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“It’s a Wonderful Life” 75th Anniversary (retro article)

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    Return to Bedford Falls: Remembering “It’s a Wonderful Life” on its 75th Anniversary



    By Michael Coate

    It's a Wonderful Life is truly the platinum standard in Christmas movies; the benchmark by which all other entries in the genre are judged. — Thomas A. Christie, author of The Christmas Movie Book

    The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 75th anniversary of the release of It’s a Wonderful Life, the Christmas classic directed by Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and starring James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story, Vertigo) and Donna Reed (From Here to Eternity, The Donna Reed Show).

    In 1990 the Library of Congress selected It’s a Wonderful Life for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and in 1998 the American Film Institute (AFI) recognized the film as the 11th greatest movie ever made. The film has been released countless times on home media formats with its most recent release (on 4K UHD) in 2019 (and reviewed here).

    For the occasion of the film’s anniversary, The Bits features an interview with a trio of film historians and scholars who reflect on the film.

    Thomas A. Christie is the author of numerous books about Christmas-themed movies including A Very Spectrum Christmas: Celebrating Seasonal Software on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Extremis, 2021), The Golden Age of Christmas Movies (Extremis, 2019), The Golden Age of Christmas Movies: Festive Cinema of the 1940s and 50s(Extremis, 2019), A Righteously Awesome Eighties Christmas (Extremis, 2016), andThe Christmas Movie Book (Crescent Moon, 2011). A third volume in his four-part history of 20th century Christmas movies is due to be released in 2022. The United Kingdom-based Christie has written several other books, among them John Hughes FAQ (Applause, 2019), Contested Mindscapes: Exploring Approaches to Dementia in Modern Popular Culture (Extremis, 2018), The Spectrum of Adventure: A Brief History of Interactive Fiction on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Extremis, 2016), Mel Brooks: Genius and Loving It! (Crescent Moon, 2015), The James Bond Movies of the 1980s (Crescent Moon, 2013), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Pocket Movie Guide(Crescent Moon, 2010), John Hughes and Eighties Cinema: Teenage Hopes and American Dreams (Crescent Moon, 2009), and The Cinema of Richard Linklater(Crescent Moon, 2008). He is a member of the Royal Society of Arts, the Royal Society of Literature, the Society of Authors, and the Federation of Writers Scotland. His work on Richard Linklater was featured at an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2019, and his work on Mel Brooks was featured in conjunction with the Banco do Brasil Cultural Centre in Rio de Janeiro in 2020.

    Steve Cox is the author of over twenty books on pop culture including It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book (Cumberland House, 2005). Other works include The Beverly Hillbillies: A Fortieth Anniversary Wing Ding (Contemporary Books, 1988; revised edition HarperCollins; third edition Cumberland House, 2002), The Munchkins Remember: The Wizard of Oz and Beyond (E.P. Dutton, 1989), Here’s Johnny!: Thirty Years of America’s Favorite Late-Night Entertainer (Crown Books, 1992; revised edition Cumberland House, 2002), The Hooterville Handbook: A Viewer’s Guide to Green Acres (St. Martin’s Press, 1993), The Addams Chronicles: An Altogether Ooky Look at the Addams Family (Cumberland House, 1998), Dreaming of Jeannie: TV’s Prime Time in a Bottle (with Howard Frank; St. Martin’s Press, 2000), The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane (Watson-Guptill/Backstage Books, 2006), One Fine Stooge: Larry Fine’s Frizzy Life in Pictures (with Jim Terry, Cumberland House, 2006), and Mining Bedrock: The Voices Behind Television’s First Animated Sitcom, The Flintstones (forthcoming from BearManor Publishing). He has also written for TV Guide,The Hollywood Reporter, US, Los Angeles Times, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

    Joseph McBride is a professor in the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University and the author of Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (Simon &Schuster, 1992, and St. Martin’s Press, 2000 revised edition) and the memoir Frankly:Unmasking Frank Capra (Hightower Press, 2019). He has written over a dozen other books, including Steven Spielberg A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1997 plus updated editions) and Searching for John Ford (University Press of Mississippi, 2011). Recent books of his include Billy Wilder: Dancing onthe Edge (Columbia University Press, 2021) and upcoming books include What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?:A Portrait of an Independent Career (University Press of Kentucky, 2022, updated edition of 2006 book) and The Whole Durn Human Comedy: Life According tothe Coen Brothers(Anthem Press, 2022). He was the co-writer of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) and can be heard on the audio commentary track of numerous home media releases including Broken Lullaby (Kino Lorber, 2021), Some Like It Hot (Kino Lorber, 2022), and The Sun Shines Bright (Eureka/Masters of Cinema, 2022).

    The interviews were conducted separately and edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.

    Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think It’s a Wonderful Life should be remembered on its 75th anniversary?

    Tom Christie: It's a Wonderful Life is truly the platinum standard in Christmas movies; the benchmark by which all other entries in the genre are judged. Most love it, a few loath it—but whatever your view, it is impossible to ignore it. The influence of Frank Capra's film is all-encompassing. Even now, 75 years after it first appeared in cinemas, people are still discussing the fascinating facts behind its production, debating its themes and continued significance, and finding themselves presented by unexpected nuggets of trivia. There is always someone who is surprised to learn that it was filmed during a summer heatwave, or to hear about the pioneering technology Capra's team used to simulate snowfall. Then, famously, there is the suspicion with which the FBI held the film at the time of its release, considering it subversive that a bank manager should be portrayed as a villain (while simultaneously missing the point that the compassionate hero also works in the financial services industry). Likewise, it's difficult to imagine the popular culture surrounding Christmas cinema without the debt it owes to this wholehearted glorification of community spirit, reveling in the transformative power of the festive season and emphasizing both the importance of the individual and the collective. The call for us to work towards not just a better tomorrow, but also a better today, is still heard loud and clear all these decades down the line. It says everything about the film's ongoing cultural relevance that it continues to be discussed and appreciated even in the present day, and of course new generations are still discovering George Bailey and his friends with every passing year.

    Joseph McBride: As an iconic but problematical work by one of America’s great directors, Frank Capra’s last good film before his career disastrously collapsed. In one sense, as William S. Pechter wrote in 1962, “Perhaps, having made It’s a Wonderful Life, there was nothing more Capra had to say.” But with its resorting to a supernatural solution to the kind of nearly intractable social and personal problems he had dealt with so keenly in his 1930s classics, Wonderful Life was Capra’s climactic career cop-out, his abandonment of his role as a social critic. Other than for the startling fantasy of the “unborn sequence,” as the script calls it—a nightmarish vision of the world as if George Bailey (James Stewart) had never been born—the film has little to do with the reality outside the theater in 1946. The unborn sequence is a vividly disturbing piece of film noir, the genre that was taking over from what had been known before World War II, affectionately or not, as the homey virtues of “Capracorn.” Capra could not deal with the new realities except in the guise of fevered, nightmarish fantasy. His subsequent films were a precipitous evasion of contemporary issues and a retreat into remakes and childishness as the blacklist era and the Cold War made him terrified of dealing with social problems.

    Steve Cox: This Frank Capra masterpiece should be revered as one of the wonders of 20th century filmmaking. How many other black-and-white films receive a network broadcast (sometimes twice) during the Christmas holidays each year? How many films have been rediscovered in such a majestic manner over the decades? Not many.

    The Digital Bits: Can you recall your first impression of It's a Wonderful Life?

    Christie: I first saw It's a Wonderful Life on VHS back in the 1980s, and I remember being really taken aback at the amazing degree of contrast that Capra achieves between the appealingly idealized Bedford Falls and its sinister reflection, Pottersville. As so many have observed since, it is a film which expertly achieves a sense of personal horror and despondency which is only dispelled by the majestic power of its closing scenes. It is testament to Jimmy Stewart's performance that audiences really do come to view George Bailey's hometown through the prism of the character's life; his lifelong affection for his friends and neighbors, his tangible desperation when things start to spiral out of control, and of course his gradual re-evaluation of his personal choices as he considers what the world would look like without him, slowly realizing how much of an impact one person can have on an entire community. It is a film which has retained its subtle power, largely because the world of the 1940s that is being depicted can now be viewed through the lens of wistful nostalgia. Bedford Falls is no longer a place to appreciate and preserve, but rather a concept of common humanity to value and work towards.

    Cox: I first took serious notice of the movie on TV on a snowy afternoon in my dorm room when I was in college in the mid 1980s at Park University in Kansas City, Missouri. I was aware of the film and because it was thought to be in total public domain at the time, dozens of versions were circulating on VHS in stores and in rental establishments. It wasn't until I was in college, however, that I sat down one Saturday afternoon in December and watched it uninterrupted. I totally absorbed it. Needless to say, the magic took hold as the story unfolded and it swept me through the emotional ride. That's where it hit me.

    McBride: I liked it more at first than I did later, as I gradually came to realize how evasive its use of George’s guardian angel (Henry Travers) is to resolve the story problems. I came to agree with critic James Wolcott, who wrote in 1986 that Wonderful Life was “the perfect film for the Reagan era, celebrating the old-fashioned values of home and hearth that everyone knows deep down have eroded. Its false affirmations . . . spring not from joy but from anxiety.”The over-the-top, cultish adulation of Wonderful Life by many young admirers and others who failed to understand its problematical nature and failed to see what a retreat it signified from such socially engaged, daring Capra films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Meet John Doe helped turn me off to the whimsical aspects of Wonderful Life. But I came to appreciate even more its dark side.

    It is, in fact, one of the most despairing American films, so it is especially ironic it is embraced as a Christmas classic, but then, Christmas is the time of year when the most murders and suicides take place. William S. Pechter wrote that the film’s supernatural resolution exposes the “fatal weakness” of Capra’s work, his tendency to resolve impossible social dilemmas with “strangely perfunctory” happy endings that are imposed“de force majeure…. Yet, for those who can accept the realities of George Bailey’s situation . . . and do not believe in angels . . . the film ends, in effect, with the hero’s suicide. . . . Capra’s desperation is his final honesty. It ruthlessly exposes his own affirmation as pretense.”Screenwriter Michael Wilson did a late polish of Wonderful Life without screen credit, and his widow, Zelma, told me in an interview for my Capra biography, “Mike was not a great admirer of Capra. He thought Capra was a very overestimated director. I don’t think Mike felt that It’s a Wonderful Life was a great movie; he thought it was pretty good, but he was a disenchanted Catholic, and he was not wild about pictures with angels. I remember him groaning about having to write dialogue with an angel, but he was a professional writer and he did his job.” Capra later informed on Wilson, who was blacklisted.

    The Digital Bits: In what way is It's a Wonderful Life a significant motion picture?

    Christie: It's no coincidence that It's a Wonderful Life is almost certainly the most heavily analyzed of all Christmas movies. There is a significant and growing corpus of insightful scholarship which continues to focus on the film's influence and themes, and it's easy to see why. As it has been so widely viewed thanks to its repeated television broadcast, the film is of course synonymous with the spirit of the festive season. We see the importance of family and friendship. We see one of cinema's most reprehensible, morally-bankrupt villains in the form of Lionel Barrymore's expertly-portrayed Mr. Potter—and though he doesn't exactly receive his comeuppance, nor too are his loathsome plans allowed to succeed. We see a community rallying to the benefit not just of its favored son George Bailey, but (in saving the building and loan) to the collective good of all. It is a movie which excels at demonstrating the ways in which abstract notions of Christmas can be brought into sharp relief and implemented in practical ways. And yet, it is much more than that. It is an unabashed celebration of Americana, of small-town life and all its delights and pitfalls. It is also a warning of what can happen if selfish material desire is allowed to put the best interests of a community at risk, and an examination of how individual virtue and unified action are sometimes both required in tandem in order to endure an existential threat. Capra commends all that is good, honorable and constructive about the American spirit, and emphasizes just how much can be achieved with a can-do attitude and a belief in our fellow human being. At that, even more than its importance to Christmas cinema, may well be why the film remains such essential viewing even today.

    Cox: It can be considered significant because director Frank Capra expressed thoughts late in his life that it was among—if not the—favorite film in his prolific career. If for nothing else. With such an astounding body of work, any film Capra had designated as the one he is most proud of should be taken seriously and certainly deserves dissection and celebration in the ways only film fans can.

    McBride: One way it is significant is that it marked the last high point of Capra’s standing as a major American filmmaker before his career began its precipitous freefall into a long series of misbegotten and failed pictures and unmade projects. Part of that, as I reveal in my 1992/2000 biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, had to do with Capra’s clandestine informing during the postwar blacklist era. His political problems began around the time he made Wonderful Life. He came under attack for the social criticism of his prewar films and even, to some extent, for the relatively mild social criticism in Wonderful Life. Most damaging to his career was his association over the years with many liberal or leftist screenwriters. That “guilt by association” in the eyes of the U.S. government led to accusations that the deeply patriotic Capra, who was a lifelong Republican, was subversive. He reacted to that absurd charge by, in effect, claiming, “The writers made me do it.” He informed on some of his writers and others to the Army-Navy-Air Force Personnel Security Board, the FBI, and the State Department, and the secret guilt and shame that caused him helped destroy his life and career. He exiled himself to his ranch in the southern California town of Fallbrook for several years during the 1950s, in effect blacklisting himself.

    It’s a Wonderful Life had nine screenwriters—Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett received screen credit with Capra and Jo Swerling, and Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets, Marc Connelly, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker worked on it without screen credit—and eight of them, including Capra, ran into trouble with the witch hunt. Three of the writers were blacklisted: Trumbo, Wilson, and Parker. Capra’s egotism and credit-hogging had alienated him from his best screenwriter, the liberal Robert Riskin, butWonderful Life still followed what Capra followed his “formula,” the one established mostly by Riskin in their 1930s classics. The “unborn sequence” I believe shows what the world would be like if Robert Riskin had never been born. When I helped Capra write his acceptance speech for his 1982 American Film Institute Life Achievement Award while I wrote that CBS special with producer George Stevens Jr., Capra wanted to say that the “love of people, the freedom of each individual, and the equal importance of each individual” was “the formula upon which I’ve based all my films.” I suggested that “principle” would sound better than “formula,” and Capra eagerly followed my suggestion, but I should have left it at “formula,” because that’s what those humanistic values really were to him.

    The Digital Bits: Which are the film’s standout scenes?

    Christie: There are so many scenes which have come to permeate the cultural consciousness over the years. Naturally we all immediately think of the climactic Christmas tree sequence and that famous line "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings," or perhaps Jimmy Stewart's fourth-wall-breaking declaration as he races along Bedford Falls’ main street crying "Merry Christmas, movie house!" But of course, It's a Wonderful Life is really full of all sorts of memorable moments. It's easy to underplay the quiet emotional strength of those scenes with George on the bridge—demonstrating that he is so selfless, he is still willing to risk his safety to rescue a complete stranger even as he contemplates taking his own life. The idea of divine intervention at Christmas within a modern setting would, of course, be revisited time and again in festive filmmaking, but at this stage the notion still felt fresh and innovative. Then, of course, there are all those pleasing moments where we see George and Mary's romance blossom and George's mutually supportive relationship with his family and friends, only to feel his sense of acute loss and confusion when he gradually realizes that—had he never been born—the bucolic, community-focused town he knows so well would be a completely different place, populated only by the despondent and the desperate. And even now, after all those years of parodies and knowing tips of the hat, the closing sequence of the whole of Bedford Falls coming together to save George from prison—and the building and loan from closure—still feels as jubilant an expression of Christmas goodwill as has ever been committed to celluloid.

    Cox: When I wrote my book, It's a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book in 2003, I submitted to my publisher only one photograph from the film for its cover art. I didn't even give them an option and I think my editors agreed with my reasons; they gave no resistance. And I'm very proud of that choice and the book's cover because the image provides an immediate glimpse into a pivotal scene, an iconic moment in the movie that is not over-used on Wonderful Life products and publicity.

    It is the wintry-night shot of Clarence and George Bailey, directly outside Martini's Bar after having just been thrown out into the slush. It's literally the point in the film, the very moment, when the Twilight Zone takes over and George fully realizes something supernatural is occurring and he begins questioning reality. It's the moment where George begins to grasp some belief in an angel as well. It's the moment in the film we all wait for. It's one of the most powerful scenes, undoubtedly, and I knew the image of Clarence and George was cover-worthy.

    Another sequence I can't take my eyes from involves Mr. Gower the druggist, in despair after being notified that his son died from the flu, and brutally taking out his emotions on young George Bailey. God, what a scene. Bobbie Anderson, who played young George told me that immediately following that scene, actor H.B. Warner actually hugged him and apologized for being so rough during the take.

    To me, those are favorite sequences in the film, but let's be fair—there are so many. The film spills charm, love, and sentiment. It grabs you at so many moments, like the finale at George Bailey's home when the townsfolk rush his living room to help him out when he is most vulnerable and desperate. Moments like that give me chills and usually some tears. By the way, watch this scene carefully as Jimmy Stewart, holding Zuzu in his arms, briefly laughs at her because she doesn't know the words to Auld Lang Syne. And frankly, who does?

    McBride: The “unborn sequence” is a brilliant portrait of 1946 America in all its corrupt, lurid flamboyance, more tellingly so than Capra intended, since he frames it as a fantasy. And he told me he thought the scene of George proposing to Mary (Donna Reed) while in the midst of a telephone call is as good as anything he ever filmed. I agree. It’s so intense and passionate and moving, with a balance of humor mixed in through the mother’s nosy, unhappy reaction (Capra told me you don’t get humor from a scene unless you have a reactive character) and through George’s stubborn reluctance and general cussedness preceding his proposal. Such complexity in one scene! It builds from him not wanting to ever get married to anybody—especially Mary, because he knows if he does marry her, he will never leave the stifling Bedford Falls—to his coming to realize, in a tight two-shot with her and then an exchange of powerful closeups, that she is perfect for him despite it all. He’s accepting the destiny he tried to escape and realizing she and it are what he needs and wants. An amazing and true mixture of human emotions involved in such a life-changing choice. And as Capra said to me, it’s the “craziest proposal you ever saw.” That scene in a nutshell is what makes his films, at their best, so true to life, the way he understands the complexities of human emotions and is able to bring them out of his actors so shrewdly and with such empathy.

    The Digital Bits: How does the film compare to its source material?

    Christie: It's a Wonderful Life was based on The Greatest Gift, a now-famous short story by Philip Van Doren Stern—a noted American Civil War historian. Stern wrote the story between 1939 and 1943, but was unable to find a publisher and so decided to print and distribute it himself as a pamphlet. It later appeared in book form in time for Christmas 1944, and found a home in magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Reader's Scope. The story bears many similarities to the eventual plot of Frank Capra's movie, but at only 4,000 words long it naturally lacks much of the detail that would come to be associated with the film's storyline. Stern's tale concerns an everyman named George Pratt who, in a state of desperation, plans to end his life. Considering jumping from a bridge, he is approached by a mysterious unnamed stranger who—upon hearing that George wishes he had never been born—makes his request a reality. Taking on the identity of an anonymous travelling brush salesman, Pratt discovers that nobody in his hometown recognizes him, and—worse still—his friends and acquaintances all have lives that have taken a turn for the worse as a result of his absence. Like George Bailey, Pratt discovers that his brother died in infancy because he wasn't around to save his life. But upon tracking down his wife, he discovers that (rather than being unmarried, as she is in the movie) she has settled down with another man and has a child with him. Distraught at the fact he had never realized how much impact his presence and actions have had on the lives of the people around him, he pleads with the stranger to be restored to the version of reality he remembers. The stranger agrees to Pratt's appeal, emphasizing the fact that the man already had everything he needed: the greatest gift of all is life itself.

    It's easy to see why Capra immediately saw the story's potential; while the prose of the original may seem dramatically simplified in comparison to its later screenplay form, there is so much capacity for character development which would be realized when the tale was eventually adapted for the big screen. The horrors of Pottersville, Clarence's angelic backstory, the collective generosity of Bedford Falls' inhabitants... all of these aspects would be added to the screenplay to create the narrative that we know and remember. But the sentiment, the main backbone and emotional thrust of the story are all skillfully imported from Stern's source material.

    McBride: It is more multidimensional, warmer, funnier, more fleshed-out than Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 short story The Greatest Gift. But Capra was always unfair to the author, scorning his story as a “little Christmas card.” Stern had included it as a 24-page pamphlet in a card one year to his friends, but it waspublished in Good Housekeeping in 1945 as The Man Who Never Was and that same year, with revisions, as a small book entitled The Greatest Gift. Capra always claiming the film took little from the story. Capra made that claim even when Stern’s wife wrote him in 1978 protesting how he had consistently belittled the story. Without it there would be no Wonderful Life, which Capra claimed was his most autobiographical film, a claim that seems paradoxical to those who don’t realize how he secretly considered himself largely a failure in life, as George Bailey despondently does throughout much of the film.

    Cox: I'm honored to own an early published version of The Greatest Gift by prolific writer and historian Phillip Van Doren Stern. Most people do not realize that the film was based on this simple inspirational tale which was first self-published by the writer as a gift for friends and family years earlier. Naturally, Frank Capra had to expand the scope and fill in details for Wonderful Life, however the original little tale, similar to the movie, is charming in its own way.

    One note I will make regarding the actual script of the film and how it compares to the final version: In a documentary that was produced (hosted by Tom Bosley), the assertion was made that Uncle Billy's drunken wedding reception scene, where he crashes into something just out of shot, was a blooper and that actor Thomas Mitchell had really stumbled into something on the set causing a racket. That is false. The scene was written that way and is in early versions of the script, not just the continuity script. It was intended, it was not a blooper.

    This is factual, however: the shooting script called for an ending with Clarence visiting Mr. Potter and confronting him about the evil he caused. I don't know whether it was actually shot, but the sequence was ultimately cut. I think that's unfortunate as most of us would love to have seen Mr. Potter pay for his crimes in some fashion.

    The Digital Bits: Where do you think It's a Wonderful Life ranks among Christmas-themed movies?

    Christie: It's impossible to overstate the significance of It's a Wonderful Life, or the influence that it has had on the Christmas movie genre. It is second only to A Christmas Carol when it comes to its central concept being pastiched, revisited, re-evaluated and parodied over the years. I think it's important to remember that when the film first appeared in the mid 1940s, most of the thematic conventions we have come to associate with Christmas movies were only just starting to be established thanks to films of the time such as Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop's Wife, It Happened on Fifth Avenue and others. But even in comparison to these seminal works, It's a Wonderful Life towers over the competition. It has been adapted for radio, stage (including musical versions) and television, but its real legacy has been the way that its characters and plot have become so firmly entrenched in popular culture. The most unlikely TV icons have riffed on its themes, ranging from the Muppets to Beavis and Butt-Head, and the key scenes—most especially the emotional climactic sequence—are often shown as appearing on television broadcasts within film narratives as a kind of symbol of festive goodwill: consider the way that it turns up in movies as diverse as Home Alone, Gremlins and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. It seems difficult to believe that It's a Wonderful Life will ever be supplanted as one of the single most important Christmas movies of all time.

    Cox: It is America's version of Scrooge. Because it is a vivid reflection of Americana, a slice of this country's life during the time it is set in, the film ranks up top with countless viewers. The talents that conspired to make such a film ensured us that it is worthy. If for nothing else, the portrayals guarantee that the film will rank as one of the most beautifully performed motion pictures. Oscars should have been handed out all the way around, we know that now.

    McBride: Below better ones such as Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, and Joe Dante’s Capra horror spoof Gremlins, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and the Preston Sturges script for Remember the Night, directed by Mitchell Leisen. Wonderful Life in its popular regard is more in the camp of such wholesome classics as Meet Me in St. Louis and Miracle on 34th Street, but deceptively so, since it has some of the darkness of the Alistair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. Capra revered Charles Dickens, imitates him in Wonderful Life, and even owned a proof copy of Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol.

    The Digital Bits: Where do you think It's a Wonderful Life ranks among Frank Capra's body of work?

    McBride: Well behind his masterpiece, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—the film that truly defines “Capraesque” for me, a far more serious and thoughtful film than Wonderful Life—and such other Capra classics as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, It Happened One Night, andMeet John Doe.

    Christie: It seems interesting to me that when you think of Frank Capra, you immediately consider films like It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It with You and Arsenic and Old Lace... but It's a Wonderful Life now dominates many discussions of his career, and that's somewhat ironic given its reception at the time. Contrary to urban legend, the film was not the total commercial disaster that it is often reputed to be, but its performance was disappointing enough that it did perhaps signal to the studios that Capra was no longer attracting the major box-office figures that he had achieved prior to his wartime service. Nor indeed was the film a critical failure; in fact, far from it. While not all of the press critics at the time were convinced of the film's merits, let's not forget that Capra picked up the 1947 Best Motion Picture Director Golden Globe Award thanks to It's a Wonderful Life, and he was also nominated for Best Director (and the film for Best Picture) at the Academy Awards that same year. Even so, there was probably little indication in the mid 1940s that the film would go on to become the classic that we recognize today. Generations grew up with television screenings of the film every Christmas once it had fallen into the public domain, meaning that it quickly became an inexpensive staple of festive programming for TV channels. A cult following soon developed, and gradually it had established the cinematic immortality it now enjoys. It seems strange to think, given the film's bumpy ride to its current lofty status, that it was once considered one of the lesser entries in Capra's filmography. He was a highly versatile creative talent, the recipient of many awards in his lifetime, and several of his movies are now considered to be among the greatest American motion pictures ever made. But who would seriously have thought at the time that It's a Wonderful Life would turn out to be, for many people, the crowning achievement of his career?

    Cox: The late director felt it was the pinnacle of his career and I can't argue with his selection. Maybe he wouldn't have stated that in the 1960s when he was slowing down, I don't know. But by the 1970s and '80s when his film began to find a new life, he expressed it as possibly his best. Is that a false assessment, merely taking advantage of the trend? I would tend to think not. Capra put sweat and passion into the movie.

    I found an interesting article / interview with Capra around the time of the film, in 1946 or '47 and he made a statement that I found nowhere else in my extensive research. He admitted that the film was his instrument, his weapon you might say, in a sort of personal battle against atheism in America. I found that fascinating. He used the only tool, or weapon, he had available. And what a powerful conduit it remains.

    The Digital Bits: Where do you think It's a Wonderful Life ranks among Jimmy Stewart's body of work? Donna Reed?

    Cox: I was fortunate to ask this very question of Jimmy Stewart when he was an elderly man. He ranked it at the top, just like his close friend Frank Capra. Was Stewart riding the wave of popularity at the time and forgetting The Spirit of St. Louis and Rear Window? Was he kicking Harvey to the side? I don't know. I found his performance inIt's a Wonderful Life flawless. And as for Donna Reed, I just can't say because, in all honesty, I'm not as familiar with her work outside of her 1960s sitcom which I enjoyed. It would be unfair for me to make comparisons without a better scope of her career. She was perfect in this film, I know that.

    Christie: I think it says a lot about Jimmy Stewart's adaptability and resourcefulness as an actor that when you hear his name today, you might be just as inclined to think of his early comedies such as The Philadelphia Story and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as you might his famous collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock—Vertigo, Rear Window and others. Then there were the prolific appearances in Westerns, the standout performances in movies such as Harvey, The Glenn Miller Story, Anatomy of a Murder... it's really no wonder that he had such a decorated career in his lifetime, or that he remains such a well-regarded figure even today. By virtue of its status as perhaps the ultimate classic of Christmas cinema, It's a Wonderful Life might well now be one of his most fondly remembered roles— and lest we forget, it also earned him one of five Academy Award nominations in his career for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But it's important to remember that his contribution to the Christmas movie genre didn't stop there, as he gave similarly appealing performances in Richard Quine's festively-situated Bell, Book and Candle, Kieth Merrill's affecting short film Mr. Krueger's Christmas, and indeed a standout appearance in Ernst Lubitsch's sublime The Shop Around the Corner. But it can't be denied that even now, with so many Christmas movies out there to watch and enjoy, Stewart's George Bailey is likely to be among the key characters that most people will think of when they consider the genre. For all Stewart's many, many achievements in life, surely that one is especially worth celebrating.

    Donna Reed gives a similarly engaging performance in It's a Wonderful Life, and it says everything about the movie's continued appeal in global popular culture that—even in spite of her prolific career, with appearances in more than forty films—many people are inclined to think of Mary Hatch Bailey as her most prominent film role rather than her Academy Award-winning portrayal of Lorene Burke in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity. Reed would, of course, go on to further fame on television, not least the long-running Donna Reed Show, but certainly on looking back at her contribution to cinema it seems fair to say that her performance in It's a Wonderful Life remains among her most respected achievements in the eyes of many modern-day commentators.

    McBride: It’s a splendid performance by Stewart, as anguished as those in his superb Anthony Mann Westerns, but among his work I prefer as films Mr. Smith, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Vertigo, Rear Window, and The Shop Around the Corner.

    Reed is moving and believably stalwart in her wholesome role in Wonderful Life, a role Jean Arthur told me she rejected because “I don’t think she had anything to do. It was colorless. You didn’t have a chance to be anything.” Reed in Wonderful Life is not as luminous as she is in the film that clearly inspired Capra to cast her, though he wouldn’t admit it, John Ford’s 1945 They Were Expendable, in which she plays a heroic and doomed U.S. Army nurse in the Philippines in World War II.

    The Digital Bits: What is the legacy of It's a Wonderful Life?

    McBride: An often-misunderstood film embraced by many people for mostly erroneous, shortsighted reasons, or unconscious reasons, but one that represents the strength of popular cinema to move masses of people at their core throughout the passage of time and despite its own internal contradictions.

    Christie: Mention Christmas movies to most people, and the first thing that is likely to immediately enter their minds is either It's a Wonderful Life or some variation of A Christmas Carol. And it's interesting that both feature Christmas as a means of transforming someone's character, a miserly individual who is willing to put his own interests before other people's wellbeing (but who is ultimately thwarted), and a full-throated commendation of friendship and community. Perhaps that's why both stories are still so perennially popular, even though their settings—both post-war America and Victorian London—now seem so far removed from the present day. "Remember: No man is a failure who has friends," Clarence the Angel tells George Bailey in his book inscription near the end of It's a Wonderful Life, and that is a message we all need to hear as often as possible. Today, Capra's film seems as relevant as it ever did. It underscores so perfectly the theme which has come to typify so many Christmas movies—namely, that true happiness doesn't come from material prosperity but from the simple act of friendship. It shows that good communities support people and help them to become all that they can be; they aren't simply born of economic expediency. "That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest," Henry David Thoreau once wrote, and when we share in George's realization that the people close to us are what makes life worth living, it's a sentiment we are all invited to relate to. It's a Wonderful Life remains indispensable holiday season viewing, and no other film has done more to define the key themes of the Christmas movie as a cinematic genre.

    Cox: That's a question I'd love to ask in another fifty years, really. The legacy right now is one of unparalleled renaissance for a vintage motion picture—a comeback story like no other. Will it fade in time? I hope not.

    The Digital Bits: Thank you—Joe, Steve, and Tom—for sharing your thoughts about It’s a Wonderful Life on the occasion of its 75th anniversary.

  • #2
    Alas, Fathom is going to have It's A Wonderful Life this December, so an embargo of other theatres will be on it this Christmas. It would have been our 12th consecutive year. It is the only Christmas movie that has ever done anything for us.


    • #3
      Kudos. You are on a roll. Loved the biting insight of McBride.