Get your box of tissues ready for one of the most treasured films in history
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of those very rare instances in which all elements come together so precisely, they create a piece of art that is deeply moving and profound. This poignant film, which is one of cinema’s most beloved, gets at the core of what it is to live a human life - warts and all. It is a film about death and life, family and friends, how we are all interconnected, the power of the individual, and ultimately that no one is a failure, as all of our lives have importance. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is #1 on AFI’s list of “The 100 Most Inspiring Films Of All Time”. It can be watched over and over again, never diminishing its power. Because it takes place on Christmas Eve, it’s become a holiday favorite, so I am fittingly presenting it at holiday time.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” was very much the brain child of director, Frank Capra (whom I wrote about in the “It Happened One Night” post). One of the most successful and famous directors of the 1930s, Capra made films when America was unified, and morals, virtue, and the American Dream were something to strive towards. His films reflected that, often portraying how the “little guy” could conquer corruption and oppression. He left Hollywood at the end of 1941 to serve as a major in the US Army. While there, he made a series of documentary films, as well as the series “Why We Fight”, for which he won numerous awards, including the Legion of Merit, Order of the British Empire, and a Best Documentary Academy Award. Capra watched a lot of unedited war footage, including that of the concentration camps taken by the Nazis, which had a heavy effect on him. He returned to Hollywood, and along with directors George Stevens and William Wyler, formed Liberty Films, which was a way to get more control over their work. Liberty Films would only produce two films (the second being “State of the Union”, also directed by Capra), with “It’s a Wonderful Life” being the first (as well as Capra’s first film after the war). Everything changed after WWII - audience's tastes, movies, and so did Capra. "It’s a Wonderful Life” goes to the heart of a recurring Capra theme - the dignity and importance of the individual, though this time he stripped it of any sugar coating. It's direct and truthful in showing the harshness of life, and consequently it packs quite a punch. This Capra film deals with thoughts of death, sacrifice, failure, and the loss of dreams. For his stunning work, Capra earned his sixth Best Director Academy Award nomination (having already won three Oscars for directing "You Can't Take It with You", "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", and "It Happened One Night”). With post-war audiences wanting brightness, “It’s a Wonderful Life” lost money when first released, and faded into oblivion despite its Oscar nominations. In a weird twist of fate, due to a clerical error, the film’s copyright could not be renewed, and in 1974 it fell into public domain (until the 1990s). As a result, TV stations began airing it regularly (especially during the holidays) where it was rediscovered and became a classic (similar to the rediscovering of “The Wizard of Oz”).
Don’t let all this talk about darkness fool you. “It's a Wonderful Life” is entertaining, big-hearted, and highly inspiring - it is even narrated by angels! The film centers around “George Bailey”, a man who has slowly been beaten down by life, feeling his life is of no importance. He is on the brink of suicide when “Clarence”, an angel, gives him a chance to see what the world would have been like had he never been born. It's a simple plot which ingeniously exposes the difference we all make in the world. It was originally based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern who included it in 200 of his Christmas cards. Movie rights were bought and it went through three screenwriters, including Dalton Trumbo (whom I wrote about in the “Roman Holiday” post). It later ended up in the hands of Capra, who reworked and rewrote it with several writers, including Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett - who share the film’s screenplay credit with Capra. This was Capra’s most personal film and his favorite of all his works. He assembled a magical team of actors and crew, and out came a perfect film. What separates “It’s a Wonderful Life” from the norm is that it shows by example, how a wonderful life is filled with joy, sacrifice, generosity, heartbreak, and love. This is a film you definitely don’t want to miss.
The casting in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is so impeccable, that to replace anyone would result in the loss of the film’s magic. James Stewart is dazzling as “George Bailey”, the man about to give up on life. Stewart is one of cinema’s most likable actors and stars, personifying honest, everyday type guys, and ”George” fits him like a glove. ”George” is the little guy with hopes and ideals, who unselfishly wants to do something important, and who’s up against corrupt, shrewd, power-hungry monopolists. If you are watching the films and reading the posts on here, you previously saw and read about Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story”. Between that film in 1940 (for which he won a Best Actor Academy Award) and this film (for which he received his third of five Best Actor Oscar nominations) Stewart served in WWII, and like Capra, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was his first film back from the war. Changed by the war, and being away from acting for several years, Stewart lost some of his confidence and was actually thinking of leaving acting, suddenly feeling it was frivolous. Capra’s phone call for him to star in “It’s a Wonderful Life” changed his mind, and Stewart’s lack of confidence without a doubt enhanced his performance. There is a fragility underneath “George’s” optimism and charm which draws us in immediately, and one can easily see how “George” gets to the end of his rope. Stewart is flawless in this role.
Donna Reed is marvelous as the sweet and beautiful “Mary Hatch”. She projects a wholesome, girl-next-door quality - traits for which she became typecast. She plays off Stewart incredibly well. Just watch the way “Mary” looks at “George”. This is a woman deeply in love. Reed wasn’t a huge star at the time of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (and wasn’t Capra’s first, second or even third choice for the part), and this was one of her first starring roles. She would go on to become a big star, especially on television. Donna Reed was born on a farm in Iowa, and moved to Los Angeles to attend Los Angeles City College. While there she appeared in plays, was spotted by MGM, given a contract, and made her film debut in 1941’s "The Get-Away”. With the 1945 classic film "The Picture of Dorian Gray”, she became a leading lady. She worked steadily, almost exclusively playing the wholesome love interest. An exception was 1953’s classic “From Here to Eternity”, in which she played a prostitute, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award (her only win or nomination). Some of her other notable films include "They Were Expendable", "The Last Time I Saw Paris", "Green Dolphin Street", "Shadow of the Thin Man”, and "Thousands Cheer". In 1958, she starred in the TV series, “The Donna Reed Show”, produced by her husband at the time, Tony Owen. The series was a big success, making Reed a full-fledged star and earning her four consecutive Emmy Award nominations. It ran until 1966. After that, she semi-retired from acting, making a few more appearances in TV, including a stint on the show “ Dallas” in the mid-1980s. When “The Donna Reed Show” ended, she focused on raising her children, political activism, becoming a peace activist, vocal against the war in Vietnam, and against nuclear power. She is best remembered for “The Donna Reed Show” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which like Capra and Stewart, was her favorite film). She was married three times, including her first brief marriage to make-up artist William Tuttle (a name you will see in the credits of many classic films - as he eventually became the head makeup artist for MGM). Donna Reed died in 1986 at the age of 64.
The supporting cast is filled with accomplished, well established (or soon to be established) actors, each adding their own distinctiveness to the film. Because they are faces you see often in classic cinema, I’m going to briefly mention a number of them. One is Lionel Barrymore, who plays the wicked “Mr. Potter”. Barrymore was largely touted as one of the greatest American film actors, and with good reason. He played many different types of roles, pretty much all to perfection. The fact that he was well known for playing somewhat cranky yet lovable men, and is outstanding as the devious and despicable “Potter”, gives one a clue to his massive talent. “Potter” is not a caricature, but a real person we believe to be evil, and his authenticity makes the film feel real rather than an allegory or fairytale. This is the gift Barrymore adds to films, and he is one of my all-time favorite actors. Lionel Barrymore was part of the famous Barrymore’s, a family who became known as America's "Royal Family" of actors. Along with his two siblings, John Barrymore (considered the greatest American stage actor of his day) and Ethel Barrymore (who was known as "The First Lady of the American Theatre”), he had a very successful stage, film and radio career. Lionel began his film career in silents in 1905, and signed a contract with MGM in 1926. His fine speaking voice helped him transition to sound films with no problem. Early on he also worked as a film director, with fifteen directing credits to his name, and one Best Director Oscar nomination (for the 1929 film “Madame X”). He won a Best Actor Academy Award for the 1931 film “A Free Soul” (his only Oscar acting win or nomination), and would have a long and steady acting career up until his death. He played leading, supporting, and character parts in well over 200 films, including countless classics which include "You Can't Take It with You", "Grand Hotel", "Camille", "Dinner at Eight", "Key Largo", and "Duel in the Sun”. Barrymore became confined to a wheelchair from arthritis and a broken hip, so after 1938 you never see him stand in a film (including “It’s a Wonderful Life”). He was married twice. Lionel Barrymore died in 1954 at the age of 76. He is the great-uncle of actress Drew Barrymore.
If you are watching the films on here, you might recognize Thomas Mitchell who plays “Uncle Billy”. I wrote about this talented actor in both the “High Noon” and “Gone With the Wind” posts. Here Mitchell is quite different as the somewhat scatterbrained, blundering, yet well-meaning uncle who has to keep strings around his fingers to remember things. As always, Mitchell gives a sublime performance, eliciting empathy. And by the way, the raven with whom he often appears in this film was Jimmy the Crow. A raven who first appeared in Capra’s 1938 classic, “You Can’t Take It with You”, Jimmy the Crow would appear in every one of Capra’s films afterwards, and in many other films as well, including an appearance as a crow in the cornfield in “The Wizard of Oz”.
Henry Travers plays the lovable and angelic “Clarence”, a character described as having the IQ of a rabbit but the faith of a child. As the angel sent from above, he is completely charming and endearing as he tries to earn his wings. Henry Travers was a British born actor who started on stage, and began appearing in films in 1933. He worked pretty steadily in films, mostly playing friendly, clumsy guys. He was nominated for one Oscar, for his supporting role in the classic 1942 film, “Mrs. Miniver”. He appeared in many other films that have become classics, including "The Bells of St. Mary's", "The Invisible Man", "Random Harvest", "Shadow of a Doubt", "Dark Victory ", "Ball of Fire", and "The Yearling". He was married twice. Henry Travers died in 1965 at the age of 91.
Beulah Bondi is fabulous as “George’s” mother, “Mrs. Bailey”. You can clearly see Bondi’s immense talent in her meaty scene with “George” outside their house. She is so loving, and the two actors listen and play off each other like pros. It is no surprise, as Bondi was an accomplished actress, often cast as the star’s mother. In fact, she played Stewart’s mother three times before (in “Vivacious Lady”, "Of Human Hearts”, and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), and would play his mother a fourth time in Stewart’s TV series, “The Jimmy Stewart Show” in 1971. Bondi started as a stage actress, including Broadway, and began appearing in films in 1931. She received two Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominations, one for the 1935 film "The Gorgeous Hussy”, and the other for 1938 film "Of Human Hearts”. In the mid-1950s Bondi began appearing on television, and the majority of her work would remain there until her final performance on an episode of the classic TV show, “The Waltons” in 1976, for which she won an Emmy Award. You will see her in many classic films, including "Rain", "The Snake Pit", "Our Town", "Penny Serenade", "The Buccaneer", "Watch on the Rhine", and "Sister Kenny”. She never married. Beulah Bondi died in 1981 at the age of 91.
Ward Bond, who play “Bert” the cop, is another first-class actor who appears in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He has appeared in a several films already listed on this blog: “Bringing Up Baby”, (as a motorcycle cop at the jail); “Gone with the Wind”, (as the Yankee captain “Tom”); and “It Happened One Night” (also directed by Capra - where he played the bus driver). This colorful, gruff, and talented actor began his film career in 1928, frequently appearing in small, often uncredited roles for the next twenty years. He appeared in 29 films in 1935 alone. He would become very well known for his work in westerns, and has over 200 film credits to his name. He worked with director John Ford in over twenty films, with Capra in six, and appeared in twenty three films with movie star John Wayne. Bond appears in large and small parts in countless classic films, including "The Searchers", "The Maltese Falcon", “You Can’t Take It with You”, "The Quiet Man", "The Grapes of Wrath", "Fort Apache", "Sergeant York”, and "Rio Bravo”. Bond would become very famous for the TV series “Wagon Train”, in which he appeared from 1957 until his death. Sadly, Bond was a staunch supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and an enforcer of the blacklist. He married twice. Ward Bond died in 1960 at the age of 57. His character of “Bert” in “It’s a Wonderful Life” usually shows up alongside the cabdriver “Ernie”. In case you were wondering, this “Bert” and “Ernie” have no relation to the "Sesame Street" duo!
The last actor I’ll mention from the film is the ever smashing Gloria Grahame, who plays “Violet”, the girl that can stop traffic. If you focus on Grahame, you’ll see just what enormous talent she possesses. As “Violet”, she projects all the inner qualities, as well as outer, of a flirtatious temptress. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was Grahame’s third feature film, and with it she started receiving attention. She was signed with MGM, who didn’t quite know what to do with her, so they sold her contract to RKO. It seems no one knew exactly what to do with her, and while she gave many extraordinary performances, I never felt she got enough parts that truly showed her talents even though she did become a big star. Known for her sex appeal and distinct voice, Gloria Grahame started on Broadway, and began appearing in films in 1944, hitting peak stardom in the late 1940s and early 50s when she appeared in many noir films. Grahame won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in the classic 1952 film, “The Bad and the Beautiful”, and was also nominated for her supporting role in the classic 1947 noir, “Crossfire”. In the mid 1950s her film career started to falter so she turned to television. She did appear in many classic films, and others include “In a Lonely Place”, "Oklahoma!", "The Big Heat", "The Greatest Show on Earth", and "Sudden Fear”. Grahame suffered a lot of stress in her private life. Known for her beauty, she was insecure about her looks, especially what she deemed a "too thin" upper lip. She underwent surgery to try to fix it, which caused it to remain partially immovable. She was married four times, including her second marriage to director Nicholas Ray (who I wrote about in “Rebel Without a Cause”). They had a very unhappy marriage, with a scandal that hurt her career. Ray claimed he caught Grahame in bed with his thirteen year old son, Anthony, her then stepson. Eight years after her divorce to Nicholas, Grahame would marry Anthony, who became her fourth husband. The scandal became public in the early 1960s, hurting her career and reputation, and caused her third husband to claim custody of their daughter, calling her an "unfit" mother. All of this led to a nervous breakdown and electroshock therapy. She did manage to work (mostly in TV) throughout the 1970s. Gloria Grahame died in 1981 at the age of 57. A film based on the end of her life, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”, was released in 2017, starring Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame.
In addition to the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor Academy Award nominations mentioned above, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was also nominated for Best Film Editing (William Hornbeck), and Best Sound Recording (John Aalberg). The film did not win any Oscars. There is a colorized version of the film, but I highly recommend watching the original black and white version.
This week you are in for one of the most acclaimed and beloved films in history. Inspiring and completely moving from start to finish, I don’t think it is possible to watch without shedding a tear - or ten. So get your tissues ready to enjoy “It’s a Wonderful Life”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
One of my favorite scenes in 'It's a Wonderful Life", clearly illustrates the brilliance of Capra’s directing and Stewart and Reed's acting talent. It is when "Mary" and "George" are on the phone with “Sam”. "Mary" wants to marry "George", but to do so "George" would have to give up on his dreams once again. To show the emotional conflict, Capra brilliantly chose to have them share the phone, trapping them face against face in a close-up, almost touching, in one long take. As they breathe on each other in a jumble of desire and escape, the dialogue becomes meaningless. It's all about the unadulterated emotion. This is definitely one of cinema’s standout love scenes.
So much of “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become iconic, including the fictitious town of Bedford Falls. The “town” was a set, built on four acres of the RKO Studio movie ranch in Encino, California. One of the largest and most detailed sets of its time, it included 75 stores (including a working bank set), full grown oak trees, main and residential streets, and animals (dogs, cats and birds) roaming freely through it.
The swimming pool below the gym floor was filmed on location at the Beverly Hills High School “swim gym”. Yes, it was (and still is) a real thing and not a movie set. I visited it years ago, and although the pool was covered, the gym smelled like chlorine.
Since the set was located in sunny Los Angeles, snow had to be artificially created for the film. At the time, bleached cornflakes passed for snow in films. Because it would crunch when walked on, and create sound issues, head of special effects at RKO, Russell Shearman, along with Capra created a new quieter “snow” made of foamite (fire-extinguisher material) mixed with soap and water. It looks pretty real and became the new standard for film “snow”. Ah, the magic of movies! If you are interested, you can see a short video about it by CLICKING HERE.
For the scene where “Mary” throws a rock at the old Granville House, Capra hired a stuntman for the throw. However, Reed had played baseball in high school, and to the astonishment of everyone on the set, she threw it herself, hitting the window in the first take (the one that’s in the film).