It's a Wonderful Life


Also found in: Acronyms, Wikipedia.

It's a Wonderful Life

Many Americans view the 1946 movie It's a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, as the definitive American Christmas story. Some even call it the American version of Charles Dickens's classic Christmas tale, A Christmas Carol. The movie tells the story of a responsible but ambitious young man, George Bailey, who never realizes his dream of leaving his hometown for adventure and a big career. Aware of how his departure will hurt the fortunes of others, he decides instead to stay home in order to serve his family and his community. The story begins on a Christmas Eve after World War II, when a crisis enters George's life and causes him to reconsider the value of all he's done. The final, happy ending celebrates the worth of George's achievements and the importance of friendship.

The Greatest Gift

Frank Capra based his movie on a short story called "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern. The main character, George Pratt, despairs over the boredom and triviality of his life. On Christmas Eve he decides to commit suicide by throwing himself over the edge of a bridge. Suddenly a man whom he didn't realize was there begins to talk to him. George tells this stranger that he wishes he had never been born. The stranger, an angel, grants this wish. George returns to town and visits his family and place of business, finding things and people changed for the worse. He comes back to the bridge and begs the angel for the opportunity to live again. The angel restores everything as it was, and George returns home, realizing that any life, no matter how seemingly unimportant, is a great gift.

Stern penned the brief story in 1938. Unable to find a publisher, he printed up 200 copies of the story as a 24-page pamphlet and sent them to his friends at Christmas time in 1943. His agent Shirley Collier thought the story would make a good film. She convinced Stern to let her try to sell the story to a Hollywood studio. In 1944 RKO Pictures bought the film rights to "The Greatest Gift." In that same year Good Housekeeping magazine published the short story under the title "The Man Who Never Was." RKO thought the story would provide a suitable lead role for Cary Grant, but was not satisfied with the ideas their screenwriters came up with for turning the short story into a movie script.

The Story Becomes a Script

In 1945 director Frank Capra, just back from his World War II stint in the armed services, bought the screen rights to Stern's story from RKO. His first concern was to flesh out the brief and thinly developed original story. Capra worked on developing the material himself, but also hired screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to come up with a script. In the end, the film lists Hackett, Goodrich, and Capra as the authors of the screenplay, and notes that additional scenes were added by Jo Swerling.

Capra loved the new, expanded story. He thought the plot's exploration of the dark themes of despair and contemplated suicide as well as the uplifting themes of love and service to others would be perfect for his first postwar movie.

The Script Becomes a Film

As Hackett and Goodrich worked on the script, Capra sought the needed actors. He wanted, and got, Jimmy Stewart to play the lead role of George Bailey. Jean Arthur, his first choice to play the role of Mary Bailey, turned him down, however. He considered several more actresses for the part, including Olivia De Havilland, before offering the role to Donna Reed, who accepted. Capra, a meticulous planner, thought as deeply about the casting of the film's small roles as he did its starring roles. When he had finally assembled the perfect cast, he was ready to begin making the movie.

The film's original budget totaled $1,700,000, but the final cost came in at over $3,000,000. A good portion of this money went to building sets and creating special effects. Set designers recreated several sections of Bedford Falls, the town in which the action takes place, at RKO's Encino Ranch. Covering four acres of land, this was among the longest sets that had yet been created for a movie filmed in the United States. The Main Street set stretched three blocks in length and included 75 buildings and shops. The center of the street was lined with 20 real oak trees, uprooted elsewhere and replanted on the set. The special effects crew labored for three weeks in order to produce the snowstorm that takes place on the night that George Bailey decides to commit suicide. In the process they devised a new way of generating artificial snow, for which they were given a Certificate of Honorable Mention at the 1947 Academy Awards. Although the beautifully filmed wintertime scenes convinced movie viewers, the thermometer on the set registered temperatures in the 80s and 90s on the day they were shot. The film was released on December 20, 1946. It was not a box office hit, nor did it inspire an unbroken string of rave reviews. Some commentators think that the film's unusual blend of romance, comedy, and dark emotional drama may have confused viewers, thereby contributing to a less than stunning box office return. Moreover, some of America's most prestigious periodicals panned the movie as cloyingly sentimental and unrealistic. Nevertheless, the film charmed scores of other reviewers, and perhaps more importantly, thousands of fans. In addition, it won five Academy Award nominations: Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. Though It's a Wonderful Life did not receive any Academy Awards, Capra did take home a "Golden Globe" award for best director of the year from the Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Association.

It's a Wonderful Life was the first movie Capra made with Liberty Films, an independent studio formed by Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler, and Sam Briskin after World War II. Financial difficulties soon downed the fledgling company, however. Capra and his partners sold it to Paramount Pictures in 1947, and along with it, the right to any future profits garnered by It's a Wonderful Life. The film languished under Paramount's care, and when its original copyright ran out in 1974, no one bothered to renew it. At this point television stations all over the country began to show It's a WonderfulLife at Christmas time, because they didn't have to pay for it. These showings revived the interest of older fans and introduced new audiences to the film. This once-forgotten film has now become a beloved Hollywood classic.

Looking Back

Many movie viewers can imagine no one else but Jimmy Stewart in the role of George Bailey. Although Stewart made over 75 films, It's aWonderful Life remained his favorite. Moreover, he received more fan mail about that movie than any other he ever made.

Donna Reed recalled working harder for Capra than she had for any other director. Still, she later described her days on the set as fun and inspired. Most of the cast and crew fondly remember their participation in It'sa Wonderful Life. The same cannot be said of music director Dimitri Tiomkin. Tiomkin had chosen "Ode to Joy" as the song for the last scene in the movie. Capra overruled him and substituted "Auld Lang Syne" instead. He also cut some of the tunes Tiomkin had written specially for the film and replaced them with music written by other composers. Furious, Tiomkin never worked with Capra again. Screenwriters Hackett and Goodrich, too, grew to dislike Capra, who they felt did not respect their contribution to the film.

Though he made scores of movies over his lifetime, Capra loved It'sa Wonderful Life best of all his creations. He explained his preference in the following way:

It's a Wonderful Life sums up my philosophy of filmmaking. First, to exalt the worth of the individual. Second, to champion man - plead his causes, protest any degradation of his dignity, spirit, or divinity. And third, to dramatize the viability of the individual - as in the theme of the film itself.

I wanted It's a Wonderful Life to say what Walt Whitman said to every man, woman, and babe in the world: "The sum of all known reverences I add up in you, whoever you are. . . ." I wanted it to reflect the compelling words of Fra Giovanni of nearly five centuries ago: "The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within reach, is joy. There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look." . . . For myself, I can only say . . . it was my kind of film for my kind of people [Basinger, 1986, ix].

Further Reading

Basinger, Jeanine. The It's a Wonderful Life Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. Cahill, Marie. It's A Wonderful Life: A Hollywood Classic. New York: Smithmark, 1993. Hawkins, Jimmy. It's a Wonderful Life: The Fiftieth Anniversary Scrapbook. Philadelphia, Penn.: Courage Books, 1996. McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Munby, Jonathan. "A Hollywood Carol's Wonderful Life." In Mark Connelly, ed. Christmas at the Movies. New York: I. B. Tauris and Company, 2000. Scherele, Victor, and William Turner Levy. The Films of Frank Capra. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1977. Stern, Philip Van Doren. The Greatest Gift. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.
References in periodicals archive ?
Jenny Diski is not alone among them when she claims that It's a Wonderful Life is one of the "darkest films I know.
The German director Wim Wenders in his film Wings fo Desire (1987), a film that is something of a remake of It's a Wonderful Life, also uses this angel/actor metaphor to drive his story.
Jenny Diski's brief article on It's A Wonderful Life is quite revealing.