By the time director Frank Capra had come to the project of “It’s a Wonderful Life” he had already mastered the ability to tell a warm-hearted tale, with films such as: The Miracle Woman, 1931, American Madness, 1932, Lady for a Day, 1933, It Happened One Night, 1934, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936, Lost Horizon, 1937, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939 and Meet John Doe, 1941. Many critics have tried to dismiss the “sentimental” movies of Capra which have received the moniker Capraesque (this word now appears to have the meaning either derogatorily or complimentary depending upon which side of the fence one falls on), this dismissal seems directed to his film-making compassion, sensitivity, kindness, love and heart.
My wife, Margaret, and I have been privileged to see “Wonderful Life” on the big screen more than once, but each time it fills our hearts with gladness, and reminds us of how truly wonderful life is. We see the good that each of us can do, if we but have the courage, yet, the film brings to mind not only the pleasant, but the funny, life full of beauty, of the hurtful, with the ugliness that we can have in myriad. Capra does not shy away from the harshness that his characters must endure but finds the growth which callous circumstances carry. It is through this light that Frank Capra made a good portion of his movies. As the modern artist Thomas Kinkade is known as “the Painter of Light” so Capra used compassion as lighting fixtures whereby to film his works.
There was only one choice to portray George Bailey and that was actor Jimmy Stewart. He brings a depth and complication of personality to the role of George, which without would have left the film lacking. For this story (the screenplay was based on the unpublished story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern) is of a good man, that does the right things, yet, when faced with overwhelming pressures, scandal, a prison-term and bankruptcy he contemplates suicide.
The cast is peopled with a stable of notable actors that brought their A-Game: H. B. Warner as the druggist, Gower; Lionel Barrymore as the malevolent Henry F. Potter; the beautiful Donna Reed as Mary Hatch-Bailey; Thomas Mitchell, as uncle Billy, Henry Travers as Clarence Odbody, the angel; with a full compliment to support the leads: Ward Bond, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame, Frank Faylen, Charles Lane (short but brilliant performance), Sheldon Leonard, William Edmunds, Samuel S. Hinds as Peter Bailey, Sarah Edwards, Lillian Randolph as Annie, Virginia Patton and Tom Karns, as Harry Bailey (no better work did he do than “Wonderful Life”). Not wanting to leave out the fine performances of the entire children’s troupe In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but especially to draw attention to young actors Robert J. Anderson and Jean Gale.
This is a special film best viewed with the people you love: friends and family; if you have the opportunity to see it on the Silver-Screen, do so, for there is nothing like seeing the lights go down, the curtain go up, popcorn on your lap, sweetheart by your side and “It’s a Wonderful Life being shown it its original 4×3 ratio presentation. So, if you are looking to see the quintessential Christmas film or you just want to revisit the people and their town of Bedford Falls, there’s still a few days before Christmas! From its soft whispered beginning and its kind-hearted laughs, to its swelling ending “It’s a Wonderful Life” delivers a powerful, lovely Christmastide message.
Notes from the side: In the scene where Uncle Billy leaves George’s house drunk, he stumbles over what we believe to be trash cans on the sidewalk, in fact equipment was dropped and Thomas Mitchell improvised the “I’m all right, I’m all right!.” Capra decided to use it in the final film, and we are so happy that he did.
For the old Granville House window-breaking scene Capra had hired a marksman to shoot out the window for Donna Reed, on cue. What Capra and everyone else did not realize was that Reed had played baseball in high school and had a strong throwing am (and accurate as well) and broke the window herself.
The gym floor that we see a floor opening revealing a swimming pool, the pool was real and located at the Beverly Hills High School.
The Bedford Falls set took two months to construct at the RKO movie ranch in Encino, CA., primarily using the leftover set pieces from Cimarron, 1931. The set covered four acres and had a 300 yard main street, with 75 stores and buildings along with a residential neighborhood. Capra, instead of keeping animals under strict control allowed pigeons, cats and dogs to roam free to give his Bedford Falls set that “lived-in-feel”.
By the way, “It’s a Wonderful Life” had mixed reviews on its opening, and of course now is regarded as one of the finest films ever made by both critics and the movie going public; “Wonderful Life” received 5 Academy Award nominations without taking home an Oscar although Russell Shearman and the RKO Radio Studio Special Effects Department won a Technical Achievement Award in 1948 for their synthetic snow machine that replaced bleached cornflakes, which was the previous method of simulating falling snow in movies.
Merry Christmas to all…
By C. S. Williams