A couple of days ago, 72 years after its initial release, a Radio Times survey named It’s A Wonderful Life as the UK’s all-time favourite Christmas film. But, just like the lead character, George Bailey, the whole story almost never was…
It’s yet another fine example of something that was too different; a story that broke away from its era’s established norms so much that the perennially risk-averse publishing industry shied away from it. The original short story, The Greatest Gift, was written in 1939 by Philip Van Doren Stern, inspired by a dream he attributed to reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol along with too much Edgar Allen Poe, whilst editing a definitive anthology of tales of mystery and imagination. In some ways, though, it’s not all that different from the classic Dickens story and certainly shares a central message.
Stern tinkered with his tale for another three years or so until he was happy with a short-and-to-the-point version. At just over 4,000 words, he thought it would be ideal for the vogue of short story ‘pulp’ magazines. But after failing to attract any interest from this market, he produced it as a short run of 200 pamphlets, which he sent to friends and acquaintances as his Christmas card for 1943. A year later, after adding to his collection of rejections, he finally saw his story published, twice, in December 1944—in Reader’s Scope magazine and, retitled The Man Who Was Never Born, in Good Housekeeping. Encouraged by this response, he decided to publish it privately as an illustrated edition in 1945.
It’s unclear which version of the story caught the interest of David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Radio Pictures, who began putting a package together in 1944 when their A-list star Cary Grant showed interest in playing the lead. I’m sure Grant would have done an excellent job, but alas it wasn’t to be.
After nearly a year in development, and with several unsuccessful treatments by different scriptwriters, Hampstead had given up on the project. That may have been that if it weren’t for a distribution deal RKO had signed with Liberty Films—the production company of already renowned director Frank Capra. Capra recognised the story’s potential and reputedly bought the rights for $10,000, the same sum Hampstead had paid for them to start with.
Capra set about carving up three of the unsuccessful scripts already written during development at RKO. His adaptation made a few radical changes, most notably replacing a shadowy, supernatural stranger with Clarence the bumbling guardian angel. With the help of several more writers, including Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who wrote the first treatment for him (they’re the husband and wife who co-write The Thin Man, considered in 1934 to be ground-breaking in its honest portrayal of modern relationships). He then hired Jo Swerling and Michael Wilson (both regular Capra collaborators) to make changes that reportedly disgruntled Goodrich and Hackett. Later, the notable poet and New Yorker satirist Dorothy Parker was brought in to polish dialogue in the resulting draft, by now retitled It’s A Wonderful Life.
The film opens with some lovely establishing shots of Bedford Falls, an idyllic small town in the snow, beautifully shot at night in rich monochrome. This was a huge, Oscar-winning, set originally constructed for Cimarron (1931) . Unknown to George Bailey many people who have been touched by his wonderful life, are praying for his wellbeing. But who is this George Bailey and why are so many praying for him? He’s apparently in deep trouble and contemplating suicide. Now that doesn’t sound like a promising starting point for a feel-good Christmas movie… but, it seems those prayers reach up to heaven, memorably visualised by galaxies that pulse with light as they speak. After some debate, these cosmic consciousnesses decide to call upon a sort of trainee angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), to intervene. To begin with, he needs to understand his assignment and the first part of the film, is a kind of biopic of George Bailey from childhood (Robert J. Anderson) through teens to fatherhood (James Stewart).
We get to know and like the young George. He’s a lively fellow, who, we quickly realise is also thoughtful and puts the needs of others before his own without giving it much thought. We’re with him as a boy when his kid brother falls through the ice of a frozen lake and is saved by George. We witness him fall in love for the first time. We get to know him both in times of joy and sorrow. We also see his big dreams of world travel and becoming a famous architect slowly dwindle as he inherits his father’s building and loan company and works to fund his younger brother through college… The story spans a slice of American history from just after the First World War, through the Great Depression, and through WWII.
As a family drama, it’s fast-moving whilst remaining sensitive. Yes, the characters are painted with broad strokes, but that brushwork is masterfully handled by Capra and with a clever short-hand of emphasised mannerisms and repeated ‘catchphrases’ to compress what feels like a believable life into the first hour and 20-minutes. As a character portrait, it’s up there with the best of its era—George Bailey isn’t a cardboard cutout ‘goody two shoes’, by any means, he actually tries to be selfish but can’t help himself. It has comedy, tragedy—after just 11-minutes, only the most heartless won’t be surreptitiously wiping a tear from the corner of their eye. Then there’s a coming-of-age and classic romance that only seems predictable after a first viewing.
Just like one of its inspirations, A Christmas Carol, there’s a much darker thread too. In fact, veteran stage actor, Lionel Barrymore, who;d been acting since 1893, was cast as villainous Henry Potter on the strength of his performance as Scrooge in a radio production. And what a villain he conjures into being! Potter is one of the all-time most heartless and hateable antagonists there has ever been captured on film and goes out of his way to destroy poor George Bailey, just because he sees an opportunity to do so. Potter is an unscrupulous banker who places profit and power above any notions of right or wrong.
When George Bailey’s idyllic life with his loving wife and three adorable kids threatens to fall apart, he blames himself entirely. He doesn’t consider himself to be a good man—in fact, he’s so dismissive of his worth as human being he thinks the world would be a better place without him. He believes his life insurance makes him worth more dead than alive. So, albeit in a semi-fugue state ensuing from extreme stress-related desperation, he decides to jump off a bridge and end it all in the icy, black waters beneath.
Thinking fast, Clarence, the angel sent down to save him, sees George about to jump and instead of stopping him, leaps from the bridge instead. Being the fundamentally good man, George immediately jumps into the river, not to end his own life, but to save this stranger’s life. Then, suddenly, what had gradually become a dark tale of despair turns a corner and we get some witty scripting as the wingless angel tries to convince George to reassess his worth as a human being. It’s then that George wishes that he’d never been born… and Clarence has the power to make it so. It’s this final act that has made the film famous and such an enduring classic, as George sees the world as it would have turned out without the positive influence of his presence—a much scarier place that’s uncannily like the world we live in. We see the ‘butterfly effect’ everyone inevitably leaves throughout their own timeline. Indeed, the story takes a kind of Doctor Who-y turn and we see how much effect even the smallest actions of just one good person can have—and he’s quite similar to the Doctors, whose example encourages those around them to be better.
My favourite scene is on the bridge when George discovers that he still has Zu-Zu’s petals in his pocket. This is a highly emotional and significant moment, showcasing those award-winning snow effects and gorgeous cinematography. It marks the point when everything that he had come to think of as the banes of his life suddenly become unrivalled delights—even something as mundane as the loose newel knob at the foot of his stairs. All brilliantly conveyed by Stewart.
James Stewart had first worked with Capra on You Can’t Take It with You (1938), and again on Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)—both becoming critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning films. He had been the director’s first choice for the lead after Cary Grant had moved on to other things and RKO had considered Henry Fonda as his replacement. I think the film would have been great with any of those three in the role, but now it’s impossible to imagine anyone else but Stewart. He has a mighty emotional range and can effortlessly swing from brooding paranoia to euphoric joy, whilst keeping the convincingly real mannerisms of the everyday man, albeit a rather charming example of one.
Ginger Rogers was offered the role of Mary—George’s childhood sweetheart who becomes his wife and soulmate. Although she was great choice and could have brought extra complexity to the role, Rogers turned it down because she read the character as too perfect and bland. Olivia de Havilland was also offered the part, but she turned it down in favour of her starring role in To Each His Own (1946), for which she won her first Oscar. Eventually Donna Reed was cast, having played the female lead in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), another film with similar dark fantasy elements that deconstructs the human condition. Her performance fitted perfectly with Stewart’s. The edgy chemistry between their teenage selves makes for one of the film’s most memorable sequences when walking home after the swimming pool incident, they pause to sing Buffalo Gals and break some windows in the Old Granville House, for good luck. Her sparkling-eyed innocence is perfect for the part, though she does manage to add an underlying strength that later elevates her portrayal of an idealised 1940s housewife.
All the cast turn in well-pitched performances that call for subtlety and brashness in roughly equal measures. They also have to play their characters in Bedford Falls differently, yet just as believably, when they appear in the darker alternative reality of Pottersville. But by far the star of the show, with the longest resume, is Jimmy-the-Crow (actually a raven), who plays the pet of the scatty yet loveable Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell). It’s estimated that Jimmy appeared in 1,000 films or more in a career that spanned three decades. He first worked with Capra on You Can’t Take It with You, which had also starred James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore and became a sort of lucky charm for the director, making an appearance in every film he made from then on. He’s also the bird that lands on the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and makes a notable appearance in one of my favourite of all black comedies, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).
The release of It’s a Wonderful Life was rushed through to get it premiered for Christmas 1946, though it wasn’t put on general release until January 1947. Many reviewers claim it was a flop. It wasn’t. The two-stage release affected its opening stats and confused the promotional campaigns. Its performance did fall short of the distributor’s box office predictions, by around half a million dollars, but it just about covered its $3.2M budget and ranked in the top 30 films for 1947. It was generally well-received by audiences and critics alike and was nominated for six of the top Academy Awards, most of which went to William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), except for the Oscar for Technical Achievement, which it won for its innovations in special effects… for, um, the snow.
Later, it was to miss out on further revenue when a legal error meant that the rights lapsed early and by the 1970s, the film could be shown on television without it earning a cent for the original production companies or distributors. it was then it became ubiquitous Yuletide fare and garnered the affection of millions of viewers worldwide. It also meant that it was a cheap clip to use in any other film set in the festive season with significant snippets cropping up in many other movies including Cinema Paradiso (1988), Dario Argento’s Trauma (1993), Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1994), Elmo Saves Christmas (1996)—which also makes a joke hinging on the cop and cabbie being named Burt and Ernie—and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2006), to name but a handful!
Critics sung its praises and recognised it as an instant classic, but the FBI were dubious! In a report issued in May 1947, they stated the film “represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.” They also observed that “this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” If they’d watched the film attentively, they would have known this wasn’t so. Even Potter’s own debt collector—usually seen as a ready-made bad guy—criticises his boss and commends George Bailey. Of course, in the Pottersville reality, the poorer folk are also shown to be self-serving, callous and lacking moral fibre. Humans are shown to have an equal propensity for good and evil, and it is often the small everyday choices we make that define us in these terms, even when we might not see that ourselves. Admittedly, it does celebrate everyday folk and makes a point that should not need making, that so many aspects of life have far more value than money. Undeniably, there is an intentional political message, and it’s one that’s just as relevant today, 72 years later!
Currently, a new 4K restoration can be seen in selected UK cinemas. It’s been digitally remastered from the original negatives—well the 13 out of 14 of them that survive. For the missing reel, scenes were assembled from the best sources available and digitally enhanced. No doubt, it will eventually come out on Blu-ray, with a lovely array of extras… perhaps for next Christmas? It’s already on my wish list.
Cast & Crew
director: Frank Capra.
writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett & Frank Capra (based on ‘The Greatest Gift’ by Philip Van Doren Stern).
starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen & Gloria Grahame.