It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
directed by Frank Capra
A Little History
It’s a Wonderful Life is a 1946 American Christmas fantasy drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra, based on the short story The Greatest Gift, which Philip Van Doren Stern wrote in 1939 and privately published in 1945. The film is considered one of the most loved films in American cinema and has become traditional viewing during the Christmas season, alongside popular classics such as Holiday Inn, A Christmas Carol, White Christmas, Meet Me in St. Louis and Miracle on 34th Street.
The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be had he never been born.
Despite initially performing poorly at the box office due to high production costs and stiff competition at the time of its release, the film has come to be regarded as a classic and is a staple of Christmas television around the world. Theatrically, the film’s break-even point was actually $6.3 million, approximately twice the production cost, a figure it never came close to achieving in its initial release. An appraisal in 2006 reported: “Although it was not the complete box office failure that today everyone believes … it was initially a major disappointment and confirmed, at least to the studios, that Capra was no longer capable of turning out the populist features that made his films the must-see, money-making events they once were.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is considered one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made. It was nominated for five Oscars and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, placing # 11 on its initial 1998 greatest movie list, and would also place # 1 on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time.
The original story The Greatest Gift was written by Philip Van Doren Stern in November 1939. After being unsuccessful in getting the story published, he decided to make it into a Christmas card, and mailed 200 copies to family and friends in December 1943.The story came to the attention of RKO producer David Hempstead, who showed it to Cary Grant’s Hollywood agent, and in April 1944, RKO Pictures bought the rights to the story for $10,000, hoping to turn the story into a vehicle for Grant. RKO created three unsatisfactory scripts before shelving the planned movie, and Grant went on to make another Christmas movie staple, The Bishop’s Wife.
At the suggestion of RKO studio chief Charles Koerner, Frank Capra read The Greatest Gift and immediately saw its potential. RKO, anxious to unload the project, in 1945 sold the rights to Capra’s production company, Liberty Films, which had a nine-film distribution agreement with RKO, for $10,000, and threw in the three scripts for free. Capra, along with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker brought in to “polish” the script, turned the story and what was worth using from the three scripts into a screenplay that Capra would rename It’s a Wonderful Life. The script underwent many revisions throughout pre-production and during filming. Final screenplay credit went to Goodrich, Hackett and Capra, with “additional scenes” by Jo Swerling.
Seneca Falls, New York claims that when Frank Capra visited their town in 1945, he was inspired to model Bedford Falls after it. The town has an annual “It’s a Wonderful Life festival” in December. In mid-2009, The Hotel Clarence opened in Seneca Falls, named for George Bailey’s guardian angel. On December 10, 2010, the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum opened in Seneca Falls, with Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the movie, cutting the ribbon.
Editor’s note: Stars Hollow, the fictionalized town in the television series Gilmore Girls, reminds me of Bedford Falls. It as been said that Bedford Falls was an inspiration, though it has also be theorized that Capra would not have appreciated the “quaint for quaint sake” that Stars Hollow seems to perpetuate (as do other “small towns“, including Sierra Madre, my neighboring town where my family owns a coffee place, where they will not allow a stop light to be put in).
Both James Stewart (from Indiana, Pennsylvania) and Donna Reed (from Denison, Iowa) came from small towns. Stewart’s father ran a small hardware store where James worked for years. Reed demonstrated her rural roots by winning an impromptu bet with Lionel Barrymore when he challenged her to milk a cow on set.
It’s a Wonderful Life was shot at RKO Radio Pictures Studio in Culver City, California, and the 89 acre RKO movie ranch in Encino, where Bedford Falls consisted of Art Director Max Ree’s Oscar winning sets originally designed for the 1931 epic film Cimarron that covered 4 acres, assembled from three separate parts, with a main street stretching 300 yards (three city blocks), with 75 stores and buildings, and a residential neighborhood.For It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra built a working bank set, added a tree-lined center parkway, and planted 20 full grown oak trees to existing sets.
Pigeons, cats, and dogs were allowed to roam the mammoth set in order to give the “town” a lived-in feel. Due to the requirement to film in an “alternate universe” setting as well as during different seasons, the set was extremely adaptable. RKO created “chemical snow” for the film in order to avoid the need for dubbed dialogue when actors walked across the earlier type of movie snow, made up of crushed cornflakes. Filming started on April 15, 1946 and ended on July 27, 1946, exactly on deadline for the 90-day principal photography schedule.
RKO’s movie ranch in Encino, a filming location of Bedford Falls, was razed in 1954. There are only two surviving locations from the film. The first is the swimming pool that was unveiled during the famous dance scene where George courts Mary. It is located in the gymnasium at Beverly Hills High School and is still in operation as of 2013. The second is the “Martini home“, at 4587 Viro Road in La Cañada Flintridge, California.
During filming, in the scene where Uncle Billy gets drunk at Harry and Ruth’s welcome home/newlyweds’ party, George points him in the right direction home. As the camera focuses on George, smiling at his uncle staggering away, a crash is heard in the distance and Uncle Billy yells, “I’m all right! I’m all right!” Equipment on the set had actually been accidentally knocked over; Capra left in Thomas Mitchell’s impromptu ad lib (although the “crashing” noise was augmented with added sound effects).
No better way to start a month of Holiday movies and specials watch than with Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a favorite of mine since I stumbled on it in the middle of a Christmas Eve night when I was eleven years old. It was on my old black and white television, a small one that I thought was fantastic that I kept in the corner of my bedroom next my stereo. I did not catch it from the beginning so I did not know the name of it, but I sat there in front of the tiny screen entranced, and emotionally moved, by the story of George Bailey. The next morning I proudly announced that I had discovered the best movie ever, only to find out that it was a holiday staple that played ever Christmas Eve. Nonetheless, the special connection I made with it that night, when I did not know its name, nor its popularity, has stuck with me making it one of my all-time favorite holiday films.
The alternate reality lesson that occurs in the film is one of my favorite “genres” or “tropes” of storytelling. I have spent countless sleepless nights contemplating how reality could shift if one decision was different, or if one person’s life did not touch the other, a notion that I have always found deeply fascinating. We all touch life and lives so much more than we ever realize, I do believe.
This re-watch was shared with my oldest daughter who had never seen the film before. She enjoyed it, though she did point out that Clarence seems to have no trouble showing George that without him his Brother would be dead and his Uncle would be institutionalized, but hesitates showing George that Mary would be unmarried (an “old maid“), suggesting that an unmarried woman was a bigger tragedy than death or insanity. I had not considered that before, but she does make a fine point. It is part and parcel to the time period of the movie, but nonetheless, I can see how that detail bothered her.
There is a rumor that a sequel will be made, set to release in 2015, to be called It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story. It is said to be written by Bob Farnsworth and Martha Bolton and follow the angel of George Bailey’s daughter Zuzu (played once again by Karolyn Grimes), as she teaches Bailey’s evil grandson how different the world would have been if he had never been born. It is also rumored that they have yet secured the proper permission and paperwork to make this happen. I, for one, hope it never does. I want the movie to be left, as is, with the scene of George, Mary and their children celebrating with all the townsfolk and friends. I don’t think we need any more than that.