Its A Wonderful Life Movie Poster.jpgIt’s a Wonderful Life (IAWL), which first appeared in cinemas in 1946, is shown in our household nearly every year at Christmas.

SpouseMouse bought us the Hal Roach colourised version from the 1980s when we were married. For those interested, I prefer it to the black and white original. I would like to address this first, so, if you prefer, please feel free to skip to the existentialist section which follows.

Colourisation in general

Colourisation of old black-and-white films has become no less contentious over the years.

Ted Turner is often held responsible for IAWL’s transformation from black and white. However, Turner does not own or control this film. Therefore, he cannot be held responsible for any colourised version of IAWL.

In fact, when Colorization Inc. turned Topper (starring Cary Grant) into a colour film,  the result was well received. Colorization then took 10 minutes’ worth of IAWL film, turned it into colour and showed it to its director, Frank Capra. Impressed, Capra agreed to pay half the $260,000 of the tinting costs and share any profits resulting from its release. He also agreed in principle that the company could colourise two of his other films, Meet John Doe and Lady for a Day. However, because of a legal loophole (carelessness, really, in not renewing copyright) which saw IAWL repeated across the United States sometimes several times a day during the Christmas season in the 1970s and 1980s,  the film was considered to be in the public domain. Colorization refunded Capra his money.

Hal Roach Studios were the first to successfully colourise all of IAWL in 1986. It is pleasing to watch as each frame looks like a colour photograph of the period. It appears that they might have been, as photographs were, washed in sepia then lightly tinted.

Subsequently, other versions appeared. Republic Pictures, the owner of IAWL, produced theirs in 1989. Capra and James Stewart, IAWL‘s main star, objected to the process. However, in 2007, Legend Films, with the agreement of Capra’s estate, produced a third version.

People say that colourised classics look like Norman Rockwell paintings: too much of a good thing can be bad. I’ve not seen that many, but IAWL benefits from colour, at least in the Hal Roach one. Small towns can look drab in black and white. IAWL’s Bedford Falls looks lovely when you can see what the ladies look like all dolled up. The street landscape also comes across much better.

The most existentialist small town film ever?

People who haven’t seen Frank Capra films — and, for many years, I was among them — have the impression that he was a maker of happy, sappy motion pictures.

It is unclear how this impression started, but, because his films are often morality tales based on everyday good-versus-evil, they are quite clear-cut in their messages. This is certainly not characteristic of post-modernism. Furthermore, there is not much for the intellectual critical theorist to discuss for hours on end arriving at ‘it’s what you want it to be’.

In short, George Bailey (James Stewart) is a young man from Bedford Falls who longs to escape his home town. His father owns a savings and loan; his customers are average middle- and working-class people who want to buy a house and raise a family with a minimum of financial worries.

The Bailey family’s arch enemy is Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who, unfortunately, is the rich, greedy majority shareholder in their savings and loan association. He also has his own bank. He has no empathy for the ‘little guy’ and wants to acquire the savings and loan.

George Bailey is just about to leave for a summer in Europe followed by university when he feels duty bound to help the board of directors repel Potter’s call for the institution to stop lending to their modest customers. The board agree — provided George takes over the savings and loan.

George — describing himself as a young man ‘with a hatful of dreams’ — gives his tuition money to his younger brother Harry, who has just graduated from high school. The agreement is that Harry attends college in George’s place and, upon completion, will work at the savings and loan so that George can realise his own aspirations.

Unfortunately, things go from bad to worse for George, and he is never able to realise his dreams of travelling the world, attending university and becoming an architect. At one point, when his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces $8,000 — $90,000 in today’s money — to deposit in the savings and loan account at Potter’s bank, Potter spots the money and takes it. He wants to call in the banking authorities and have the savings and loan shut down for malfeasance.

This can only mean one thing for George — a permanently ruined reputation, no job prospects and a realistic possibility of prison. Yes, back then, bankers went to prison; ask anyone who is over the age of 80 and they are likely to know of a local banking scandal which took place during the Depression.

George, by then, a husband to Mary (Donna Reed) and father of four, decides that his life isn’t worth living anymore. On Christmas Eve, having had enough, he wishes he had never lived. A trainee angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), comes down from heaven to fulfil that existential wish in order to teach him a lesson. If Clarence does a heavenly job, he will finally receive his wings — a century or so after his death!

At once, George finds his world of Bedford Falls turned upside down in a harrowing and sad way. The town is called Pottersville. It’s full of raucous night clubs and clip joints. The men are hostile and violent, the women cold and withdrawn. His neighbours and customers — all friends — no longer know him. His mother (Beulah Bondi) gives him an indescribably cold stare. Mary is a librarian who has no social life.

Henry Travers and James StewartThey see a lunatic who needs to be locked up. As Clarence points out (paraphrased), ‘How would they know you? You’ve never existed.’

Stewart plays George with the sense of terror and hysteria that sometimes attacks honest men when they are broken. His facial expressions are priceless — most effective.

This is a 20-minute sequence which will rip most people’s hearts out. Up to this point, Capra has shown us the strong friendships which George has forged as well throughout his life as well as the respect which people show him for his kindness and integrity. (See the full synopsis.) It’s because of him that Bedford Falls works as a town with responsible, loving citizens helping each other. Capra makes the Pottersville contrast startling and frightening.

People contemplating suicide wonder if anyone would miss them. Yes, they certainly would. Everyone makes a difference in this world — nearly all of them for the better.

This is a film that despondent people should see. Just don’t tell them the plot line ahead of time. Let them experience it the way Capra intended.

And have a box of tissues at the ready. I defy anyone not to well up.

IAWL becomes life-affirming once again as George begs Clarence to undo his foolish wish and bring him back to life. Capra begins by showing us how much simple pleasures mean. George, who has been walking around with a few petals from a rose his daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) won at school (he’s meant to ‘glue’ them back on), discovers them with glee. (They had vanished during his wish because he had never lived.)

When he gets back home — worried about the loss of Uncle Billy’s deposit money — he finds his living room filled with his customers, friends and family who have had a whip-round and made up — thanks mostly to George’s friend who works out of town in plastics — over $25,000, enabling the savings and loan to stay open.

But George, having seen what his town would look like had he not lived, as well as being anxious about going to prison, still looks hysterical. Indeed, we see the police and the bank examiner among the crowd.

In the final moments (emphases mine):

Harry also arrives to support his brother, and toasts George as “The richest man in town”. In the pile of donated funds, George finds a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer inscribed, Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends. P.S. Thanks for the wings! Love, Clarence.” A bell on the Christmas tree rings, and his daughter Zuzu remembers aloud that it means an angel has earned his wings. George realizes that he truly has a wonderful life.

Pamela Geller at Atlas Shrugs tells us:

It’s A Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie and one of the most popular and endearing films ever made by director Frank Capra. Frank Capra considered this film his own personal favorite — as did James Stewart.

Background story

The inspiration for IAWL came from a 4,000-word story called ‘The Greatest Gift’, written by the historian, author and book editor, Philip Van Doren Stern.

Initially unable to find a publisher, he had it printed himself in a palm-sized format which fit into Christmas cards for his friends. By December 1944, the story was published as a proper book with illustrations by Rafaello Busoni. That same month Stern sold the story to Reader’s Scope and Good Housekeeping. The latter published it in their January 1945 edition as ‘The Man Who Was Never Born’.

One of the original palm-sized editions found its way to RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead. He, in turn, showed to Cary Grant, who expressed interest in playing the protagonist. RKO bought the rights for $10,000 in 1944 and assigned several screenwriters to adapt it for cinema.

In 1945, Frank Capra’s production company purchased the rights from RKO for $10,000 and the film made its premiere in December 1946.

James Stewart later wrote Stern about the story, calling it

an inspiration to everyone concerned with the picture … the fundamental story was so sound and right.

Stern died in 1984 at the age of 83. However, his story lives on. Another small-format edition was published in 1996. More recently, Tom Glazer, the grandson of one of Stern’s colleagues from Simon and Schuster, found one of the original Christmas card copies and asked the author’s daughter if he could republish it. Glazer republished it through his own company, Graphic Image Inc. in 2011.

As his daughter Marguerite Stern Robinson describes it as she remembers when her father first sent out his small editions:

My father, who was himself from a mixed religious background, explained to me that while this story takes place at Christmas time, and that we were sending it as a Christmas card to our friends, it is a universal story for all people in all times.

References from the period

Some will wonder how Capra and his writers arrived at some of the film’s content to interest the audience eyeing the film listings deciding whether to see it.

A reader of PJ Media — buzzsawmonkey — reveals insights to the terminology of the day. Quotes below are his.

The title:

While the title is bitterly ironic—it’s a play on the old bravado line, “It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken,” which got people cynically through the Depression—it is a celebration of the unsung heroes of any civilized society.

What it has to say:

it is, in effect, a re-telling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Clarence the would-be angel filling in for all three Christmas ghosts. It is a celebration—as Mr. Roberts also was—of the more quiet heroism of the people who do not get a chance to be the war heroes or the Big Successes, but who shoulder responsibilities they did not ask for or want and persevere.

It’s a Wonderful Life shows that the world is not fair; that people get stuck with responsibilities they do not want; that misfortune or error will often harm the worthy and advantage the wealthy—but that it is possible, with personal kindness and responsibility, to ameliorate these things.

Why ‘George Bailey’?

“George Bailey” is a symbolic name. There used to be a phrase, back when the movie was made; “Let George do it,” which basically meant “let someone else take on the job.” George Bailey is the “George” who gets stuck with the task of saving the entire town; Mr. Bailey is the town’s bailee, a legal term which means someone who is the unpaid keeper, the holder of responsibility.

Frank Capra’s intentions

Capra had an additional message to convey with the film.

However, before we get to that, many of us who have seen the film will wonder if he had an inspiration for Bedford Falls. Salon reader JohnPotter gives us a possible insight:

It is interesting to me that Frank Capra and I grew up in the same small town, Sierra Madre, California. Aside from the warmer weather, palm trees, and no river running through it, it could have been a model for Bedford Falls. One movie theatre, one bank, one bar (The Buccaneer) no dance halls, no boxing arena, and, you guessed it, one Yellow Cab. Yikes! I grew up in Bedford Falls and didn’t realize it!

IMDb has fascinating trivia about the film, among it, the name Bedford Falls:

The name of Bedford Falls was combined from Bedford Hills, in Westchester County, New York, and Seneca Falls, a small town midway between Rochester and Syracuse. The town of Elmira, mentioned by the bank examiner, is a real town in New York, not that far from the actual Seneca Falls.

In 1946, following the film’s release, Capra, a Roman Catholic:

described the film’s theme as “the individual’s belief in himself” and that he made it “to combat a modern trend toward atheism.

In 2012, Dan Seitz at Uproxx revealed that Capra had an alternative scene with Clarence the angel-in-waiting. This will settle much speculation:

It’s widely held that the entire reason Mr. Potter gets away with stealing all that money in the final movie is that in the original script, he didn’t.

No, in the original script, Clarence, the good-hearted, kindly old man of an angel shows up to scold Potter and, according to rumor, talks Mr. Potter into a freaking heart attack before leaving him to die knowing exactly what’ll happen to him in hell.

Not that anybody would feel bad for Potter, one of the single most hated villains in film history, but Capra wound up deciding that was too dark.

I, along with many other viewers (even agnostics), would rather Capra had included that. The ending — with no payback for Potter (and most of us hoped that divine retribution would be dealt!) — is the subject of lengthy conversation every Christmas.

However, IMDb has a possible reason why Capra softpedalled Potter:

In 1947, an FBI analyst submitted, without comment, an addition to a running memo on “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” recording the opinion of an industry source who said that the film’s “obvious” attempt to discredit bankers “is a common trick used by Communists.”

Capra had also originally intended to make the film more religious:

Frank Capra filmed a number of sequences that were later cut; the only remnants are rare stills that have been unearthed. A number of alternative endings were considered, with Capra’s first script having George fall to his knees saying The Lord’s Prayer (the script called for an opening scene with the townspeople in prayer). Feeling an overly religious tone didn’t have the emotional impact of family and friends coming to George’s rescue, the closing scenes were rewritten.

He was probably right in terms of appealing to all audiences. Personally, I would have preferred his original choice, however, these days, fewer people would probably watch it.

Back to IMDb:

The entire third act is pretty much George Bailey stumbling around in sheer utter horror, getting any sort of emotional comfort stripped away from his soul. To George his choice is pretty much consign his friends to Hell or face shame and jail.

It’s really at this point you wonder about Capra’s relationship with his religion, since the guy was a devout Catholic.

The movie softens the blow, obviously: We’ve all seen the finale. Still, no matter how many times you see this movie, it’s still incredibly jolting that something so profoundly bleak made its way to the screen. The reason for that is Capra basically paid for it out of his own pocket.

Not that this makes it any less of a classic, of course. If anything it improves it because George really does earn that happy ending. Still, the next time somebody tells you it’s sugary, you might want to point them towards the scary parts; sweet it may be, but saccharine it is not.

George Bailey and his dreams — was Capra right or wrong?

Along with others who have seen IAWL, viewers sometimes wonder what message Capra was sending us about achieving our dreams.

What follows are a few of George Bailey’s lines in the early part of the film:

[his suitcase must be big enough] for a thousand and one nights with plenty of room here for labels from Italy and Baghdad

Oh well, you know what I’ve always talked about. Build things. Design new buildings. Plan modern cities.

I-I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office….I’d go crazy. I -, I want to do something big, something important.

I just feel like if I didn’t get away, I’d bust.

I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…

Perhaps it’s the way we look at things today, but, frankly, there are people who would be at wit’s end if they could not leave their home town.

Here’s the aforementioned JohnPotter, the Salon reader, on George’s situation:

George Bailey is a chronic enabler- he gives up college for his brother, he gives up the honeymoon to save the Building and Loan, he has to live in the leaky, drafty old house, He has to tolerate senile, old Uncle Billy he could have made it on his own, in a career in the new plastics industry … if he hadn’t burdened himself with all of these leeches.

Another, NickBadseed (!) sums it up this way:

What Capra was really saying is that your better off ignoring your dreams and the lure of NY or Paris, and you should stay in your … little town and eke out enough money to raise your brood of kids and be happy about it. I love this movie. But I don’t really agree with what it is saying.

On the other hand, another Salon reader, JugSouthgate, has these observations, a few of which relate to the film as a whole:

1) George Bailey doesn’t contemplate suicide as a way to end his troubles. He contemplates it only because he has a life insurance policy that is worth much more if he’s dead. The insurance money would pay off the shortfall at the savings and loan and support his family for several years.

George Bailey is, if nothing else, a responsible man. He values his responsibility to his family and his depositors more than his own life.

2) The crisis is caused because Potter STEALS the S&L’s deposit money. He knows where the money came from, and that Bailey’s uncle simply misplaced it for a moment. Yet Potter is willing to send innocent men to jail and keep their money in order to eliminate competition and insure a stranglehold on the town.

3) George Bailey does not “give up everything”. He chooses to marry Mary because he loves her, she loves him, and they want to build a life together. (What a concept!) He takes on that enormous responsibility, and others, at the cost of his dreams of world travel and such.

4) Potter isn’t just greedy. He wants power, and is also a racist (note his dismissal of the town’s Italians as “garlic eaters”).

Potter was the villain then. Today he’d be the hero.

6) Bert is the tall policeman, Ernie is the short cab driver. That these names were reused for Sesame Street characters cannot be a coincidence.

If you haven’t seen the film before, be sure to watch it — if possible — with someone else or, failing that, discuss it with a friend.

I’ll have more on IAWL tomorrow with a few other aspects to explore.