered on the efforts of the abolitionists in New England and Illinois to end slavery and it included wartime scenes, ranging from Fort Sumter to Andersonville Prison. In 1943, Mr. Stern wrote a 4,000-word Christmas message to his friends. It was published the next year as a fantasy called ”The Greatest Gift,” about a man who was brought to a realization of the joy of living after he had expressed a wish that he had never been born. In 1946, the fantasy became the basis for a Frank Capra movie, ”It’s a Wonderful Life,” with James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore…The author of some 40 books, his historical titles included ”The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln,” ”Robert E. Lee: The Man and the Soldier,” ”The Confederate Navy: A Pictorial History,” ”The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” ”They Were There: The Civil War in Action as Seen by Its Combat Artists,” ”Secret Missions of the Civil War” and ”An End to Valor: The Last Days of the Civil War.” (nytimes.com)
About Director and Screenwriter Frank Capra
Capra’s family immigrated to Los Angeles from Bisacquino, a Sicilian village, when he was six. After graduating in 1918 from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in chemical engineering, Capra received a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps commission and spent the last year of World War I teaching mathematics in the U.S. Army. For the next two years he traveled, doing odd jobs and working as a book salesman. Despite lacking any filmmaking experience, in 1922 he persuaded a San Francisco stage actor who wanted to make a movie based on poetry to hire him to direct the one-reel film, “The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House.” Capra then took a job with a San Francisco film studio and began learning about filmmaking from the ground up, working as film cutter, camera assistant, property man, writer, and assistant director. A stint as a gag writer for Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” film comedy series followed in 1924. Moving on to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company, Capra directed Harry Langdon in some of the silent comedian’s most successful films—including “The Strong Man” (1926) and “Long Pants” (1927)—but when the two had a falling-out, Capra was fired. In 1928, after directing Claudette Colbert in her unremarkable debut for the studio First National, “For the Love of Mike” (1927), Capra began his long association with Columbia Pictures and its head, Harry Cohn, as well as with cinematographer Joseph Walker…During his first year at Columbia, Capra directed seven silent features, mostly on B-film budgets: the melodrama “That Certain Thing; So This Is Love?,” a boxing-themed comedy; “The Matinee Idol,” a romantic comedy whose tension between big-city and small-town values anticipated some of Capra’s signature later works; “The Way of the Strong,” a crime melodrama; “Say It with Sables,” a melodrama that starred Francis X. Bushman; “Submarine,” a big-budget (for Columbia) action film; and “The Power of the Press,” with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as a justice-seeking reporter. As the studio moved into the sound era, Capra became Cohn’s most trusted director.
“The Younger Generation” (1929) was a part-sound drama about a man who leaves his family on New York’s Lower East Side to seek the good life on Park Avenue. Capra’s first all-talkie was the comedic murder mystery “The Donovan Affair” (1929). “Flight” (also released in 1929) was notable for Capra’s insistence on staging and filming all of its aerial action without tricks or special effects. “Ladies of Leisure” (1930) was the first of Capra’s films to star Barbara Stanwyck…Capra adapted the 1928 Broadway hit “Rain or Shine” for film in 1930…Capra’s next film was the ambitious “Dirigible” (1931), an expensive aerial adventure set at the South Pole. Stanwyck then starred again in “The Miracle Woman” (1931), a thinly disguised meditation on evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Playwright Robert Riskin, who would become Capra’s most essential collaborator, was one of the writers of “Platinum Blonde “(1931). Jean Harlow and Loretta Young starred in this comedy of manners, which owed much to Lewis Milestone’s “The Front Page” (1931) and foreshadowed the romances between female journalists and regular guys that would be at the centre the later Capra-Riskin efforts “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Meet John Doe.” “Forbidden” (1932) found Stanwyck again a victim of cruel fate; this time, as a woman in love with a married man, she is forced to become a murderer. In “American Madness” (1932) a compassionate bank president (played by Walter Huston) tries to stem the tide of Depression-panicked customers making a run on his beleaguered institution. Written by Riskin, the story would be recycled more than a decade later by Capra in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Its “little people versus heartless big business” theme would become a hallmark of Capra’s best-known works. “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933) was Capra’s most erotic work. Stanwyck starred as a missionary in civil-war-torn Shanghai; she becomes the unwilling guest of a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther), who falls hopelessly in love with her…Whereas “Bitter Tea” was not a commercial success, Capra’s next film, the sentimental “Lady for a Day” (1933), was.
Capra both produced and directed Riskin’s adaptation of Damon Runyon’s short story “Madame La Gimp.”…Lady for a Day was nominated for an Academy Award as best picture. Capra, who was also nominated as best director, would refashion the material less successfully in 1961 as “Pocketful of Miracles.” Capra’s “golden period” began with “It Happened One Night” (1934), the first motion picture to win an Academy Award in five major categories: best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, and best adapted screenplay…Capra’s second 1934 effort, the heart-tugging Broadway Bill, was less remarkable than “It Happened One Night” but not inconsequential…Capra returned to the screen in 1936 with “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” a smash hit that became one of the three or four films with which he is most closely identified…Capra received his second Academy Award for best director for “Mr. Deeds,’ which was nominated for best picture. Capra then took a full year, reportedly shot enough footage to make a dozen features, and spent more than $2 million (Columbia’s biggest budget to date) filming “Lost Horizon” (1937)…Made in under two months, the frenetic comedy “You Can’t Take It with You” (1938) was a dramatic about-face for Capra after the weighty “Lost Horizon.” George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a hit on Broadway, was adapted for the screen by Riskin…The film won the Academy Award for best picture, and Capra—who received his third award as best director and who by this point was being paid $100,000 per film—landed on the cover of the August 8, 1938, issue of Time magazine, which hailed him as “the top director of his industry.” Capra was already serving as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when he was elected to head the newly established Screen Directors’ Guild, and in 1939 he played a pivotal role in negotiating a settlement between the studios and the Guild.
Columbia had given Capra an uncommon amount of freedom (which he might not have had at a larger studio) as a producer-director who oversaw his own production unit within the studio. Convinced that a director should be responsible for every aspect of his projects, Capra advocated a “one man, one film” theory, and, as the head of the Guild and as a major player in the motion-picture industry, he fought for creative freedom for other directors. Capra’s deep belief in the importance of individual expression became as much a hallmark of the characters in his films as it was of his own filmmaking creed…The mixture of patriotism, idealism, and sentimentality found in the best known of Capra’s films was frequently called “Capra-corn” (even by the filmmaker himself), but with the passage of time it was more positively characterized adjectivally as “Capraesque.”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), one of the most Capraesque of the director’s films, was the story of a freshman senator from Montana who uproots pork-barrel corruption in the U.S. Senate at the risk of his own career… “Mr. Smith” earned 11 Academy Award nominations, including those for best picture, actor, director, and screenplay. It had been claimed as a project by Rouben Mamoulian, but Capra reportedly traded Mamoulian his claim on Clifford Odets’s play “Golden Boy” for the right to make Mr. Smith. It was the first Capra production since 1933 not written by Riskin, who had departed from Columbia; Riskin’s place was taken by Sidney Buchman, who had done some rewrites on “Lost Horizon.” Capra left Columbia after “Mr. Smith” and continued his examination of the American political system with “Meet John Doe” (1941), which was produced independently by Frank Capra Productions (essentially a partnership with Riskin) and released through Warner Brothers…Capra worked with Warner Brothers again on the motion-picture adaptation of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a huge stage hit whose creators sold its rights on condition that the film version not be released until the Broadway run had completed. As a result, although Capra finished filming in December 1941, the film was not released until 1944. While serving as a major in the Signal Corps (1942–45), Capra made a series of well-regarded documentaries titled “Why We Fight,” which were intended to increase American support for the war effort. The seven films, which consisted in large part of edited newsreel footage and scenes from Hollywood and foreign war movies, were made for a mere $400,000. Of these films only “Prelude to War” (1942), which shared an Academy Award for best documentary, and “Battle of Russia” (1943; codirected with Anatole Litvak) were released theatrically during the war. Capra left the army with the rank of full colonel and with a Distinguished Service Medal. Back in Hollywood in 1945, Capra joined with directors George Stevens and William Wyler as well as former Columbia executive Sam Briskin to form Liberty Films.
Liberty’s first release was “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), the now-classic Christmas tale about a banker driven to despair who wishes aloud that he had never been born and then gets to see how much poorer the world would have been without him. The source material for the film, “The Greatest Gift”—a short story that was originally sent to friends as a Christmas card by Philip Van Doren Stern and later published in Good Housekeeping magazine—was purchased from RKO by Capra and developed with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. (Jo Swerling also worked on it, as did the uncredited Dalton Trumbo and Dorothy Parker.)…Only after “It’s a Wonderful Life” was shown repeatedly on television in the United States beginning in the 1970s did audiences and critics recognize the film as Capra’s masterpiece. That recognition came too late for Capra and Liberty Films. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was the most expensive film of Capra’s career and left Liberty about $500,000 in the red after receipts were tallied. Ironically, the movie that Liberty partner Wyler had made outside the company at the same time, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” became the year’s biggest hit. Even so, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was nominated for an Academy Award as best picture, and Capra was nominated the sixth and final time as best director. Nevertheless, Capra and his partners sold Liberty Films to Paramount. Capra then worked for MGM on his next project, “State of the Union” (1948), based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway satire by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse…Capra’s first film of the 1950s was “Riding High” (1950)…After failing to get the romantic comedy “Roman Holiday” off the ground (it was ultimately made by Wyler in 1953), Capra did not make another theatrical feature film for eight years, which he felt was a consequence of subtle blacklist pressures for his political progressivism during the 1930s. He did, however, direct four hour-long programs for Bell Telephone’s television science series for children from 1956 to 1958. Capra’s final two films were “A Hole in the Head” (1959), in which Frank Sinatra starred as hotelier whose irresponsibility nearly costs him custody of his son, and “Pocketful of Miracles” (1961), a musical remake of “Lady for a Day” with Bette Davis, which failed to earn back its cost. As he revealed in his autobiography, “The Name Above the Title” (1971), Capra chose to retire after “Pocketful of Miracles” rather than adapt to the new post-studio-system filmmaking. He received a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1982. (britannica.com)