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It's a Wonderful Life, Its a Wonderful Film

Updated on October 26, 2012
The "feel-good" film
The "feel-good" film | Source

One of the most popular American films of all-time and a perennial holiday favorite, It's A Wonderful Life is one of the most popular and heartwarming films ever made by director Frank Capra who regarded this film as his own personal favorite - it was also James Stewart's favorite of all his feature films.

It was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (James Stewart in his first film in almost six years), Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Sound Recording and Best Film Editing, but won no Oscars.(It was eclipsed by William Wyler's award-winning The Best Years of Our Lives.)

After slipping initially into obscurity, it began appearing on television occasionally in the late 1950s. But when the film's copyright lapsed in 1973, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE quickly became a staple of American TV programming between Thanksgiving and Christmas and belatedly earned its rightful place in the lexicon of American popular culture.

The American Film Institute named it one of the best films ever made, putting it at the top of the list of AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers, a list of what AFI considers to be the most inspirational American movies of all time. The film also appeared in another AFI Top 100 list: it placed at 11th on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies list of the top American films. It's A Wonderful Life is an indisputable movie classic.

Cast List

George Bailey was James Stewart's first role after WWII. As George Bailey, he has never been better than he is here. Throughout the film, he convincingly ages a few decades, from a youthful, bright-eyed college graduate to a sincere but disillusioned husband and father who realizes that he never had the chance to fulfill he dreams. The role is one of humor, obsession, gloom, and, finally, hope, and it would go on to be the part with which Stewart was recognized for the rest of his career.

Mary Hatch Bailey was Donna Reed's first starring role. Other cast members included:

  • Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter
  • Henry Travers as the angel Clarence Oddbody, AS2
  • Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy
  • Ward Bond as Bert
  • Frank Faylen as Ernie Bishop
  • Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Bailey
  • Gloria Grahame as Violet Bick

Family Values
Family Values

Plot Line

James Stewart stars as George Bailey, the kind of nice guy who does so much for others that he ends up with almost nothing. He's always broke even though he works late every day. He believes in doing the right thing, but that's not how business works, so the Building & Loans company he took over after his father's death is always on the verge of bankruptcy.

In flashback, we review George's life, learning that he has always wanted to leave his hometown to see the world, but that circumstances and his own good heart have kept him in Bedford Falls, sacrificing his own education for his brother's, keeping the family-run savings and loan afloat, protecting the town from the avarice of banker Potter (Lionel Barrymore), marrying his childhood sweetheart (Donna Reed), and raising a family.

George might love his wife and kids, but he still has regrets. He's been wanting to leave the small town of Bedford Falls and see the world forever but, every time he thinks he's out, they pull him right back him. As if that wasn't enough, he always have to watch out for the evil Mr. Potters, a cranky, greedy, wheelchair-bound old banker who can't stand George's honesty in business. So when an error of his uncle Bill causes George's business to go belly up, he starts thinking that he's done enough, and that everyone would be better off without him. Hey, he wishes he'd never been born at all...

Considering His Options
Considering His Options
Meeting an Angel
Meeting an Angel

That's when this otherwise superior but unexceptional film becomes awesome. As a drunken George is considering jumping off a bridge, God sends down one of his angels (Clarence, who has yet to earn his wings) to help him out. Clarence then shows him how things would be if he hadn't indeed ever been born, kind of like "A Christmas Carol" in reverse.

Wish granted. Stewart is suddenly able to hear out of his deaf ear and can't understand why his clothes are completely dry and he has no identification. Those changes are minor, however, compared to what he is about to see as Travers takes him on a journey showing him what the world would be like if Stewart had never been born.

He finds that his brother died in a childhood accident because Stewart wasn't there to save him; as a result, his brother never grew up to be a hero, saving all the lives of the men on the naval transport. In addition, he was not around to stop the druggist Gower from putting poison in a prescription; as a result, a boy died and Gower went to prison. More incredible, the pastoral town of Bedford Falls is now the garish Babylon of Pottersville, filled with burlesque houses, peep shows, bucket-of-blood bars, and pawn shops, where drunks and prostitutes roam the streets.

That brings us to the message of the film. George might not have lots of money, but he has countless friends and a family that loves him, and that makes him the richest man in town.

This may sound corny, but "It's a Wonderful Life" is an absolutely marvelous, feel good film. If you're one of the few who hasn't seen it yet, what are you waiting for?

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History of the Film

The original screenplay for "It's a Wonderful Life" grew out of a short story ("The Greatest Gift of All"), that, ironically, no one wanted. After it unsuccessfully made the rounds in publishing circles, author Philip Van Doren Stern distributed the twenty-four page pamphlet as a Christmas card. It finally fell into the hands of a Hollywood agent, and eventually made its way to Charles Koerner, the head of RKO Radio Pictures.

Koerner purchased the property as a potential movie vehicle for Cary Grant, but RKO and its writers were unable to translate the dark tale into a workable screenplay. After many fruitless attempts the script was finally shelved and deemed unusable.

It reached the ears of Frank Capra who was looking for a film that would help him express his complicated war-influenced emotions. Capra saw great potential in "The Greatest Gift," with its mixture of comedy and soul searching.

Still, the 'fairy' story of an angel trying to get his wings by saving a suicidal man would give any director pause. While presenting the story line to Jimmy Stewart he realized how absurd "talking angels and heavenly voices" sounded. But Capra would ultimately get to grips with the film's distilled essence: "It's a movie about a small town guy who thinks he is a failure and wishes he had never been born," said Capra. "He's surprised to learn that he was not a failure, that he did fit into the scheme of life and actually contributed much to the happiness of several people. I think people everywhere will be able to associate themselves with the character and will perhaps feel a bit better for having known him....There's a little George Bailey in all of us."

Filmmaker Frank Capra received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1982.
Filmmaker Frank Capra received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1982.

On September 1,1945 Frank Capra and his new company Liberty Films bought the rights, original material and three complete versions of the script to "The Greatest Gift of All" for a mere $10,000. The re-written story, now entitled "It's A Wonderful Life," found its delicate balance of humor and pathos. Jimmy Stewart, also newly returned from the military, and a veteran of Capra films such as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and "You Can't Take it With You," would be George Bailey. The film was assigned a ninety-day shooting schedule and began filming in April 15 1946 at RKO Encino Ranch-newly transformed into Bedford Falls. Donna Reed was signed to play Mary Bailey, Lionel Barrymore would be the crotchety Mr. Potter, and Henry Travers would be Clarence, the angel.

The set of It's a Wonderful Life covered four acres at the RKO ranch. It included a main street that stretched 300 yards, three city blocks, and 75 stores. The high school dance contest was shot at the newly-opened Beverly Hills High School, where the gym floor really did split apart to reveal a swimming pool underneath.

Capra wanted one scene to be filmed with falling snow. At the time, cornflakes painted white were usually used to simulate snow, but the crunching sound would have prevented dialogue from being recorded. Capra covered the set with 3,000 tons of shaved ice, 300 tons of plaster, 300 tons of gypsum, and 6,000 gallons of a fomite-soap-water mixture to get the effect he wanted

While "It's a Wonderful Life" wasn't a commercial disaster, it wasn't exactly a success either. Opening to generally positive, sometimes glowing reviews, the movie did not do as well as either Capra or Hollywood expected, losing money on its initial release. Box office receipts would fall off after the holidays and despite publicity efforts it continued to falter at the box office.

Ironically, a legal oversight was largely responsible for catapulting "It's a Wonderful Life" to its current stature in film and cultural history.

In 1974, twenty-eight years after its release, the copyright owner (a bankrupt film production company) failed to renew "It's a Wonderful Life"'s copyright. Ignored and apparently forgotten, the film quietly slid into the public domain-hardly the desired end for a Capra classic. But from this mistake something truly wonderful happened. Television discovered "It's a Wonderful of Life" anew. Stations all over the country realized they could show the picture whenever they wanted at no cost. And show it they did. It was not uncommon to see the movie go up against itself on many of the country's cable stations. Millions of viewers were introduced and re-introduced to the classic. Video would soon follow and thousands were making the little film that had almost been forgotten a part of their holiday traditions.

The film's eventual status as a cultural icon was satisfying to both Capra and Stewart and up until their deaths they were frequently asked about the film they so passionately believed in. When looking back at his favorite 'child,' Capra summed it up best: "There's more to the picture than I put in it.... There's more to it than we thought we had. It's the picture I waited all my life to make."

Summary - A Film With A Message

After fifty years why do people continue to be drawn to Capra's creation? "People make a direct emotional connection to it," says Basinger. "They reach it and it reaches them. People have the idea that this is an extremely sentimental film. Actually, this is a very dark movie. It's about a guy who's a failure and who feels like a failure." Basinger agrees with Capra that people identify with George Bailey and his crisis of faith. "A lot of people don't get what they want out of life," she notes. "A lot of young people dream of adventure, travel, success, wealth, luxury-and it doesn't happen. They stay in the same little town that they're in and they have smaller lives than that. The movie raises a lot of real questions."

While the film's core values and themes have been debated for years, Basinger believes that each person takes away something personal from the film. "For some people 'Wonderful Life' is going to be about friendship," she says. "For some, it's going to be about love and marriage and enduring and helping you through it. For some people it's going to be about failure. For others-and these are the Potters of the world that you have to watch out for-it's about false sentimentality. That's the great thing-the film is about a whole life. Good things happen and bad things happen and a bank run happens and someone nearly drowns. The great thing about 'Wonderful Life' is that it's ambivalent. Failure is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on your expectations, your goals, and what your value system is."

Happy ending to a wonderful film

It's A Wonderful Life


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