Can’t recall offhand if I’ve written about It’s A Wonderful Life here before; most likely I have, not least because it’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I know I did mention the wonderful Donna Reed, the loveliest human female ever to grace the Earth, in this old post. And I’m quite sure I’ve expressed my contempt for the tiresome hipster douchebaggery that had every snotty twerp in hearing distance caviling about the movie as a lightweight, manipulative, sappy piece of schmaltz—little more than a standard-issue three-hanky weeper cranked out by the Frank Capra factory, noted for producing thinly-disguised propaganda flicks promoting those wretched, repressive old American values we’ve thankfully left in the dustbin of history.
Trust me: if you feel that way about this movie, you will NOT enjoy the rest of this post, which I will tuck below the fold to spare your finely-honed artistic sensibilities until such time as you grow the fuck up and cultivate a proper appreciation for Capra’s masterwork, a film that will far outlive anybody’s jejune cynicism towards it.
First, the bare facts:
It’s a Wonderful Life is a 1946 American Christmas fantasy comedy-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 considered one of the most loved films in American cinema and 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 at the box office because of 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 $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 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 this was his personal favorite among the films he directed and that he screened it for his family every Christmas season.
Some more interesting trivia: the movie was shot over the spring and summer of ’46 on RKO’s Culver City studio and movie ranch, and it was HOT that year. I read someplace long ago that temps went well into the 90s routinely that year, doubtless an effect of the early stages of Global Wormening™, and the filming was a miserably uncomfortable experience for everyone involved. I thought this was kinda interesting, too:
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.
Some more great trivia, from IMDB:
For the scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through the window of the Granville House, Frank Capra hired a marksman to shoot it out on cue. To everyone’s amazement, Reed broke the window by herself. She’d played baseball in high school, and had a strong throwing arm.
The gym floor that opens up to reveal a swimming pool was real. It was located at Beverly Hills High School in Los Angeles.
It’s still there, too, and still in use.
As Uncle Billy drunkenly leaves the Bailey home, it sounds as if he stumbles into some trash cans on the sidewalk. In fact, a crew member dropped a large tray of props right after Thomas Mitchell went off-screen. James Stewart began laughing, and Mitchell quickly improvised “I’m alright, I’m okay!” Frank Capra decided to use this take in the final cut, and gave the stagehand a $10 bonus for “improving the sound.”
If that sounds paltry to the point of insulting, just remember that those ten 1946 bucks would amount to, what, about thirty grand or so today. Ahem.
James Stewart was nervous about the phone scene kiss because it was his first screen kiss since his return to Hollywood after the war. Under Frank Capra’s watchful eye, Stewart filmed the scene in only one unrehearsed take, and it worked so well that part of the embrace was cut because it was too passionate to pass the censors.
And oh, what a beautiful moment it is, too. “It’s the chance of a lifetime…” Puddles me up right quick every time I see it, and I’ve been watching this flick for years and years now.
While filming the scene in which George prays in the bar, James Stewart has said that he was so overcome that he began to sob. Frank Capra later re-framed and blew up the shot because he wanted to catch that expression on Stewart’s face. That’s why the shot looks so grainy compared with the rest of the film.
Another golden moment as far as I’m concerned, and profoundly affecting, at least for me. A bit more detail on that snow:
Films made prior to this one used cornflakes painted white for the falling snow effect. Because the cornflakes were so loud, dialogue had to be dubbed in later. Frank Caprawanted to record the sound live, so a new snow effect was developed using foamite (a fire-fighting chemical) and soap and water. This mixture was then pumped at high pressure through a wind machine to create the silent, falling snow. 6000 gallons of the new snow were used in the film. The RKO Effects Department received a Class III Scientific or Technical Award from the Motion Picture Academy for the development of the new film snow.
And here’s more on the heat:
Despite being set around Christmas, it was filmed during a heat wave. It got to be so hot that Frank Capra gave everyone a day off to recuperate.
This one is…well, kinda ugly:
According to Robert J. Anderson, H.B. Warner really was drunk during the scene in which Mr. Gower slaps young George. Warner’s slaps were real and caused real blood to come from Anderson’s ear. After the scene was finished, Warner hugged and comforted Anderson.
Um. Okay then. This one I did not know until now:
In the scene at the dance in the high school gym, when George Bailey first sees Mary and approaches her, the young man talking to Mary is “Alfalfa” of Little Rascals fame in the uncredited role of Freddie Othelo. He is also in the scene where he turns the key that opens the gym floor to reveal the swimming pool.
And this one I did:
Both James Stewart and Donna Reed came from small towns; Stewart from Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Reed from Denison, Iowa. She demonstrated her rural roots by winning an impromptu bet with Lionel Barrymore when he challenged her to milk a cow on-set.
GOD, I love that woman.
When all’s said and done, anyone who can watch the whole movie up to the climactic, stirring final scene when George’s friends all show up to donate their little all to help out in his most trying hour (even old Potter returning the 8 grand Uncle Billy had left in his vile clutches!), and Harry offers a toast “To my brother George—the luckiest guy in town” and not choke up at least a little is just not someone I really want to know, dammit. It’s a damned character flaw is what it is, indicative of a possibly dangerous derangement at the very least.
But that ain’t the only deeply moving scene, not by yards and yards. Another of my all-time favorite moments is when Bert and Ernie bring George home to the “leaky, drafty old barn of a house” at 320 Sycamore and usher him inside. George is flabbergasted by Mary’s transformation of a couple of run-down rooms into a serviceable kitchen and bedroom, and just stands there, hands on hips, smiling at her in stunned surprise. The look she gives him back is the one every man on Earth wants to see on his woman’s face when she looks at him: nearly beatific, eyes shining, the love in her a nearly palpable thing, a presence in the room in its own right. Uncontainable; warm; deep and joyous; enveloping but not smothering, just a thing of perfect natural beauty.
Oh, and did you know that they named Sesame Street’s famous Bert and Ernie after the characters in the movie? Of course you did. (Some of Henson’s colleagues adamantly deny this, though).
So go watch it again without guilt or shame if it hasn’t aired yet in your area. Myself, I watched it last night when it aired on USA Network, and will very likely watch it again before Christmas is upon us; I bought the DVD almost the moment it came out, see, and I treasure it. They just ain’t making them like It’s A Wonderful Life anymore. In truth, I doubt they even can, and I’m near certain they wouldn’t want to. Either way, that’s a damned shame. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without it, as far as I’m concerned.