All you can take with
you is that which you
Every year I resist watching Christmas movies until I feel the joy of the season come over me. And every year that happens later and later. That’s not to say I don’t feel joy, but that time seems to fly by so quickly these days I have no time to go from fall to Thanksgiving to Christmas before I’m able to catch my breath. I mean, it seems I was immersed in Halloween horror fare about five minutes ago. This year, however, I am trying my best to be proactive in the joy department by starting to watch my favorite Christmas movies early. And I am succeeding as I’ve already watched the one, absolute essential – not only a Christmas favorite, but one of my favorite movies of all time.
A man finds out what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.
It’s a hell of a day. George Bailey sits on a stool in Martini’s Bar, Bedford Falls, USA. He’s desperate. Not a praying man, George asks God to show him the way, he’s at the end of his rope. It’s Christmas eve.
We love the man sitting on that bar stool. We feel for him. Deeply. We know him and we know his life, his family, his dreams, his heart. And, as far as hearts go, his is a huge one. By the age of twelve George had saved two lives – directly as it’s impossible to know how many others through those two - his brother Harry’s and his first boss’, Mr. Gower. He’d sacrificed for his family as a young man, pushed back his dreams because people needed him elsewhere. He chose, and fate followed – the greater good. He gave up all he owned so that others could have a decent life. His is a wonderful life. And yet, he is desolate on a day that started better than most.
That day started with the news that George’s younger brother, Harry is a war hero. Pride swells as we see George starting his day about town, running into people and gushing about Harry. Unable to leave Bedford Falls, George makes the best of it each day. And onward into the Buildings and Loan he goes and the happenings of that particular day. By fate and circumstance he is relegated to a huge life in a small town. Huge because he makes a significant difference in many lives. But he is unaware of that fact as he sits on that bar stool. So, after a day of fear, anger, deep disappointment and a myriad of other emotions, with a $500 life insurance policy and a couple of rose petals in his pockets, he steps off that bar stool and out into a bitter, snowy night and ends up on a bridge to pray again. This time he prays for courage so he can do the unthinkable.
And then an angel appears. An AS2, to be exact, an angel second class who has a hell of a task before him – to show a lost, but extraordinary man the value of his life.
Suddenly the snow ceases to fall and through a barely recognizable Bedford Falls the unlikely duo revisit the sights and sounds that made up that life, one that no longer exists, all its ripples erased. All the players we’ve come to know are unrecognizable, for the worse without having been touched by George’s power and influence for the good. A few are no longer around at all. Our beloved George learns that had his desperate wish come true, that he’d never been born – even the most insignificant of trees would have been changed forever.
“Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
A huge lesson is learned in the end and a new, strong appreciation for life and the meaning of friendship is achieved. By that end we’ve lived through George’s joys and sorrows and are the better for it. It’s a Wonderful Life is not only a film, you see, but serves as a reminder each year of how much we all have to be grateful for. It is a gift on celluloid. And it keeps on giving.
My favorite scenes – I have the nerve to try to choose just a few to mention here in a film that is perfection. But here goes…
George Lassos’ the Moon…this is all…
A lanky man holding up a pair of ill-fitting football uniform pants with one arm, singing way off key and promising… “I’ll give you the moon, Mary”
Mom tells George to call on Mary…
Harry has returned to Bedford Fall a married man and friends and family gather in celebration. George, the proud, loving older brother steps outside for a bit of air and a smoke. A train whistle blows in the distance and George is reminded of the new obstacle wedged between him and his dreams,reminders of which he keeps neatly in his breast pocket, brochures – South America, Europe, the world. Knowing he’ll never make it on that train, he tosses those reminders aside. Mom notices George outside by himself and goes out to join him, as a mother would do, to keep him from fretting about the inevitable and to guide his thoughts elsewhere - “Did you know that Mary Hatch is back from school? …Nice girl, Mary.”
That is such a sweet scene between two wonderful actors. As Ma Bailey makes a case for Mary’s feelings for him, it always gets me when George asks “And all’s fair in love and war?” and she replies, shyly, “Well, I don’t know about war.” There’s real affection there. Or at least, it seems so to me and stands to reason as this film is the fourth time (of five) in which Beulah Bondi portrays James Stewart’s mother on-screen. The others are: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts and Vivacious Lady, and once on his television series, The Jimmy Stewart Show.
I enjoy this bit of trivia listed in IMDB and thought I’d share it here in reference to this scene – As Uncle Billy is leaving George’s house drunk before Ma Bailey comes out, it sounds as if he stumbles over some trash cans on the sidewalk. In fact, a crew member dropped some equipment right after Uncle Billy left the screen. Both actors continued with the scene (“I’m all right, I’m all right!”) and director Frank Capra decided to use it in the final cut. He gave the clumsy stagehand a $10 bonus for “improving the sound.” Great stuff and just one of the many happy accidents that happen that make the greatest films even greater.
The first kiss…the telephone scene
George wanders about Bedford Falls and somehow ends up in front of Mary’s house. She invites him in and with that signature, James Stewart awkwardness George enters the house and stammers about, not quite sure what to do with himself. Mary’s mother is as rude as can be taking every opportunity to mention Sam “hee haw” Wainwright is due to call Mary any minute. From New York! As George’s nervousness grows, the phone rings and sure enough, it’s Sam who asks to speak to both Mary and George. And a lovely scene is born. With the phone between them the energy sizzles until it comes to a boil. George and Mary are locked in each others arms, kissing passionately to the horror of Mrs. Hatch. And there’s no looking back now. (Well, until later.)
There is a sweet back story regarding this fabulous kissing scene – Mr. Stewart was very nervous about it. He’d not made a film for several years due to World War Two and this long kissing scene was an embarrassing way to get warmed up. “A fella gets rusty,” he said. So to ensure his friend was as comfortable as possible Capra kept the camera rolling and shot the whole thing in one take. Then one little problem. The script girl went over to Frank Capra to let him know that yes, the scene was fine but they left out an entire page of dialogue. Capra replied, “with technique like that, who needs dialogue? Print it!”
Just three scenes out of so many – the Buildings and Loans is about to fold and George is distributing his own $2,000 to keep it afloat. As people step up to ask for the money they need to tide them over Miss Davis requests $17.50 – (the original) Bert and Ernie singing “I Love You Truly” to the newlyweds – that ending! On and on.
I absolutely adore this movie, in case you haven’t noticed, but I am not alone. It is one of the most treasured films of all time and by everyone including the film’s director, Frank Capra who often said this was his favorite film as did the film’s star, James Stewart. Stewart also said George Bailey was his favorite character, which is quite something given the many memorable men he played throughout his distinguished career. And, I might as well mention that by my estimation his portrayal of George Bailey is the finest performance of his career. It often occurs to me that because It’s a Wonderful Life has become so much a part of our lives, that it is in some ways taken for granted, overlooked as the masterful film it is in all manner of ways. Stewart’s magnificent performance is one of them, a role that requires emotions from the depths of despair to pure jubilation and all in between. Amazing range.
“Please God, I want to live again.”
Capra’s films are all memorable and distinctly Capra with similar themes running throughout. We all know what “Capraesque” refers to, deep sentiment, the positive side of society, the heroic, common man who shows extraordinary courage. All of which is present in It’s a Wonderful Life, a film Capra made at the height of his power in Hollywood. Capra had just created Liberty Films, along with his partner, San Briskin and fellow directors, William Wyler and George Stevens and It’s a Wonderful Life was the company’s first production. Of the film, Capra said, “Everything was perfect about it. It was just plain luck.” He once told his son, “It’s the picture I waited my whole life to make.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, The Greatest Gift. The author couldn’t sell his story upon completion so he decided to make 200 copies and send them out as Christmas cards. RKO bought the story in 1943 for $10,000 but they didn’t know what to do with it. As time passed several screenwriters took a shot at the story and came up with lots of interesting ideas. One of the early versions of the script had two George Baileys living parallel lives. One evil, one good, showing how George would have been affected had he made different choices, culminating in a fight between the good and evil Georges. That story featured no evil, Mr. Potter and was shelved along with all the other ideas. That is, until Frank Capra came along and bought the story from RKO for the same $10,000 with the submitted scripts thrown in. Frank Capra loved the original short story but wasn’t satisfied with any of the scripts so he decided to write it himself, keeping all the good ideas from the previous attempts. He retitled it, It’s a Wonderful Life and added two things immediately, Mr. Potter and Bedford Falls, the warm, typically American town we grow so fond of. Script complete, Capra went directly to his friend, Jimmy Stewart and offered him the part of George Bailey. Stewart accepted without question starting a string of inspired casting choices, another Capra gift – one wonderful actor after another, culminating with the addition of MGM contract player, Donna Reed in her first starring role. The others? Some of the greatest character actors in Hollywood.
It’s a Wonderful Life received five Academy Award nominations – Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Rose, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording and the coveted, Best Picture of the year, but it was not a hit with audiences in 1946. It wasn’t long before it was out of theaters, out of sight and out of mind. According to Frank Capra, Jr., it was due to a “legal loophole” that audiences fell in love with the film many years later. Copyright on It’s a Wonderful Life expired in the early 1970s and due to a clerical error, the copyright was not renewed for an additional 28 years, which the law allowed. Instead it entered the public domain and television stations across the country played it all the time and the love affair between the film and audiences began. And we love it more as time goes by – a timeless film if there ever was one.
“I wish I had a million dollars…HOT DOG!”
Tagline: “Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! How could it be anything else?”
Here’s to looking at one of the greats over and over again and with each viewing wishing you and yours a very, Merry Christmas.
- James Stewart as George Bailey
- Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey
- Henry Travers as Clarence Odbody
- Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Henry F. Potter
- Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy Bailey
- Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey
- Frank Faylen as Ernie Bishop
- Ward Bond as Bert, the cop
- Gloria Grahame as Violet Bick
- H. B. Warner as Mr. Gower
- Todd Karns as Harry Bailey
- Samuel S. Hinds as Peter “Pop” Bailey
- Lillian Randolph as Annie
- Mary Treen as Cousin Tilly
- Frank Albertson as Sam Wainwright
- Virginia Patton as Ruth Dakin Bailey
- Charles Williams as Cousin Eustace
- Sarah Edwards as Mrs. Hatch
- William Edmunds as Giuseppe Martini
- Argentina Brunetti as Mrs. Martini
- Bobby Anderson as Little George Bailey
- See the rest of the cast and crew here
Visit the real Bedford Falls – The inspiration for Frank Capra and Bedford Falls is the town of Seneca Fall, NY. There is a museum dedicated to It’s a Wonderful Life. Go to their page and take a look.