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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