Sunday, December 13, 2015
It's a Wonderful Life
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 published privately in 1945. The film is now among the most popular in American cinema and because of numerous television showings in the 1980s has become traditional viewing during the Christmas season.
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 financially because of high production costs and stiff competition at the time of its release, the film has come to be regarded as a classic. Theatrically, the film's break-even point was $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 one of the most acclaimed films ever made, praised particularly for its writing. It was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, placing number 11 on its initial 1998 greatest movie list, and would also place number one on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time. Capra revealed that the film was his personal favorite among those he directed, adding that he screened it for his family every Christmas season.
In Bedford Falls, New York, on Christmas Eve 1945, George Bailey is suicidal. Prayers for him reach Heaven. Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to save George in order to earn his angel wings. To prepare Clarence, his superior Joseph shows flashbacks of George's life.
At age 12, George saves his younger brother Harry, who fell through the ice on a pond, costing George the hearing in one ear. Later, he catches a potentially deadly mistake made by his boss the druggist, who was distracted by the news of the sudden death of his son.
On Harry's graduation night in 1928, George discusses his dreams of travel and building things with admiring classmate Mary Hatch. Suddenly, George's uncle, Billy, informs him that his father had a stroke. Following his father's death, George postpones his plans in order to sort out the affairs of the family business, the Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan, a longtime irritant to Henry F. Potter, the richest man in town. He talks the board of directors into rejecting Potter's proposal to dissolve the company, but they agree only on condition that George run it. He gives his college money to Harry for his education. George waits for Harry to graduate from college and replace him at the Building and Loan.
When Harry graduates, he brings home a wife, whose father has offered Harry a job. Although Harry vows to decline the offer for his brother's sake, George cannot deny him such a great opportunity and keeps running the Building and Loan. George marries Mary, and is forced to use the money saved for their honeymoon to weather a bank run.
George starts Bailey Park, an affordable housing project. Potter, losing tenants, tries to hire him away, offering the 28-year-old a huge salary and the promise of business trips to Europe, appealing to his yearning to travel. George angrily rejects the offer.
George is unable to enlist for World War II because of his bad ear. Harry, however, becomes a navy flier and is awarded the Medal of Honor. On Christmas Eve morning 1945, the town prepares a hero's welcome for Harry. Uncle Billy goes to Potter's bank to deposit $8,000 for the Building and Loan. After bragging to Potter about Harry, Billy absentmindedly leaves the money behind, and Potter keeps it.
When Uncle Billy cannot find the money, he and George frantically search for it. After berating his uncle for endangering the Building and Loan, George goes home and destroys his corner of the living room. He apologizes to his frightened wife and children, then leaves.
Desperate, George appeals unsuccessfully to Potter for a loan. Potter tells him his life insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. George gets drunk, gets into a bar fight, and crashes his car into a tree. He staggers to a nearby bridge to commit suicide. Unbeknownst, Clarence has been watching him from the shadows.
Before he can jump, Clarence jumps in the river and pretends to be drowning. George rescues him, but does not believe Clarence's claim to be George's guardian angel. When George wishes he had never been born, Clarence shows him what life would have been like without him. Bedford Falls is now named Pottersville and is filled with cocktail bars, casinos, and gentlemen's clubs. The old druggist went to prison for manslaughter (because George was not there to catch his mistake), and his father's business had failed due to Uncle Billy's incompetence.
George attracts police attention and flees to his embittered mother's home, now a boarding house. She reveals that Uncle Billy was institutionalized after the stock market crash. In the cemetery where Bailey Park would have been, George discovers the grave of his brother, who drowned without his intervention. Consequently, the hundreds of servicemen Harry would have saved are also dead. Mary is a timid spinster working at the library.
George runs back to the bridge and begs for another chance. His prayer is answered, and he runs home joyously, but the authorities are waiting there to arrest him. Mary and Uncle Billy rally the townspeople, who donate more than enough to cover the loss. Harry toasts "the richest man in town." A bell on the Christmas tree rings, and his daughter recalls the story that it means an angel has just earned his wings.
James Stewart as George Bailey
Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey
Henry Travers as Angel Clarence Odbody
Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Henry F. Potter
Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy Bailey
Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey
Frank Faylen as Ernie Bishop, the cab driver
Ward Bond as Bert, the cop
Gloria Grahame as Violet Bick
H.B. Warner as Mr. Gower, druggist
Frank Albertson as Sam "I-A" Wainwright
Todd Karns as Harry Bailey
Samuel S. Hinds as Peter "Pop" Bailey, George's father
Lillian Randolph as Annie, the Baileys' maid
Virginia Patton as Ruth Dakin Bailey, Harry's wife
Mary Treen as Cousin Tilly, employee
Charles Williams as Cousin Eustace, employee
Sarah Edwards as Mrs. Hatch, Mary's mother
Harold Landon as Marty Hatch
William Edmunds as Mr. Giuseppe Martini
Argentina Brunetti as Mrs. Martini
Sheldon Leonard as Nick, Martini's bartender
Bobby Anderson as Little George Bailey
Jean Gale as Little Mary Hatch
Jeanine Ann Roose as Little Violet Bick
George Nokes as Little Harry Bailey
Frank Hagney as Potter's mute aide
Charles Lane as Potter's rent collector
Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu Bailey
Larry Simms as Pete Bailey
Carol Coombs as Janie Bailey
Jimmy Hawkins as Tommy Bailey
Charles Halton (uncredited) as Mr. Carter, bank examiner
J. Farrell MacDonald (uncredited) as the man whose grandfather planted the tree
Harry Holman (uncredited) as Mr. Partridge, college teacher
Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (uncredited) as Freddie, Mary's annoying high school suitor
Dick Elliott (uncredited) as the fat man on the porch
Tom Fadden (uncredited) as the bridge caretaker
Stanley Andrews (uncredited) as Mr. Welch, teacher's husband
Al Bridge (uncredited) as the sheriff with arrest warrant
Ellen Corby (uncredited) as Miss Davis
Max Wagner (uncredited) as the cashier/bouncer at Nick's Bar
Marian Carr (uncredited) as Jane Wainwright, Sam's wife
Adriana Caselotti (uncredited) as the singer in Martini's Bar
Joseph Granby (uncredited voice) as Angel Joseph
Moroni Olsen (uncredited voice) as the Senior Angel
The contention that James Stewart is often referred to as Capra's only choice to play George Bailey is disputed by film historian Stephen Cox, who claims that "Henry Fonda was in the running."
Although it was stated that Jean Arthur, Ann Dvorak, and Ginger Rogers were all considered for the role of Mary before Donna Reed won the part, this list is also disputed by Cox, who states that Jean Arthur was first offered the part, but had to turn it down for a prior commitment on Broadway, before Capra turned to Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott, and Dvorak. Rogers was offered the female lead, but she considered it "too bland". In chapter 26 of her autobiography, Ginger: My Story, she questioned her decision by asking her readers: "Foolish, you say?"
A long list of actors were considered for the role of Potter (originally named Herbert Potter): Edward Arnold, Charles Bickford, Edgar Buchanan, Louis Calhern, Victor Jory, Raymond Massey, Vincent Price, and even Thomas Mitchell. However, Lionel Barrymore, who eventually won the role, was a famous Ebenezer Scrooge in radio dramatizations of A Christmas Carol at the time and was a natural choice for the role. Barrymore had also worked with Capra on his 1938 Best Picture Oscar winner, You Can't Take It with You.
H.B. Warner, who was cast as the drugstore owner Mr. Gower, actually studied medicine before going into acting. He was also in some of Capra's other films, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can't Take It with You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The name Gower came from Capra's employer, Columbia Pictures, which had been located on Gower Street for many years. Also on Gower Street was a drugstore that was a favorite for the studio's employees. James Stewart says in the film that he wants to build skyscrapers; he had studied and graduated in architecture before his acting career.
Jimmy the raven (Uncle Billy's pet) appeared in You Can't Take It with You and each subsequent Capra film
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.
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.