Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life: Back to the Beginning

Can you believe it?!  It's been a whole year now since my first blog post.  And what a crazy year it has been.  So many things have changed, but I couldn't be happier with it all.  Therefore, I felt the only appropriate way to celebrate was to talk more about the first movie I ever mentioned.  Sit back and wrap yourself in Christmas nostalgia today with the classic "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).

Now, I don't think there is a person in this world who doesn't know the story of this film...but I'll tell it anyway.  George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is a good man, has been all his life.  A lot of tough things have happened to him, but he's always managed to look on the bright side.  However, on Christmas Eve, when yet another bad thing happens, he finally breaks down and can't take it anymore.  He decides to jump off a bridge, for everyone's sake.  But, luckily, his guardian angel Clarence thwarts his attempt, and shows him what the world would be like if he never existed.  Realizing things are never as bad as they seem, George asks to live again and runs home to his family to celebrate whatever may be coming their way.

This famous tale was floating around Hollywood for several years before the great Frank Capra got a hold of it.  Based on a short story called "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern, RKO Studios originally bought the rights specifically as a starring vehicle for Cary Grant.  However, several screenplay attempts never managed to capture that magic spark, so the story was shelved.  Capra heard about the short story and, after reading it, bought it from RKO for his own production company Liberty Films.  RKO gladly sold all the rights, including the previous screenplays.  So Capra, with the help of Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and even Dorothy Parker, rewrote the scripts into the one we know today, as well as changing the title to "It's a Wonderful Life."

Capra always wanted Stewart, his favorite actor, to play the part of George Bailey.  Stewart was a little reluctant to accept though.  It had nothing to do with disliking the script.  Stewart had recently returned home from WWII and was very nervous about getting in front of the camera again.  Luckily, "Wonderful Life"s villain Lionel Barrymore (the mean old Mr. Potter) changed Stewart's mind, and he ended up giving one of the best performances of his career.  Of course, part of the magic has to go to Donna Reed, the perfectly cast Mary Hatch Bailey.  Capra had originally wanted his favorite actress Jean Arthur to play Mary, but she had to decline because she was already committed to a Broadway show.  So Capra looked at Olivia de Havilland, Ann Dvorak, even Ginger Rogers, before finally deciding on the fresh-faced unknown Reed.

Unfortunately, the idyllic town of Bedford Falls doesn't actually exist.  It was built specifically for "Wonderful Life" on RKO's ranch in Encino, CA (yeah, that's right.  Encino used to have open space!  Can you believe it??)  The little town covered four acres of land, and the famous tree-lined street George runs down was actually three city blocks long.  75 buildings made up the tiny fake town, and prior to filming, Capra had a number of dogs and cats roam its streets to give it that "lived in" feel.  However, their biggest accomplishment was the snow.  Prior to "It's a Wonderful Life," film snow was just cornflakes painted white.  It looked great, but the crunching noise while walking made all dialogue have to be rerecorded later.  Capra didn't want that so he tasked RKO's special effects team to come up with something new.  They came up with a chemical snow using foamite, soap and water, which worked beautifully and won the team a special Scientific Oscar. However, even though it looks cold on screen, Los Angeles was experiencing a record heat wave the summer of 1946.  Some days got so hot that Capra let his cast and crew off to recover.  You can actually see Stewart sweating in a few wintry scenes.  Luckily, he's supposed to be so emotionally worked up that it fits. 

Surprisingly, "It's a Wonderful Life" was not the big success we think of today.  With a budget of $3 million, it only made $6.3 million at the box office.  It did receive good reviews and five Oscar nominations, but it was overshadowed by the powerhouse film "The Best Years of Our Lives" and didn't win a thing.  The flick has only become the Christmas staple we know today because of television and a clerical error.  The film rights were purchased from Paramount (who had acquired Liberty Films) in 1955 by National Telefilm Associates (NTA).  However, because of a clerical error, they were unable to renew the copyright in 1974.  Now don't go jumping off to use the film just yet.  Even though the film's copyright lapsed, the story it was based on has not.  But because of this error, "It's a Wonderful Life" was shown on more channels on television than most other films, making it a holiday favorite.

So enjoy your holiday and celebrate with family and friends this week as you watch "It's a Wonderful Life."  (That ending still makes me cry every time.)  Merry Christmas, everyone!!

(Post-tidbit:  In the scene where Uncle Billy leaves the Bailey home drunk, we hear what appears to be him stumbling into a bunch of trash cans and then yelling, "I'm alright!  I'm alright."  This was actually an ad-lib because in reality the sound was a stagehand accidentally knocking over a bundle of props.  The poor guy was so afraid he was going to be fired because of his mistake.  Capra instead gave him a $10 bonus for "improving the sound.")


  1. ummm actually it received reviews saying that it was great and wonderful but they just didnt make alot of money off of the movie

  2. I remember the first time I saw this film; I was 13 and one day I was bored so my Mum gave me A Wonderful Life on tape to watch. I fell in love with it straight away with the story and actors. Now I watch it every Christmas Eve. It is a lovely warm hearted film.