Sunday, December 4, 2016

It’s a Wonderful Life (Liberty/RKO, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to watch last night’s NBC-TV presentation of Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. I hadn’t seen it in years but when I first caught it on a local TV station in 1972 I was blown away by its outfront sentimentality and its ineffably moving parable of an ordinary man whose compulsive pursuit of the welfare of others robs him of all his own ambitions, until at the end a life crisis forces him into an awareness of himself and how much good he’d done for other people staying just where he is. It’s a Wonderful Life actually began as a story by writer Philip Van Doren Stern, who wrote it as a booklet called The Greatest Gift and had copies printed privately so he could send them out to his friends as his Christmas card for 1943. RKO bought the movie rights and put a number of writers on it, including Clifford Odets, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Dorothy Parker (whose sensibility seems miles away from the film that actually got made), but RKO head Charles Koerner (the one who had fired Orson Welles after he took over from George Schaefer in 1942 and announced that from then on RKO’s movies would be based on “Showmanship Instead of Genius) didn’t like any of the scripts that crossed his desk and put the project aside. Then in 1945, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens, all just back from having directed for the U.S. war effort during World War II (Stevens was the leader of the first camera crew to enter the concentration camps, and it so deeply moved him as a human being it wrecked him as a filmmaker; unwilling to do the kinds of quiet romantic comedies that had been his best pre-war work, he insisted that every movie he worked on must project High Seriousness, and made a series of films that got gloppier, more sentimental and less entertaining with each go: A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank and the Jesus biopic The Greatest Story Ever Told), organized an independent production company called Liberty Films. The logo for the company was an uncracked mockup of the Liberty Bell that Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin had used as the logo for their first independent production, Meet John Doe (1941), and looking for a partner among the major studios they hit on RKO. RKO had already had distribution deals with Sam Goldwyn and Walt Disney that were making them lots of money, and they eagerly grabbed the right to co-finance and distribute Liberty’s product — only when Capra arrived on the RKO lot he had no idea what he wanted to make.

Koerner tipped him to The Greatest Gift, figuring (rightly) that a man driven to the end of his wits who’s given a chance to see what the world would have been like if he’d never been born was right up Capra’s alley. He agreed to sell the story to Liberty for the price he’d initially paid Van Doren Stern for the Christmas card, and threw in the rejected scripts for free. (Odets later said he hated the film that got made, and the only idea of his that got used was to have the hero, George Bailey, as a child notice that the druggist Mr. Gower has inadvertently filled a prescription with poison out of grief over the death of his son in the 1919 influenza epidemic.) Capra went into production and decided that the lead character, George Bailey (called “George Pratt” in the original story), was “a good Sam who doesn’t know he’s a good Sam,” and there was only one actor who could play him: James Stewart. Stewart had just got out of the U.S. Army Air Corps (it was only after World War II that the U.S. Air Force became a separate branch of the military) where he’d flown bombing missions in combat, and he wanted something appropriately “serious” for his first postwar film. He was moved by the tale of a man driven to contemplate suicide and ultimately saved by a guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers, presenting quite a different appearance from the only other film of his I’d seen when I first watched It’s a Wonderful Life: The Invisible Man, in which he played the head of the research lab that had previously employed John Griffin, the title character played by Claude Rains) and agreed to make the film. Capra cast quite a few of his “regulars” in the supporting roles and also put in a number of John Ford’s “regulars” as well, including Thomas Mitchell as George’s alcoholic (but depicted charmingly) uncle Billy; Beulah Bondi as George’s mother (according to she played James Stewart’s mother no fewer than five times, including one of Capra’s previous films with him, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington); Ward Bond as Bert the cop, George’s lifetime friend; Frank Faylen (just back from the chilling scene as the nurse at the D.T. ward in Bellevue in The Lost Weekend) as taxi driver Ernie (there’s a widespread belief that Jim Henson named two of the Muppets “Bert and Ernie” in tribute to this film, but according to his daughter that’s not true); H. B. Warner as druggist Gower; Todd Karns as George’s brother Harry; Samuel S. Hinds as their dad Peter, founder of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan in Bedford Falls, New York around which most of the action revolves; Frank Albertson as George’s friend Sam Wainwright; and Sheldon Leonard as Nick, bartender at the restaurant owned by Martini (William Edmunds).

For the other main principals Capra selected Donna Reed to play Mary Hatch Bailey, the local girl George marries; Gloria Grahame (who’d been languishing under contract at MGM, of all unlikely studios for her, when Capra borrowed her on the basis of some MGM screen tests one of their producers showed him) as the town’s “fast” girl, Violet Bick; and as the villain of the piece, Henry Potter, Lionel Barrymore. Capra had previously used Barrymore in his 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You but had cast him sympathetically, as the head of an eccentric family that attracts the ire of multimillionaire Edward Arnold because Arnold’s son (played by James Stewart in the first of his three Capra films) has fallen in love with Barrymore’s daughter (Jean Arthur, who was Capra’s first choice for the Donna Reed role in It’s a Wonderful Life but turned it down because she was rehearsing for the Broadway production of Born Yesterday — only the temperamental Arthur walked out on the show in its out-of-town tryouts and it was the then-unknown Judy Holliday who acted it on Broadway and became a star therefrom). This time around Capra cast Barrymore as the villain, an embittered rich man who owned virtually every business in Bedford Falls except the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, and who’s positively Scrooge-like not only in his greed but also his lack of any family connections. Apparently Capra cast Barrymore because of his long history of playing Scrooge on radio — Barrymore had been set to do the film version in 1938 but at the last minute his chronic arthritis became so advanced he needed a wheelchair, so Reginald Owen replaced him but Barrymore remained so identified with the part he appeared in the film’s trailer — and in this film, as in many others he made around this time, Barrymore used his real-life disability to add bitterness and gall to his characterization.

Just about everybody knows the story of It’s a Wonderful Life by now — George Bailey is seen at the opening contemplating suicide, while an unseen voice from heaven (called “Franklin” in the original Van Doren Stern story after President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but unnamed in the movie — Capra, a lifelong Republican who voted against FDR all four times, would hardly have been likely to pay him tribute in a movie even though he was often referred to in the 1930’s as “cinema’s propagandist for the New Deal”) notes that quite a few people on Earth are praying for him. Accordingly Franklin assigns his case to Clarence, an “angel second class” because he hasn’t earned his wings yet, and Henry Travers’ rather befuddled, milquetoast playing is absolutely right for the part. Franklin briefs Clarence on Bailey’s life history — giving us the flashbacks that make up most of the film — and the impression he and we get is that time and time again George has put his own dreams aside in service to others. The result is that when all George’s woes come together at Christmastime — his brother loses $8,000 at the Building and Loan (he borrowed a newspaper from Potter to read the story of Harry Bailey being given the Congressional Medal of Honor for his war heroism, and when he returned it inadvertently folded the envelope with the money into it) just when bank examiner Carter (Charles Halton), who goes into his work with a grim determination that makes Javert seem open-minded by comparison (typically, the only time we get an indication that Carter has any normal human feelings is when he says he wants to wrap up Bailey’s case before nightfall so he can go home and spend Christmas with his own family); Potter sees the money, is briefly tempted to return it but then realizes that this is his chance to put the Bailey Building and Loan out of business once and for all (and, surprisingly for a 1946 film, there isn’t a worm-turning scene in which Potter turns decent and returns the money); George takes out his frustrations on his kids, his kids’ teachers, his friends and just about anyone in earshot — and he’s about to throw himself off the Bedford Falls bridge when Clarence shows up and jumps into the water himself, realizing that George’s good-Samaritan instincts would immediately switch him from offing himself to saving someone else from that fate. George Bailey says he never did himself or anybody else any good and he wishes he’d never been born — and Clarence decides that the way to save George’s soul and earn his wings is to grant his wish.

George Bailey steps out into what one critic called the closest Capra ever came to directing a film noir: in this alternate version of its history Potter not only took over all the businesses in Bedford Falls but even had it renamed “Pottersville.” Martini’s nice little homey Italian restaurant is a dive bar owned by Nick, who instead of the rather decent guy he is in the main story is playing his part with all Sheldon Leonard’s gangster inflections. We know it’s a dive when we see a Black piano player pounding away with ragtime (as usual in 1930’s and 1940’s movies there’s a contrast between “nice” Blacks, represented by the Bailey family maid Annie [Lillian Randolph], and not-so-nice Blacks like the piano player in Nick’s) and Nick throws both George and Clarence out of the bar (and Clarence, in a nice touch, feels he has to reassure his handlers back in heaven that he didn’t actually drink alcohol). George finds that his dad’s building and loan went out of business when dad died; his brother Harry died at age eight when he was sledding on a shovel and crashed through the ice (in the main story George saved his brother’s life by pulling him out of the ice, though at the cost of his hearing in his left ear); the working-class housing development the Bailey Building and Loan funded is a local cemetery (the usual colloquial meaning of “potter’s field” as a place where people whose families couldn’t pay for funerals were just dumped — though even in the alternate “Pottersville” reality the Baileys were well off enough they bought an elaborate tombstone for their eight-year-old son); Bailey’s Uncle Pete is in an insane asylum (probably due to his chronic alcoholism — the Irish-American Thomas Mitchell was often cast as a character who drank); Gower the druggist is an alcoholic street person who served 20 years in prison for manslaughter (since George wasn’t there to stop him from giving out the poisoned prescription); all the men in the troop transport Harry Bailey saved by shooting down the kamikaze that was about to attack them (for which he won the Medal of Honor) died because George hadn’t been around to save Harry; and in what for the alternate George is the final straw that makes him want to live after all even though he’s being threatened with exposure and arrest, his wife Mary is an old maid (wearing glasses, which she doesn’t in the main action) who’s just about to close up the library. (This has been criticized as clichéd, but at least Capra and the final writers he ended up with — the husband-and-wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, with Capra’s former colleague Jo Swerling credited with additional dialogue — “planted” it with a line of dialogue establishing that Mary was working as a librarian before she married George.)

It’s a Wonderful Life was Capra’s (and James Stewart’s) favorite among his films, though if nothing else it shows how increasingly desperate he was becoming at giving his movies happy endings: the breakdown of Claude Rains’ character on the Senate floor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is singularly unbelievable; for his next film, Meet John Doe, Capra shot five different endings trying to work out a resolution; and in It’s a Wonderful Life, in order to end the story happily he literally had to resort to supernatural intervention. The life of It’s a Wonderful Life after its release is almost as bizarre as the process by which it got made; it was a box-office disappointment on its initial release (it grossed $3.3 million on an investment of $3.7 million, though it did well enough that the next year RKO greenlighted a similar film, Magic Town, also starring James Stewart, directed by William Wellman and produced and written by former Capra collaborator Robert Riskin — which was an even bigger flop) and was little known until 1972, when the copyright expired and there was a clerical error on the renewal application. The film thus fell into the public domain and for the next 20 years became a staple on local TV stations looking for something Christmas-themed for the holiday season — until the early 1990’s, when Republic Pictures reacquired the rights to Philip Van Doren Stern’s original story and bought the copyrights to Dimitri Tiomkin’s music, thereby successfully taking It’s a Wonderful Life out of the public domain: an unhealthy signal of how crazy and ludicrously overprotected “intellectual property” would become in the era of increasing corporate control over everything.

And one odd lapse in this film is it’s one of the few Capra made with scenes set in sub-zero temperatures in which you don’t see the actors’ breaths steam as if they were really out in the cold. For his 1930 film Flight Capra had tried putting pellets of dry ice in cages he put in the actors’ mouths — which would have worked O.K. in a silent film but made it impossible for the actors to utter dialogue intelligibly — and for Lost Horizon (1937) and Meet John Doe (1941) he had rented space in a Los Angeles icehouse, usually used for storing frozen meats, so he could shoot inside and not only have the actors’ breaths steam but use the icehouse’s artificial-snow machines (generally used to cut up large ice blocks and spray the results onto the meat and fish to keep them frozen) to blow snow at them. For some reason Capra didn’t do that in It’s a Wonderful Life; instead he shot the December scenes outdoors in the big Bedford Falls set he built on the RKO backlot (though the exterior of the house George and Mary Bailey live in is clearly our old friend, the recycled set from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons) in the middle of a July heat wave. RKO’s engineers invented a new type of artificial snow made out of foam (for which they got a technical Oscar) instead of the previous substitute — ground-up cornflakes — which were too noisy for scenes that involved snow but not blizzards. But that still left the actors having to perform difficult action scenes dressed for a New York winter in the 102° heat of a California summer, and at one point Capra gave his cast and crew a day off just to recover.