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12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | Day 12: "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Frank Capra, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) opens on Christmas Eve 1945, when angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) is sent to Earth to stop George Bailey (James Stewart) from committing suicide. In preparation for his task, Clarence is shown flashbacks of George's life. At age 12, George saved his brother Harry (Todd Karns) from drowning in an icy pond and prevented his druggist boss, Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner), from accidentally prescribing poison to a child. After the death of his father (Samuel Hinds) in 1928, George is forced to postpone his plan to travel the world to take over the family's building and loan society to keep Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the richest and meanest man in Bedford Falls, from having  financial control over the town.

Four years later, Harry returns home from college with a wife (Virginia Patton) and the promise of a good job in New York. Once again, George postpones his plans and continues running Building and Loan. In the meantime, he marries former classmate Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), but is forced to use the money saved for their honeymoon to weather a bank run. World War II comes and goes and George is still in Bedford Falls with Mary and their four children. On the morning before Christmas 1945, George's absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces a large sum of the business's money, which Potter finds and keeps. Realizing that he will face bankruptcy and possibly a prison term for embezzlement, George desperately begs Potter for a loan, but is coldly turned down. After arguing with Mary and his kids, George gets drunks and staggers to a bridge to commit suicide, wishing he had never been born. At that point, Clarence grants his wish and shows him what life would have been like without him: Bedford Falls in now sleazy Pottersville and George's friends and family are either dead, ruined or miserable. Most horrific of all, Mary is a librarian and a spinster. Unable to face what might have been, George begs to live again. His prayer is answered and he runs home joyously to find that the townspeople have donated more than enough money to cover the loss. Just then, a bell on the Christmas tree rings and George's younger daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) recalls the story that it means an angel has just earned his wings. Attaboy, Clarence.

George Bailey: What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You... you want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey, that's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Mary.

While weighing his future in the last months of his Army service, Frank Capra was hoping to pick up where he had left off in Hollywood when Pearl Harbor interrupted his career. Just as he was doing then, he was looking for "a safe haven" as a studio contract director, preferably with a long-term deal. However, Hollywood showed an unusual lack of enthusiasm for Capra on his return from service in the Office of Information and studio offers were not forthcoming. Realizing that going independent was his only post-war option, Capra decided to form Liberty Films in April 1945 along with producer Samuel J. Briskin, who was later joined by directors William Wyler and George Stevens. Capra wanted his Liberty projects to focus on what he hoped was "safely noncontroversial, escapist subject matter," but struggled to find material he was truly enthusiastic about. Just as he was beginning to have doubts about the future of Liberty Films, Capra came across a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern called "The Greatest Gift."

Van Doren Stern was a historian and novelist widely respected by scholars for his books on the American Civil War. One day in February 1938, inspired by a dream that was slightly reminiscent of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, he began thinking of a story about an ordinary small-town American who contemplates suicide and is saved by his guardian angel, who makes him realize how valuable he is to his family and townspeople. Early attempts to write it failed, but Van Doren Stern often found himself telling the tale to friends and was encouraged by their response. In the spring of 1943, he finally succeeded in getting it right, with the addition of a Christmas setting. When "The Greatest Gift" was rejected by every magazine he sent it to, he decided to print the story in 200 twenty-four-page pamphlets, which he then sent to family and friends as Christmas cards. He also mailed one of these pamphlets to his Hollywood agend, Shirley Collier, who wrote back asking permission to offer the story to the movies. "I thought she was crazy," Van Doren Stern said.

Capra and Stewart on the set
A few months later, RKO saw a copy of "The Greatest Gift" and purchased the screen rights from Van Doren Stern for $10,000, envisioning Cary Grant for the lead role of George Pratt, later renamed George Bailey. Dalton Trumbo was hired to write a first draft of the script, which was later reformulated by Clifford Odets and Mark Connelly. While the rewrites provided several key scenes, including George saving Harry, George at Gower Drugs and George recruiting Mary on the night of the dance, RKO was unable to come up with what they considered a satisfactory screenplay. When Capra read the scripts, he too agreed that none "had the spirit of the original."

Nevertheless, Capra was so convinced of the story's potential that he decided to buy the material from RKO in September 1945. He then hired the married writing team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to help him develop a new version of the script, which he renamed It's a Wonderful Life. Before he was through adding his "Capraesque" touches, he employed three more screenwriters Michael Wilson, Jo Swerling and Dorothy Parker to "polish" certain scenes and pieces of dialogue. After a Screen Writers Guild arbitration, Capra was granted a screenplay credit with the Hacketts, while Swerling was acknowledged for "additional scenes." It's a Wonderful Life marked the first time since Forbidden (1932) that Capra had received screen credit as a writer and it would also be the last time the guild would grant him writing credit on one of his features, despite his attempts on subsequent films.

Donna Reed and James Stewart
When deciding on a cast for It's a Wonderful Life, Capra had only one person in mind for the role of George Bailey: James Stewart. Like Capra, Stewart had just returned from service in World War II and was suffering from his own newfound insecurities. In fact, he was so shaken by his war experiences that he was considering leaving Hollywood and return to his hometown to run his father's hardware store. As soon as Capra called him with an idea for a new film, however, Stewart immediately accepted the offer. "Frank," Stewart told Capra, "if you to want to do a movie about me committing suicide, with an angel with no wings named Clarence, I'm your boy."

Capra's "favorite actress," Jean Arthur, was the director's first choice for Mary Hatch Bailey, even though she (like Stewart) was considerably older than the script indicated. However, Arthur had to turn it down due to a prior commitment to star in the Broadway play Born Yesterday (she eventually left during tryouts and was replaced by Judy Holliday). Capra then approached Ginger Rogers, but she also declined the offer because "the woman's role was such a bland character." After considering Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott and Ann Dvorak, Capra finally found his Mary when he saw a 24-year-old beauty named Donna Reed in John Ford's war drama They Were Expendable (1945), in which she gave a touching performance as an Army nurse. Taken by her "girl-next-door" goods looks and warm personality, Capra immediately arranged to borrow her from MGM to appear with Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.

Coincidently, Stewart and Reed both grew up in their own small-town version of Bedford Falls. Born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Stewart spent much of his youth helping his father run the family hardware store, not unlike young George working at Gower Drugs. By his own account, Stewart was not a particularly dedicated student and had an adventurous streak that found him as a little boy planning an African safari with the help of his indulgent father. In the film, George says that he wants to build skyscrapers; in real life, Stewart had studied and graduated in architecture from Princeton before his acting career. For her part, Reed was born just outside the small farming community of Denison, Iowa. The oldest of five, she helped her parents keep order on the family farm and won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair for a tasty batch of rolls when she was thirteen. During location shooting for It's a Wonderful Life, Reed proved her farmhand skills by winning an impromptu bet with co-star Lionel Barrymore, who challenged her to milk a cow.

Henry Travers and James Stewart
Before borrowing Barrymore from MGM to play the cantankerous old miser Henry F. Potter, Capra considered several other actors for the role, including Edward Arnold, Raymond Massey, Vincent Price and Thomas Mitchell, who was later cast as George's uncle Billy. The character of Mr. Potter was not part of Van Doren Stern's original story; he was created by Capra "to give the film depth." Barrymore, who had previously worked with Stewart and Capra on the Best Picture winner You Can't Take It With You (1938), was in fact a natural choice for the part, as he was a famous Ebenezer Scrooge in radio dramatizations of A Christmas Carol at the time.

To fill out the principal cast, Capra hired several of his favorite character actors, "giving the film a feeling of nostalgic reunion." Playing George's guardian angel was Henry Travers, known for his portrayals of slightly bumbling but friendly and lovable old men. Born in England, Travers like Stewart trained as an architect before turning towards a career in acting. After twenty successful years of doing theatre in his homeland, he travelled to Hollywood to try his luck in the movies. Making his debut in Sidney Franklin's Reunion in Vienna (1933), Travers went on to appear in several of the most iconic films in American cinema, including Dark Victory (1939), Ball of Fire (1941) and Mrs. Miniver (1942), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Fun fact: the role played by Barrymore in You Can't Take It With You was originated by Travers on Broadway in 1936.

The character of Mr. Gower, Bedford Falls' town druggist and town drunk following the sudden death of his son was played by H. B. Warner, who actually studied medicine before becoming an actor. A popular silent film star, Warner saw himself relegated to supporting roles with the advent of the sound era, mostly due to his advanced age. Still, he found work in several high-profile productions and was a regular in films directed by Capra, having appeared in four of them prior to It's a Wonderful Life, including Lost Horizon (1937), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), starring Stewart in one of his most notable roles. The name Gower is a "Capra touch": Columbia Pictures, his employer during the 1930s, was for many years located on Gower Street. On that same street was also a drugstore that was a favorite hangout of studio workers.

James Stewart and Thomas Mitchell
In the role of Bert the cop was Ward Bond, an expert in gruff characters with a soft side. Among his more than 250 film credits are two American classics, Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). Ernie Bishop, Bedford Falls' kindly taxi driver, was played by Frank Faylen, who had already appeared in the same kind of role in no less than six pictures, including No Time for Comedy (1940), starring Stewart. Faylen's numerous portrayals of the trusty cabbie reportedly led a Los Angeles area taxi driver's union to make him an honorary member.

Appearing as cousins Tilly and Eustace were B-movie regulars Mary Treen and Charles Williams, each with over 90 films to their credits by the time they were cast in It's a Wonderful Life. Treen typically played "plain Jane" nurses, phone operators, waitresses and secretaries, while Williams was known for his quirky, bespectacled clerks, photographers and reporters. Assigned to the roles of George's honest, hardworking father and doting mother were Samuel Hinds and Beulah Bondi. A law graduate from Harvard, Hinds had previously worked with Capra and Stewart in You Can't Take It With You. For her part, Bondi was the most obvious choice for Ma Bailey, having already played Stewart's mother in four films, including the aforementioned Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Academy Award winner and Mr. Smith alumn Thomas Mitchell was cast at George's Uncle Billy, a part Capra first considered offering W. C. Fields. Ironically, Fields died on Christmas Day 1946.

Replacing David McKay and Betty Lawford as Harry Bailey and Violet Bick, a promiscous girl saved from disgrace by George, were Todd Karns, Stewart's fellow Army Air Force veteran, and newcomer Gloria Grahame. In addition, 13-year-old Bobby Anderson played young George, in what became the most famous role of his short acting career. Following It's a Wonderful Life, Anderson was given a small part in another Christmas classic, Henry Koster's The Bishop's Wife (1947), which, somewhat improbably, also centered around a wingless angel sent down to Earth to straighten things out. In his only scene, he gets tagged in the face with a snowball thrown by none other than Karolyn Grimes, who appeared as Zuzu in It's a Wonderful Life

Lionel Barrymore and James Stewart
When It's a Wonderful Life began filming on April 15, 1946, the atmosphere on the set was rather tense. Capra was unusually anxious and Stewart still had doubts about whether acting was an important enough profession for someone who had experienced what he had in the war. Aware of Stewart's insecurities, Capra asked Barrymore to give the star a "pep talk." "Jimmy, don't ever forget that acting is the greatest profession ever invented. When you act you move millions of people, shape their lives, given them a sense of exaltation. No other profession has that power," Barrymore told Stewart. Still, he was not convinced and told Barrymore that he did not think acting was "decent." In response, Barrymore asked Stewart "if he thought it was more 'decent' to drop bombs on people than to bring rays of sunshine into their lives with his acting talent." At that point, Stewart decided that acting was going to be "his life's work."

Everything seemed to click. After a week or so of working I just that it was gonna be all right, because I fitted in, and I hadn't forgotten the things I'd learned before the war. It still meant a lot to me. I could have sworn I'd never been away. It was Frank who really got me some confidence back in the business, and in acting. I knew from the way Frank took it that I could pick where I'd left off, that I still had what he liked from Mr. Smith, that I hadn't lost it. This was what had kept me awake nights.
(James Stewart) 

Fans blowing snow onto the set
Although it appeared to be a real city, Bedford Falls was built on four acres at the RKO ranch in Encino, California. (The production offices of Liberty Films were housed at RKO, which held the distribution rights to It's a Wonderful Life.) One of the largest sets ever created for a film, it spanned three city blocks and had over 70 storefronts and buildings, including a bank, post office and library. For additional realism, Capra ordered two dozen live oaks to be planted down in the middle of the street.

A stickler for details, Capra wanted the wintry scenes in It's a Wonderful Life to look and sound real. Up until that time, movie snow was typically made from cornflakes painted white, which produced too much noise when they fell. His snow scenes were created by using 3,000 tons of shaved ice, 300 tons of gypsum, 6,000 gallons of a water-foamite-soap solution and 300 tons of plaster, which were mixed together and then pumped at high pressure through a wind machine to make the silent, falling snow. The snow scenes were filmed over the course of 28 days between June and July 1946, when the San Fernando Valley was under a temperature of 90º F (32º C). Because of the hot weather, there is no breath mist and Stewart is seen sweating in a few shots, including the bridge scene. The famous Charleston contest sequence was shot at the newly built Beverly Hills High School gymnasium, after Capra heard about the moving floor covering the swimming pool, which is still in use today.

Capra wrapped principal photography on It's a Wonderful Life four days over schedule on July 16. The film was originally slated for an early January 1947 release, but at the last minute RKO rushed it out for a December 20 opening at the Globe Theatre in New York City, so that it would qualify for the 1946 Academy Awards. Despite an extensive publicity campaign mounted by Liberty Films, the box-office returns were disappointing; audiences found the film "old-fashioned" and chose to embrace instead the "astringent realism" of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by Capra's partner at Liberty, William Wyler, for producer Samuel Goldwyn. It is estimated that Capra spent nearly $3 million on the picture; a year after its premiere, it had grossed only $3.3 million, thus failing to make it into the top 25 of biggest moneymakers for 1947. 

The Bailey family
Critical reviews for It's a Wonderful Life were generally mixed. The Hollywood Reporter declared it "the greatest of all Capra pictures"; TIME described it as "a pretty wonderful movie. It has only one formidable rival (Goldwyn's Best Years of Our Lives) as Hollywood best picture od the year"; Newsweek called the film "sentimental, but so expertly written, directed and acted that you want to believe it"; LIFE categorized it as "a masterful edifice of comedy and sentiment," praising Stewart as "excellent [...] even after five years away in the Army, he seems the best leading man in pictures." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times deemed it a "quaint and engaging modern parable," but "a little too sticky for our taste." John McCarten of The New Yorker completely dismissed it, complaining that "Mr. Capra has seen to it that practically all the actors involved behave as cutely as pixies" and that the treatment of the story was "so mincing as to border on baby talk."

At the 19th Academy Awards held that the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in March 1947, It's a Wonderful Life received five nominations Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Stewart), Best Film Editing and Best Sound Recording but came away empty-handed, losing four of the statuettes to that year's masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives, much to Capra's chagrin. On the bright side, Russell Shearman and the RKO Special Effects Department won the Technical Achievement Award for their development of an innovative method of creating artificial snow.

It was only in the late 1970s, when the film became a television staple during the Christmas season, that the inspiring story of George Bailey was elevated to the status of a beloved American classic. Sixty-nine years after its release, It's a Wonderful Life has been recognized as one of the finest films ever made, praised particularly for its writing. Both Frank Capra and James Stewart have considered this to be the favorite of their films. As for me, It's a Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas film. I saw it for the first time on Christmas Eve last year and I completely fell in love with it. I saw it again last night and I loved it even more. It is one of those films that will warm your heart and make you realize that life truly is wonderful.

If you want to see the real Jimmy Stewart, you can find him in It's a Wonderful Life. Everything is magnified, but that's the closest you can come to the real Jim.
(Henry Fonda)

Donna Reed: A Bio-Bibliography by Brenda Scott Royce (1990) | Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride (2011) | Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn (2013) | The Essential It's a Wonderful Life: A Scene by Scene Guide to the Classic Film by Michael Willian (2006) | Zuzu Bailey's It's a Wonderful Life Cookbook: Recipes and Anedoctes Inspired by America's Favorite Movie by Karolyn Grimes and Franklin Dohanyos (2000)


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