It’s a wonderful film!
With World War II winding down, director Frank Capra returned to Hollywood determined that for the rest of his career, he would be his own boss. His approach would be the formation of an independent production company called Liberty Films early in 1945. Capra’s start-up partner was Samuel Briskin, a senior executive he had known from his Columbia days. In order to give the fledgling company even more artistic credibility, Capra was able to persuade two other heavyweight directors who also had aspirations of independent control over their creative efforts — William Wyler and George Stevens — to join him. Liberty’s initial arrangements involved a deal with RKO to provide facilities and arrange bank loans, while each director agreed to make three films. First into the water was Capra himself and the film was It’s a Wonderful Life.
The film originated with a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift.” RKO had purchased the film rights in 1943, but had not been able to come up with an acceptable script. Capra saw the story’s potential, however, and secured the rights from RKO. The film that would become a beloved Christmas classic was thus born, but that seemed far from likely when the film first appeared on the big screen at Christmas time in 1946. It’s a Wonderful Life went head to head with The Best Years of Our Lives (ironically William Wyler’s last feature before becoming involved with Liberty Films) and lost resoundingly. The critics were lukewarm at best and the public did not respond so that it was unable to make back its $4 million production and distribution costs. Even five Academy Award nominations didn’t help, for the film was shut out at the actual awards ceremony. Worse still, the excessive cost of the film and its lack of success spelled the end of Liberty Films.
Partly as a consequence of that, It’s Wonderful Life fell into the public domain once its initial copyright period ended in the early 1970s. Although never viewed by Capra as a Christmas film (even though Christmas time is a pivotal event in the film), television stations seized upon the film as a free time-filler for the Christmas season and it began to catch on, so much so that it became a Christmas event for many people. It’s a Wonderful Life soon began appearing on video in both scratchy black and white and colourized versions from nearly every public domain house around. In the 1990s, laserdisc versions also appeared. Criterion made a very fine special edition available, but even better looking was the laserdisc release by Republic Pictures.
Republic had managed to get a hold of the original negative and the laserdisc results, as exemplified by the 45th anniversary release, were superb. Meanwhile, by managing to copyright some of the music on the film, Republic was able to secure effective copyright of the film itself and the widespread availability of it dried up.
In 1998, Republic (now Artisan) released It’s a Wonderful Life on DVD in a superb transfer.
George Bailey lives in the small town of Bedford Falls and runs a small building and loan company that his father had founded. George had dreams of leaving Bedford Falls behind and becoming successful in a big city, but somehow his aspirations were always thwarted. He marries his high school sweetheart, Mary Hatch, and settles into a rut of family and work obligations.
Dr. Potter, the local banker, would like to see George out of business so that he would have complete control of the town’s financial reins. He gets his chance one evening when George’s assistant, Uncle Billy, allows the company’s payroll to fall into Potter’s hands. Facing ruin, George becomes morose and bemoaning his lost opportunities, gets drunk and considers committing suicide. Intervening is Clarence, George’s guardian angel, who attempts to show George what his efforts in Bedford Falls have meant to the town’s well-being. Slowly, George becomes convinced of the value of his efforts, but there is still the issue of the missing payroll and the town’s faith in George’s building and loan company.
Frank Capra and James Stewart (who plays George Bailey) always said that It’s a Wonderful Life was their favourite film. Certainly, it’s one of mine too. After all, what’s not to like? The film has an excellent script; it’s superbly acted; and it’s full of Capra’s signature touches in casting and his spirit of standing up for the little guy. It’s a Wonderful Life is also a natural progression from Capra’s two Columbia masterpieces — Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington — and his WB follow-up to them — Meet John Doe. The noir aspects of the suicide component of the latter film began to offer a powerful counterpoint in Capra’s work to the more one-dimensional nature of goodness inherent in the earlier two films. That concept is masterfully extended in It’s a Wonderful Life by the sequence that depicts George’s descent into despair and his trip through the Bedford Falls that might have been — the garish Pottersville — had he never been born. The result is a film that is thoughtfully realistic, yet retains that Capra spirit of belief in the ultimate triumph of right over wrong and the over-riding importance of the contribution of the ordinary person to that triumph. And anybody who is not moved by the film’s conclusion, especially at Christmas, should wonder what’s wrong with them.
If the conclusion lingers in the memory, there are also many other memorable scenes. I’m sure everyone has their favourites, whether it’s youngster George, with trepidation, having to tell the druggist, Mr. Gower, of a wrongly-filled prescription; George and Mary dancing while unaware of the swimming pool behind them; an angry George and Mary on the telephone, yet inexorably drawn to each other; George confronting his brother’s grave, had he not saved him as a child; the interactions between cop Bert and taxi driver Ernie (yes, the original Bert and Ernie); a seductive Gloria Grahame in a snappy dress as Violet Bick, breezing down the main street of Bedford Falls (“Why, I just wear this whenever I don’t care what I wear!”); the run on the building and loan and George’s negotiation with each individual to get them to take just as little out as they possibly can manage; et cetera, et cetera.
The role of George Bailey seems to fit Jimmy Stewart like a glove. It’s one that hearkens back to the gee-whiz nature of much of his pre-War work, but also presages the harder, more complex man that he would increasingly portray in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s in westerns with Anthony Mann and in the Hitchcock thrillers. As Bailey, Stewart is agreeable and amiable, but there is now an edge to him that shows through in his frustrations at being trapped by his own sense of responsibility and then really blossoms when he finds himself in Pottersville. The desperation and despair increasingly apparent on Stewart’s face as George makes his way from familiar haunt to familiar haunt, only to go unrecognized, repulsed each time as either a fool or a drunk, represented one of Stewart’s finest acting efforts in his career to that date.
Stewart, of course, is very ably supported by a wealth of fine Hollywood acting talent. Donna Reed is very good as Mary Hatch, a more demanding role than it might seem on the surface, and Lionel Barrymore provides Potter with just the right degree of cunning and meanness. Who else could play an angel named Clarence and get away with it, other than Henry Travers? Then there’s Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy, Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey, Samuel S. Hinds as Pa Bailey, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as the afore-mentioned Bert and Ernie, Charles Halton as the bank examiner, H.B. Warner as Mr. Gower, plus an endless list of minor faces like Stanley Andrews, William Edmunds, Mary Treen, Sheldon Leonard, Frank Albertson, Charles Lane, Ellen Corby, J. Farrell Macdonald, and so on. You may not recognize some of the names, but I’ll bet you recognize the faces if you’re a watcher of classic films at all. Bit-part identification is always one of the side pleasures of a Capra film.
Artisan’s (Republic’s) DVD of It’s a Wonderful Life is a pleasure to report on. The film is presented full frame in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and in the original glorious black and white. The transfer is derived from the original negative, THX certified, and looks outstanding. Age-related speckling and scratches have been almost all eliminated. Blacks are deep and glossy and whites are clean and bright. Shadow detail is excellent. This is certainly among the top handful of pre-1950 films on DVD in terms of image quality, perhaps behind only Citizen Kane; Now, Voyager; and His Girl Friday.
The disc’s audio is in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Overall, it sounds very good. With the exception of a couple of brief intervals (less than 30 seconds) when the sound is a little muffled, dialogue is clear and noticeably rich, with age-related hiss and distortion essentially non-existent. Again, this disc is among the best for films of this vintage in terms of sound quality. French and Spanish language tracks are included, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
With the film on side A of the disc, supplements are confined to side B. They include a good making-of documentary hosted by Tom Bosley. It runs just under half an hour and is quite informative on production information and casting decisions. A separate, short 10-minute piece with Frank Capra Jr. provides some background to his father’s career. The film’s original theatrical trailer is also included.
If one were confined to a desert island (somehow with a portable, battery-operated DVD player) and were allowed to have only one film to keep one company, It’s a Wonderful Life would be on the short list. A Christmas tradition in recent years, this is a film for all seasons and should definitely be part of your film collection. Artisan makes that easy with a superior DVD version. Highly recommended.