It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra’s sentimental classic remains astonishingly apt.

It’s a Wonderful Life
Directed by Frank Capra
Restored version to be broadcast on NBC Dec. 21 at 8 p.m.
Frank Capra’s sentimental classic remains astonishingly apt.

(1,304 words; posted Tuesday, Dec. 17; to be composted Wednesday, Jan. 1)

      I cry every time.
     After Mr. Martini, who busted the jukebox; Mr. Gower, who made the rounds of his charge accounts; Annie, who was saving that money for a divorce if ever she got a husband; and Sam Wainwright, who cabled up to $25,000–Hee-haw and Merry Christmas!--in walks war hero Harry Bailey, who saved all the men on that transport because his brother was around to save him. He raises a glass. “A toast,” he says, “to my big brother George. The richest man in town.”
      I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life dozens of times and I always cry at that moment, sometimes as early as the word toast. I even choke up when I try to tell people about how I always cry on that line. And, yeah, I know–it’s a setup.
ames Agee was right when, reviewing Frank Capra’s first postwar feature for The Nation, he called it “one of the most efficient sentimental pieces since A Christmas Carol.” He was not being complimentary, and he was not alone. Sophisticated East Coast critics generally considered Capra’s vision of George Bailey’s life in Bedford Falls to be pure plastic corn pone. “Indeed,” concluded Bosley Crowther of the New York Times,”the weakness of this picture is the sentimentality of it–its illusory concept of life.”      They might as well have attacked Christmas itself. This is the sentimental season, after all, as jury-rigged and mawkish as the most jury-rigged and mawkish thing Capra ever concocted (that would be A Hole in the Head, the 1959 comedy-weeper featuring Frank Sinatra as a hard-luck single dad). Christmas is the ultimate package deal, contrived by the fourth-century Catholic Church to co-opt the quite-popular orgies the Romans threw around the winter solstice; it was later ritualized in America by the 19th-century New York gentry, who invented formal gift giving and Santa Claus in a conscious effort to keep poor people in their homes for the holidays, rather than on the streets in drunken mobs, as was the fashion. (For an entertaining treatise on how Washington Irving and Clement Moore, among others, conspired to spread modern yuletide, read Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, just published by Knopf.)
he Christmas past we long for (before it got “commercial”) was largely spent longing for previous Christmas pasts; much of the Christmas cheer we get misty over was a product manufactured for consumption. Charles Dickens, who all but defined the meaning of Christmas, hammered out his Scrooge book in a few weeks because he needed the cash. Irving Berlin, a Russian Jew who grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, dreamed up a White Christmas, just like the one he never knew. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, now a beloved holiday television perennial, had a mythic birth only slightly more noble: as a promotion for a Chicago department store.      Which means that It’s a Wonderful Life falls squarely in the Christmas tradition–it was the most commercial project Frank Capra could think of. Fresh out of the Army (where he had produced the Academy Award-winning Why We Fight propaganda films) and embarking on a career as an independent producer-director, Capra was not in the mood to do anything risky. According to his biographer Joseph McBride, It’s a Wonderful Life was the vehicle Capra chose for his “desperate attempt to recapture his old commercial and artistic standing in Hollywood.” Even before Capra became involved, the story (a mediocre O. Henry imitation, “The Greatest Gift,” by Philip Van Doren Stern) had got the Hollywood treatment, having been thrown at screenwriters Dalton Trumbo (who later wrote Spartacus) and Clifford Odets (who later wrote Sweet Smell of Success). Capra threw it at five more writers, including Dorothy Parker, who reportedly did a dialogue polish. In casting, the director went with stars that would evoke the idea of a “Frank Capra” picture: James (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) Stewart, Lionel (You Can’t Take it With You) Barrymore, and Beulah Bondi, who had played Stewart’s mother in Mr. Smith. For Mary Hatch, Capra had his heart and wallet set on Jean Arthur, the tough cookie of both Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but she was otherwise engaged. (The sweet homemaker role went to the starlet Donna Reed only after a brief media flirtation with Ginger Rogers.) And lest his box-office intentions be misunderstood, at one point Capra even toyed with the idea of giving the Uncle Billy part to W.C. Fields.
ith a production budget of $3.18 million, It’s a Wonderful Life was Capra’s most expensive film to date and featured “the largest special effects crew ever assembled,” according to the publicity materials. Add all those screenwriters, a big star, and an auteur hoping for a hit, and these days you get Mission: Impossible. But Capra somehow managed, even under the weight of blockbuster expectations, to turn out a little movie with real passion and personality.      Though it might seem counterintuitive today, the script was actually improved by successive rewrites. An early draft, for example, ended with a good George Bailey fighting an evil George Bailey to the death on that iron bridge; another had Uncle Billy blowing his brains out. Even the final draft was not It’s a Wonderful Life; Capra, who received a screenwriting credit, scribbled some of the movie’s most classic lines on the shooting script. The director’s trademark reliance on scene-chewing character actors, each given their own bits of business, give the film a Dickensian richness sorely missing from movies today. And Capra’s exquisite timing and exacting balance of drama and humor were, if a tad overripe, still intact. It’s a Wonderful Lif e may not be Frank Capra’s best movie, but it is probably the most Capraesque.
he movie opened Dec. 21, 1946, in New York, and on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, and it lost about $400,000 despite generally positive reviews outside Manhattan. It did not become popular until it began being broadcast on television in the 1950s, and did not become a phenomenon until its copyright ran out in 1974 and television stations started playing it practically in lieu of test patterns.      The movie NBC is showing Dec. 21 is being touted as Capra’s “original version” of It’s a Wonderful Lif e. There are no lost scenes, however. “Original” is apparently NBC’s euphemism for black and white, but there is something special here. Republic Entertainment, which regained the copyright to the movie a couple of years ago, has applied “state-of-the-art technology” to restore the film’s picture and sound to the crispness of something approaching its 1946 state.
atching it is a little disconcerting. Sure, it’s nice to really see all those great character faces (bartender Sheldon Leonard, especially), to make new discoveries (those are dragons carved onto the back of Mr. Potter’s wheelchair), to finally understand what that old man is yelling on the porch (“Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?”). But the clarity forces you to judge it more as a movie than as nostalgia–and without the soft crackle and warm fuzziness that made it a cherished artifact of Christmases past, It’s a Wonderful Life is, in fact, hokey. Capra was a master at wringing maximum emotion out of every scene–which had to be sweet, funny, dramatic, and touching all at once–but he didn’t have a light touch. There are two shots in particular, both of which involve Jimmy Stewart walking to camera until his face fills the screen (quick, Capra buffs!), which–seen as intended–are a few notches beyond melodramatic.      I still cried, though. Not, strangely, on Harry Bailey’s last line, but a couple of other times, and at moments that were just as clearly contrived to make me weep. Capra jerked those tears out of me. They still felt pretty good.
Clips Harry Bailey toasts his brother George (Jimmy Stewart), “the richest man in town” (30 seconds): Windows or Mac; download time, 17 minutes at 14.4K
Real Audio; for sound only Links Karen’s “homemade” It’s a Wonderful Life page is one film lover’s “humble homage” to the Capra classic. Among many other things, it includes the script in its entirety. The Internet Movie Database serves up credits for the film and a filmography for Frank Capra. Cinemania reviews the film. Jimmy Stewart fans can head to the Jimmy Stewart Museum home page, a self-proclaimed “virtual extension of the museum in his birthplace of Indiana, Pennsylvania.” And true fans of It’s a Wonderful Life can check out this virtual city created out of Bedford Falls–it offers you the chance to participate in Capraesque civic life. (Warning: The site is in Italian.) Larry Doyle has written for television, the movies, and cartoons, and has published pieces in Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker.

Stills from It’s A Wonderful Life courtesy of NBC. Video and audio clips from It’s A Wonderful Life © 1995 Republic Entertainment Inc., ® a subsidiary of Spelling Entertainment Group Inc. All rights reserved.