The Case of Penelope (2006)

Hello Cassettes, and welcome back to the Black Case Diaries!

Well, today’s episode is actually a fan suggestion! We asked Robin’s sister Becky what she would like us to cover for her birthday this month. She chose the film Penelope starring Christina Ricci and James McAvoy because she feels that it has been looked at unfairly, especially by critics. Well, we love giving movies a second chance here at BCD, so we’re excited to talk about it! Spoilers ahead!!

Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006 and releasing two years later in the United States, Penelope was not exactly well-received. It currently has a 53% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.7 out of 10 on IMDB. Although critics liked the story’s message, they turned up their noses at this film and felt it was a bit all over the place. Penelope didn’t break any box office records but wasn’t a flop, either. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a bit of a hidden gem relegated to discount bins and free streaming services, just waiting to be discovered! 

So today, we will get people talking about the girl born with a pig nose once again. Grab your brightly-colored scarves because it’s time to go exploring with Penelope.

THE STORY

Sometimes, we set out to make an episode on a film and have a difficult time finding information. Penelope is one of those movies that proved to be a challenge in the research department. So, we’ve decided to review the story and give our thoughts on why it deserves another look. Screenwriter Leslie Caveny put together the story to flip the script on the Beauty and the Beast format. She said, “We have enough stories that prove once again that women will love men no matter what and accept them with all their flaws, so I thought we could use a switching of the gender there.” So, here’s the story of Penelope with some making-of information mixed in!

  • “But local legend had it that a curse was put on the Wilhern Family….” 
    • Penelope begins like any fairytale film should, with narration. We first hear the voice of Penelope, played by Christina Ricci. 
      • Ricci is known for her offbeat characters, gaining popularity as Wednesday Addams in Addams Family in 1991 and as Kat in the 1996 film Casper. She is still a prominent TV and film actress. 
      • Ricci didn’t have to audition for Penelope and was instead approached by Reese Witherspoon for the part. The two women had been friends for years, and Ricci said she was quite flattered that Reese thought of her for the role. 
    • Ricci, as Penelope, tells the audience about a curse placed on her family when an ancestor impregnated one of the house servants and subsequently abandoned her. The woman then committed suicide, which inspired her mother, the town witch, to seek revenge by cursing the family thusly: the next Wilhern girl would be born with the face of a pig. The curse would only be broken when one of her kind, a high society blue blood, learned to love her as she was. 
  • “I’m not the one who ran, mother!”
    • Flash forward to the modern-day, as a young British aristocrat attempts to woo Penelope through a two-way mirror. Penelope’s mother and hired matchmaker watch through surveillance cameras as Penelope reveals her face to the man, prompting him to run. 
    • Here we see Penelope’s face for the first time, a relatively cute pig nose that in no way makes Ricci look ugly. This detail upset critics, as Penelope’s “ugliness” is a significant plot point. Stephen Holden of the New York Times said of the film, “The movie’s fundamental flaws begin with Penelope’s appearance. She is supposed to be so hideous that potential suitors dive out of the windows of her family’s London mansion at the first sight of her.” But more on that later. 
      • Penelope was Mark Palanski’s directorial debut, previously assisting on films like Pearl Harbor, The Amityville Horror, and The Island. Reese Witherspoon chose Palanksi for the movie after seeing his work. Palanski felt it was essential to use a prosthetic that didn’t cover up Christina Ricci’s face so she could still emote. There was a range of noses that they could have chosen from, so a hideous option was available. Ricci felt that having an animal nose was bad enough. Making the character ugly would be adding insult to injury. 
      • The pig prosthetic took an hour and a half to put on, and Ricci couldn’t speak during the process. The actor told Cinemablend that this was difficult for her, as she’s a self-proclaimed “compulsive talker.” 
    • This scene also introduces Catherine O’Hara as Penelope’s mother, Jessica, a vain and uppity woman intent on finding a man to break the curse while keeping Penelope in the shadows. 
      • Catherine O’Hara is a much-loved comedic actress, recently winning an Emmy for her role as Moira Rose in the acclaimed series Schitts Creek. 
      • Jessica fills the role of the overprotective guardian that shields the protagonist from the outside world under the guise of having Penelope’s “best interest at heart.” In fairytale terms, think of her as a Mother Gothel from Tangled
        • Jessica makes Penelope’s curse all about herself, bursting into crocodile tears at the prospect of Penelope (pause for dramatic effect) not finding a suitor (collective gasp). Jessica’s so-called suffering only makes Penelope feel guilt and shame, even though she had nothing to do with the way she was born and has no control over how people will perceive her. 
      • Shortly after this sequence, the film introduces Peter Dinklage as a story-hungry reporter named Lemon, hell-bent on exposing the story of the Wilhern baby born with a pig face. In response, Jessica fakes Penelope’s death, then buries and cremates her to ensure that no one would ever ask about her again. 
        • Peter Dinklage is possibly best known for playing Tyrian Lannister on Game of Thrones, which earned him several Emmy awards. He’s also appeared in Elf (2003) and X-Men Days of Future Past (2014)
      • After the suitor runs, we see a montage of suitors jumping through windows to escape the horror of Penelope’s face. We learn that until today, the Wilherns have been able to keep Penelope’s “condition” a secret through gag orders, but now a troubled man is headed to the police station to report seeing a hideous pig-woman. 
  • “I believe that man is with me.”
    • After the local paper reports that Edward, Penelope’s suitor, is having a mental breakdown and claiming to see a pig-faced woman, the man demands that the paper print a retraction. As security escorts Edward out, Lemon invites him into his van, where they two hatch a plan to expose Penelope. Edward is too scared to face Penelope again, so the men hunt down Max Campion, a blue blood gambling addict, and offer him five grand to get a photo of Penelope.
    • Enter James McAvoy, the love interest for the story. McAvoy is a Scottish actor famous for portraying Charles Xavier in the X-Men films and Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia (2005). 
      • Christina Ricci said that McAvoy is a talented actor and an excellent screen partner, and working with him was a great experience. 
      • In an interview, McAvoy broke down his character by saying that he’s just as trapped as Penelope, and the characters inspire each other to grow and change. 
    • McAvoy, as Max Campion, gets rigged up in a coat that will discreetly take a photo of Penelope when she reveals herself. He heads into some sort of group interview with other suitors. When his camera jacket malfunctions, Max dives behind a couch to fix it. Unfortunately for his mission, but fortunately for the plot, Penelope reveals herself just as Max is hiding. The other men run screaming from the house, but Max stays behind, making Penelope and the family think he already saw her face and didn’t run like the others. 
    • Penelope returns to her hidden room to speak to Max, and the two begin to fall in love. During their first conversation, Max admits that he tried to steal a book because he thought it could be worth a lot of money. Penelope then tells him that there are 300 first editions worth over $50,000. Three-hundred times 50,000 is $15 million—the budget for the film!
    • Intrigued by Penelope and still hoping to earn his five grand, Max promises to return the next day. 
  • “You gotta get out of there sometime.” 
    • As Max returns to Penelope, we see a delightful sequence where McAvoy badly plays several instruments, as Penelope tries to figure out what his instrument is. The couple plays chess, and Max tries to convince her to show herself. Finally, Penelope steps out of her room to play piano with Max. He’s shocked when he sees her face and attempts to touch her nose. But when he hears the camera take the photo, he recoils, leading Penelope to believe that she repulses him. 
    • In this scene, Penelope’s mother, Jessica, discovers Max is working with Lemon, although he does not intend to give him the photo after seeing Penelope’s face. Max confronts Penelope, trying to explain himself. But, Penelope surprises him by showing how little she cares about his motives and her happiness. She’s willing to settle to break the curse. 
    • Penelope delivers a heartbreaking marriage proposal, telling Max that he will break the curse if he accepts her, and she will be like anyone else. Max asks what would happen if the curse can’t be broken, and Penelope says, “then I’ll kill myself, I promise I will.” Upon hearing this, Max declares he can’t marry her, and he’s forced out before he can explain. 
  • “I love you, and goodbye.”
    • With Penelope at her all-time low, Jessica wants to continue looking for suitors. So, Penelope breaks out of the house to explore the outside world. 
      • The outside world for Penelope is a timeless and placeless version of London, populated with a mixture of American and British people. Production designer Amanda McArthur developed an urban storybook landscape with locations like the Cloverdilly Pub, which is actually the Crown and Sceptre Pub in London. Here is where Penelope meets Annie, Reese Witherspoon’s character. This film was Witherspoon’s first as a lead producer and actress.
        • Annie helps Penelope experience life until she accidentally reveals herself as THE Penelope from all the newspapers. 
    • Armed with her mother’s credit card and an adorable cobble-stone scarf, Penelope finds housing, makes friends, and essentially thrives. Of course, it takes her parents almost no time to locate her since she’s using their money.
      • Lemon and Edward are still willing to pay five grand for a photo of Penelope, and since she loses her income, she decides to sell her own image to them for a profit. When Penelope calls the pair to make the offer, Peter Dinklage’s Lemon has the most visible character development of anyone in the film in the shortest amount of time. One moment he wants to expose Penelope, the next, he realizes the harm he has caused by treating her as a monster. 
    • Just as Penelope declares her independence from her mother, Max willingly walks away from the poker table. Both characters take massive steps toward their freedom and well-being, utterly independent of each other. This flips another romance trope on its head. Instead of bettering themselves for each other, they focus on their individual happiness. 
  • “They’re not running.” 
    • After Penelope’s parents track her down, Penelope has an episode, fainting at the pub and waking in a hospital room. Here she discovers that word has gotten out, and the public isn’t afraid of her. They love her. Remember that issue the critics had with the film? The detail that Penelope isn’t ugly at all, yet men would fling themselves out of windows to get away from her? It turns out, only high-society, well-bred blue bloods are the ones that do that. Maybe the film exaggerated their reactions to prove that perspective is essential and that tradition and bias can lead us to fear things we shouldn’t. 
    • Penelope’s popularity now poses a problem for Edward, as he has spent the entire film telling everyone that Penelope is grotesque and should be locked away. Edward’s father angrily tells him he needs to fix his mistake to put his name back in good standing. So, Edward decides to propose to Penelope. 
    • Jessica, Penelope’s mother, brings her daughter down again. She tells Penelope that she doesn’t have friends, she has fans, and that everyone only sees her as a talking pig. The only way to fix that is for her to marry Edward. So, Penelope reluctantly accepts. 
  • “Sure took you long enough.”
    • After seeing the proposal in the papers, Lemon checks in with Max Campion for an armed robbery story he heard from a colleague. However, it turns out that Max Campion is actually the hilarious, lovely, and adorable Nick Frost (those are all objective ways to describe him, don’t come at me). Lemon discovers that James McAvoy is playing Johnny Martin, the son of a plumber and former musician who fell victim to gambling addiction. Lemon just thought he was Max Campion because of a misunderstanding. 
    • Lemon tracks down Johnny and asks him why he won’t stop Edward from marrying Penelope. This is where the audience finally discovers that he turned down Penelope because he cannot break the curse, thus not giving her what she wants. So, he lets Penelope marry Edward. 
      • Attempting to undo the harm he’s caused, Lemon tries to stop the wedding by telling Jessica and Wanda (the matchmaker) about the whole scheme and Edward’s involvement. Wanda pleads with Jessica, begging her to stop the wedding now that they know why Max (Johnny) said no because he had to. Jessica refuses, rejecting another chance at redemption for her character. The only thing Jessica cares about is the curse, and not Penelope herself. 
  • I like myself the way I am.”
    • During the wedding vows, Penelope rejects Edward, realizing she can’t marry someone she doesn’t love just to break a curse. Jessica chases Penelope back into the house, begging her to go through with the wedding. Finally, Penelope declares that she doesn’t want to change because she accepts herself as she is. 
    • A rush of wind and magic knocks Penelope down, and she touches her face to find that the curse has been lifted. It turns out that one of her kind could be herself–she lifts the curse by loving who she is independent of anyone else.
      • Christina Ricci said in an interview: “You always fear when you’re making a movie that has a moral to the story that people are going to reject the idea of being taught a lesson. Or you worry that people are going to somehow feel that they’re being talked down to, or that it’s cheesy to make a movie that’s about self-acceptance.” The moral of Penelope is refreshing and ahead of its time. Sure, Penelope accepts who she is, but only after experiencing life for herself. Under the charge of her overbearing and critical mother, Penelope never even considered loving herself. She didn’t break the curse for or because of another person. It turns out that your opinion of yourself matters more than anyone else’s. 
    • And with the curse broken, Jessica has one last chance at redemption, realizing that if she had just accepted her daughter as she was, then the curse would never have been a problem. But, after a very short heart-to-heart, Jessica launches into her critical self again, suggesting that Penelope get a nose job. 
  • “It’s not the power of the curse; it’s the power you give the curse.”
    • During a narrated montage, we see Penelope move out of the home and start a job as a teacher (how?). We also learn that the butler is the witch that cast the curse generations ago, and she then removes Jessica’s voice before walking out on the family. 
    • Wanda alerts Penelope about Max/Johnny and updates her on why he rejected her proposal. So, she heads to the bar where he works for a Halloween party with Annie to confront him. Even though she’s wearing a pig mask (the Penelope costume is big this year), Johnny figures out who she is. The two embrace, and he’s surprised to see that the curse is broken. 
    • Now, the two of them can be together after growing and becoming complete independently. Neither one needs to fix or change the other, and they are free to start a relationship in a much healthier place than before. 

RECEPTION

  • Mark Palanski considered this film “low-budget” with only 15 million dollars. He enjoyed the challenge, as it meant that he had to do some creative problem-solving. Worldwide, Penelope pulled in only about $21 million, making back the budget but not enough money to be deemed a success.
  • We already mentioned the critical reception to this film, but it bears repeating. Critics hated Penelope. Or at least heavily disliked it. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian said, “I can truthfully say that watching this abysmal fantasy-comedy is less rewarding than being slapped across the face with a large wet fish.” 
  • It was challenging to find positive reviews of the film written just after its release, but more recent reviews from independent sources tend to be more favorable. Maybe the world wasn’t ready to embrace Penelope in 2008. Would the film have done better today? 

Penelope is what Reese Witherspoon’s Type A Studio billed it to be. It’s a modern-day fairytale taking place in a surreal universe, with themes of love and acceptance. It employs classic tropes from the romance genre, but there’s a fun twist for every predictable plot. The film has a quirky and magical aesthetic, with a brilliant cast and an entertaining story. Sure, it’s not perfect, and critics had some valid concerns. But, just as Penelope’s blue blood suitors over-reacted to her charming nose, critics seemed a bit unfair to this film. It turns out that Penelope isn’t as hideous as they thought. 

SOURCES: 

The (Brief) Case Of Babes In Toyland (1986)

HISTORY OF BABES IN TOYLAND STORY

In 1903, Producer Fred R. Hamlin and director Julian Mitchell had just found success with their stage musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, based on the L. Frank Baum book. Wanting to keep the momentum, the pair wanted to produce another family-oriented musical production. For help, Julian Mitchell turned to Glen MacDonough to help, since he had worked on revisions of the final text for The Wizard of Oz Musical. MacDonough provided an even greater contribution when he brought composer Victor Herbert into the production. The Operetta would be called, “Babes in Toyland,” and it featured  some of Herbert’s most well-known works such as “Toyland” and “March of the Toys.” “Babes in Toyland” opened in New York in October 1903.

Soon after the Operetta, Glen Macdonough and Anna Alice Chapin released a children’s book with full color illustrated pages. 

The original Operetta follows orphaned siblings Alan and Jane. Their wicked Uncle Barnaby, who has become their caretaker, plans to have them lost at sea in order to steal their inheritance. They are luckily rescued and returned to Contrary Mary’s garden.

Since then it has been made into different forms throughout the years. Each time it is remade the songs and plot change. Some examples are the Laurel and Hardy “March of the Wooden Soldiers” from 1934, a Shirley Temple anthology episode in 1960, the Disney “Babes in Toyland” from 1961, and an animated version by MGM in 1997. 

SOME BACKGROUND ON THE MOVIE

  • The original run-time for this movie when it aired in 1986 was nearly 3 hours long. Since then, it has been cut down to an hour and thirty-five minutes for video and streaming releases. It has not been officially released on dvd which makes it a relatively rare find. There is however the entire 3-hour glorious movie version available on youtube, which we will link to for you. 
  • It was filmed at Bavaria Studios in Munich, Germany.
  • Most of the original music was cut and a new score and music were put in. It was largely done by Leslie Bricusse. Only a little of Victor Herbert’s music was used, such as “Toyland” and “March of the Toys.”
  • It is clear when listening to the songs that the young 11-year old Drew Barrymore does not sing her own songs as the voice has a more adult vocal range. According to IMDB, Linda Harmon dubbed the singing voice for Barrymore.

THE PLOT

  • During a heavy Christmas storm in Cincinnati, a young girl named Lisa (Drew Barrymore) is injured in a car accident and is magically transported to Toyland. There she meets the Toyland counterparts of her sister and friends, each one a storybook character. Lisa learns that the evil Uncle Barnaby plots to marry the young Mary Contrary and steal her away from Jack B. Nimble, also barring Jack from inheriting his family’s cookie company. 

THE MAIN CHARACTERS

  • Drew Barrymore as Lisa Piper
  • Jill Schoelen as Mary Piper/Mary Contrary
  • Keanu Reeves as Jack Fenton/Jack-be-Nimble
  • Googy Gress as George/Georgie Porgie
  • Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Piper/ Widow Hubbard
  • Richard Mulligan as Barnie/ Barnaby Barnicle
  • Pat Morita as The Toymaster

OUR REACTION

C-I-N-C-I-N–N-A-T-I !!

FUN FACT!

  • Shari Weiser, who was in the Labyrinth as part of Hoggle, plays the Trollog in this movie!

SOURCES:

It’s a Wonderful Case (1946)

There’s no doubting it, folks, the holidays are here! And with this season comes the return of certain movies. Of course, it’s just not Christmas if Ralphie doesn’t put on the pink bunny suit in a Christmas Story, or if we miss Kevin McAlister setting the traps in his Chicago home. Over time, these films have come to define the Christmas season so well, it’s already hard to imagine what Christmas was like without them. Today, we’re talking about one such movie. It’s a story about a man that believes he’s lived a worthless life until he’s given an incredible gift; a chance to see what the world would be like without him. 

It’s a Wonderful Life is so classic, we’ll bet you even know the story even if you haven’t seen it. Countless TV shows have spoofed the famous plot, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Fairly Odd Parents. But, this popular Christmas gem didn’t start out as wonderfully as you would think. In fact, the film underperformed initially, landing its fledgling production studio about $500,000 worth of debt. So, how did this dud find its place as a bonafide Christmas Classic? Grab a glass of Flaming Rum Punch (or whatever you prefer) and settle in as we discover the story behind It’s a Wonderful Life!

SYNOPSIS

  • George Bailey is about to give up on his life. As far as he’s concerned, he’s a complete failure who has never amounted to anything. When the angel Gabriel hears the prayers of George’s concerned family and friends, he sends a novice angel named Clarence to intervene. Clarence doesn’t know exactly how to help this man until George proclaims that he wishes he’d never been born, and Clarence decides to make that wish a reality. 

MAKING OF

  • It’s a Wonderful Life began, as so many Hollywood films do, with a short story. In the winter of 1938, Phillip Van Doren Stern wrote a story called, “The Greatest Gift,” about a banker on the brink of suicide until an angel shows him what the world would be like without him. Stern was unable to get the story published, so he made it into a pamphlet and mailed it out to two-hundred people as a Christmas card in 1943 (OMG 200 Christmas cards?!). According to the New York Times, one of the recipients of the story was Stern’s agent, who was able to sell the story to RKO Pictures, one of the biggest studios during the Golden Age of Hollywood, for $10,000. Due to inflation, this would be about $157,925 today. 
    • RKO had three scriptwriters adapt the story into three screenplays, with a plan for Carey Grant to star in the eventual film adaptation. 
      • Screenwriter Marc Connelly’s script included a scene where George Bailey sees a world with a “bad” version of himself. Clifford Odets took this idea and had the two Georges fight on the bridge, with the evil George dying in the end. The third uncredited scriptwriter was Dalton Trumbo, the famous writer known for scripting Roman Holiday
      • None of the scripts seemed to work. So, the project lost steam until Frank Capra came along and purchased the rights for $10,000, the same amount that RKO had paid. However, RKO also tossed in the three scripts. Capra combined the scripts and added some of his own ideas. For example, he created the character of Mr. Potter, the villain portrayed by legendary actor Lionel Barrymore (Drew Barrymore’s Great Uncle). He also reimagined Bedford Falls as a more believable place, so audiences could connect to the characters. 
    • It’s believed that during this time, Capra visited the town of Seneca Falls to get inspiration for Bedford Falls. According to the Seneca Falls It’s a Wonderful Life Museum, a barber named Tom Bellissima recalled cutting Capra’s hair during a visit. 
      • Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls have a few similarities. For example, they are both located in western New York. The architecture and layout of the town both look similar as well. Not only that, a resident of Seneca Falls once set up affordable housing named after his family. George Bailey does the same thing in the film. 
      • But, the biggest similarity was the story of Antonio Varacalli. In April of 1917, a woman attempted suicide by jumping from the Seneca Falls Bridge. Antonio Varacalli jumped in after her, saving her life, but losing his own in the process. In response to this, he was posthumously awarded the Carnegie Hero Medal. Seneca Falls then came together to raise enough money for Varacalli’s family to come live in the United States, a dream he had been working toward. 
      • In the film, George walks down to the Bedford Falls Bridge and heavily considers jumping into the icy water. Clarence, George’s angel, saves his life by jumping into the water just before George could do it himself. George then saves the angel and forgets about his own thoughts of suicide. The events of Antonio Varacalli could have inspired this part of the film. 
    • After buying The Greatest Gift from RKO Pictures, Frank Capra changed the name of the movie to It’s a Wonderful Life. He hired two screenwriters to help with the new conglomerate script. Their names were Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. 
      • The screenwriters were thrilled to work with someone as creative as Capra, but the relationship between them and the director soured over time. For one thing, Capra was taking their work and re-writing portions of it with another screenwriter behind their backs–something that’s against the rules according to The Writers Guild. The couple also felt Capra was condescending, and they didn’t like that he referred to Frances as, “My Dear Woman.” 
      • They turned in their version of the script regardless, and Capra hired another two more writers to polish it off. The Writer’s Guild stepped in and made sure that Goodrich and Hackett got top credit for their work, with Capra and other writers listed below. 
  • It’s a Wonderful Life opens with a shot of a bell, very much like the famed liberty bell, ringing. This was the calling card for Liberty Films, an independent film studio founded by Frank Capra, Sam Briskin, William Wyler, and George Stevens.  
    • In the 1930s, Frank Capra was quite possibly the most well-known director in Hollywood. While the country toiled through the Great Depression, audiences could look to his films for a dose of optimism. In fact, some critics would even refer to his work as “Capra-corn” because of its perceived cheesiness. Capra didn’t mind, because he believed it was important to spread positive messages. 
    • During the 1930s, he directed award-winning classics like It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While serving in the Signal Corps during WWII, he directed seven documentaries that were meant to increase public support for the war effort. 
    • After returning from the war, Capra started the Liberty Films, and It’s a Wonderful Life would be their first and only production before they would be forced to sell their assets to Paramount in 1948. 
  • Some would describe Capra as a true independent, a filmmaker that never adhered to conventional standards. His philosophy was that there was one man behind every film, meaning he was involved in most of the decision-making on each production. 
    • Because of this, Capra was responsible for many of the key details of It’s a Wonderful Life, including the casting. 
      • James Stewart was Capra’s first choice for George Bailey from the beginning. He had already starred in other Capra projects like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take it With You. Stewart’s on-screen characters were often honest and friendly, and audiences recognized his unique and unassuming style of speech. Capra was convinced that Stewart could handle the darker scenes of this movie, and he was right. 
        • There’s a scene where George and Mary kiss passionately after speaking on the phone. Stewart was reluctant to do the scene, saying he was rusty. Capra insisted and changed the scene so that George and Mary would share the same phone, making the kiss afterward feel more natural. The couple shot it in one take, apparently leaving out a whole page of dialogue. When the script supervisor brought this up, Capra reportedly replied, “With technique like that, who needs dialogue?”
      • Capra’s first choice for Mary was Jean Arthur because she had experience playing opposite Stewart in two of his films. Arthur declined, and Capra looked at several other actresses (including Ginger Rogers) until deciding on Donna Reed. 
        • In one scene, Reed’s character was supposed to throw a rock at an abandoned house. Capra hired someone to throw the rock for Reed, but it turned out she was a terrific shot and threw rocks better than anyone on set.
      • From the start, Frank Capra was determined to have actor Henry Travers in the film. Travers was a veteran stage actor that had made a name for himself in famous film productions like, “The Bells of Saint Mary’s.” 
        • Ultimately, Capra decided that Travers would be perfect as Clarence Oddbody, George’s guardian angel. Travers retired from acting in 1949 and lived to be 91. Clarence would always be his most well-known role. 
      • Several different men were considered for the part of the conniving Mr. Potter, like Charles Coburn and Vincent Price. But, the role went to Lionel Barrymore, a legendary actor that had previously appeared in Capra’s film You Can’t Take it With You. 
        • When It’s a Wonderful Life premiered, the Hayes Code was still in effect. One of the stipulations of the code was that villains should always be punished for their misdeeds. However, the film was able to get away with not punishing the evil Mr. Potter! Capra said that he received more mail about this than anything else. 
  • It’s a Wonderful Life started production in the summer of 1946. 
    • Bedford Falls was a set built on the Encino Ranch owned by RKO Pictures in California. Even though it was a Liberty Films production, RKO Pictures would still distribute the film. 
      • This was one of the longest sets built for a movie at the time. The main street was 300 yards long, with a tree-lined center parkway. Bedford Falls included 75 stores and buildings, including a bank with a marble front. 
        • The set had been constructed in 3 separate sections. But when it had all been pieced together, it covered about four acres of land!
        • Twenty full-grown Oak trees were transplanted to the set as well
      • One of the most famous scenes in the movie takes place during a high school dance. As the main characters take part in a Charleston contest, a disgruntled teenager decides to open the floor to reveal a swimming pool! George and Mary then fall in, prompting other dancers to jump in as well. 
        • Critics felt that the scene was “fakery at its worst,” but the school and the gym floor really do exist in Beverly Hills.  
    • The special effects team developed a groundbreaking way to make fake snow. 
      • You can’t have a film take place during a New York December and NOT have snow, right? However, It’s a Wonderful Life was filmed during a record-breaking heatwave, meaning that there was no snow to be found. In fact, the heat was so intense, they had to take a day off of production so everyone could rest. 
      • Up until this point, movie snow was often bleached cornflakes, which as you can imagine, makes it difficult to record audio. The Special Effects crew used 3000 tons of ice, 300 tons of gypsum, 300 tons of plaster, and 6000 gallons of a special mixture of foamite, soap, and water. 
  • It’s a Wonderful Life was the final collaboration between Frank Capra and composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Tiomkin had worked with Capra on previous films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. 
    • Frank Capra never saw this movie as a Christmas movie, although it takes place at Christmas. Originally, it was scheduled to release in the Spring of 1947, but RKO pushed up the release to December of 1946, rushing parts of the production. The greatest casualty of this was Tiomkin’s score. 
      • Tiomkin was famous for adding in popular songs or familiar melodies in his film scores, which definitely shows with the “Buffalo Girls” melody appearing throughout the film. 
      • But, the score that the audience hears while watching the final cut of the movie is drastically different than what Tiomkin composed. His music had a darker tone, emphasizing the more serious themes in the film; themes like financial ruin, death, and suicide. 
      • To make the film feel lighter, much of Tiomkin’s music was cut and replaced with pre-written music. Because of the rushed deadline, there wasn’t enough time for re-writes, and most of Tiomkin’s music ended up on the cutting room floor. He referred to it as, “a real scissors job.” 
    • For decades audiences didn’t have a chance to hear the original music, but the Sundance Institute was able to recover much of it. The reconstructed version of what Tiomkin had planned can be found on a recent episode of Saturday Cinema with Lynn Warfel, performed with David Newman and the Philharmonic Orchestra. We will link to it in the blog! https://www.yourclassical.org/story/2021/12/04/im-your-guardian-angel?fbclid=IwAR3sqg2VPAeI4ed9GLuXZnTCXBFGSpC5QrgxakBRyMnMOAU7CmcWeuA-yd8 

ALSO STARRING

  • Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy
    • Mitchell was a character actor, and another recognizable role for him was Gerald O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. 
  • H.B. Warner as Mr. Gower
    • During this time Warner had been typecast after appearing as Jesus in the 1927 silent film The King of Kings. Although it was controversial to have him play a troubled alcoholic, Capra took the chance. Warner was thrilled to play such a different character and show that he was not a one-note actor. 
  • Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey
    • She was also a character actor that ended up being typecast as mothers and grandmothers. She played Jimmy Stewart’s mother about 4 times.
  • The children
    • Larry Simms as Pete Bailey
    • Carol Coombs as Janie Bailey
    • Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu Bailey
      • When George calls her his little gingersnap it is cute but also relevant because Zuzu was actually a Gingersnap brand at the time.
      • Grimes said about the movie, “I absolutely love it. There are so many messages. Capra was trying to make people realize that life is worth living, and that you can make a difference. We lose sight of that every once in a while. That’s why I think people love to watch it.”
    • Jimmy Hawkins as Tommy Bailey
  • Lillian Randolph as Annie
    • Randolph was a prolific actress that appeared in several films and TV shows throughout her career, all the way until her death in 1980.
  • A little cameo appears in the scene where the gym floor opens at the high school dance. You can see that the young man that is jealous of George and opens the floor is Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer!

FUN FACTS

  • When leaving George’s house after the wedding festivities, Uncle Billy is clearly drunk. He is not able to realize that his “missing hat” is sitting upon his head. When filming this scene, as the character of Uncle Billy exits the camera’s frame, a loud crash can be heard. As intentional as it sounds, it is actually the accidental dropping of props by a technician. Thomas Mitchell just rolled with the sound, calling out from off-screen that he’s okay. Although the technician feared for his job, Capra instead gave him a raise for improving the sound of the film as the audience imagines the crash being Uncle Billy colliding into trash cans. 
  • During a run on the bank when customers fear that they will lose their money, George uses his own personal Honeymoon funds to calm his bank customers. All of the requests for money were scripted except for the last one made by Mrs. Davis. Her request was for only $17.50. Capra had told her to surprise Stewart, and so his reaction was genuine when he kissed her on the cheek for such a low money request!

RECEPTION/LEGACY

  • There are a few reasons why audiences didn’t go see It’s a Wonderful Life. For one, the East Coast of the United States was experiencing record lows in temperatures, prompting a lot of people to stay home. But, the main issue was that audiences felt it wasn’t cheery enough to be a Christmas movie. 
    • This is a fair sentiment. The film explores a lot of dark themes and might be a tough watch for some. Frank Capra never saw this as a failure. In fact, he often said It’s a Wonderful Life was his favorite among his films. He liked that it explored the pain of normal life as well as the joy. 
    • Capra didn’t want to make a film about the war, especially since it was fresh on the minds of audiences across the globe. But even though this film expressed a heart-warming message, it may not have been the uplifting escapism that post-war movie-goers were looking for. 
    • There is some debate about whether the film technically flopped, but it certainly didn’t do well and foreshadowed the end of Liberty Films, and in some peoples’ opinion, Frank Capra’s career. 
  • And this could have been the end of It’s a Wonderful Life’s legacy. But, in 1974, the copyright owner of the film made a clerical error and failed to renew the film’s copyright. It fell into the public domain, where TV studios jumped at the free content and played it freely for about 19 years. In terms of the film’s popularity, this was the miracle the movie needed. It’s a Wonderful Life had somehow become a Christmas staple, a movie that people of all ages would enjoy, gathered by their loved ones every holiday season. 
  • Although the film was nominated for five different Academy Awards it did not win any. However, Capra did win Best Director for the Golden Globes and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. 
  • Several television shows have their own episode version of this movie.
  • A sequel was in the works called It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story but it has now been canceled. 
  • Seneca Falls has a museum dedicated to the movie.  

It’s a Wonderful Life had all the makings of a Hollywood classic; a famed director, a well-known and likable lead, and a heartwarming, yet relatable story. But then, the unexpected happened: audiences didn’t see it. For nearly thirty years, the film fell into relative obscurity, generally only remembered by those that saw it when it first premiered. But just when it seemed like the world was better off without it, it resurfaced to bring joy to audiences everywhere.  

As a Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life might get a little too real. The main character is a regular man with extraordinary ambition that eventually gives up his dreams to live, what he considers to be, an ordinary life. He has no understanding of the incredible impact he’s had on so many lives until someone shows him. 

This film holds a message that nearly everyone on this planet longs to believe: that each and every one of us, just through the simple acts of life, has made a remarkable difference. And if we were to learn anything from this movie, it’s that we should all stop and remind the ones around us just how wonderful they are. 


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