Tuesday, November 28, 2017

It’s A Wonderful Life Was a Wonderful Picture

Last Friday night my wife Kathy Brady-Murfin and I took in a production of the radio play version of It’s A Wonderful Life by the Woodstock Musical Theater Company at the Woodstock Opera House.  It was this year’s fulfillment of a tradition of attending a holiday show during the Christmas Season that began when I gave up working my night job on Friday nights.  We came in full of the Christmas spirit after taking in the spectacular annual lighting of Woodstock Square earlier in the evening.  And we had a great time.
The production had all of the virtues—and some of the problems—of community theater.  We have been attending a lot of very good professional theater in recent years and even a very good amateur production can’t be held to the same standard. 
On the plus side the silver and black art deco set by designer Barry R. Norton was spot on and the equal of any static set you could see at any theater.  The costumes by co-producers and wardrobe maven Kathy Bruhnke—a theater veteran and old personal friend were perfectly authentic 1946.  Because this was supposed to be a radio play, the costumes are for the most part meant to be the actors’ street clothes, not the characters’ clothes.  Occasionally a change of hat or cap or the addition of jacket was used as a cue to a specific character, like the uniform cap for Burt the Cop.
Director Regina Belt-Daniels chose to open up Joe Landry’s script in a couple of significant ways.  To better mirror a period radio broadcast she expanded the role of the announcer and added a close harmony female quartet to sing a program theme song, advertising jingles, and a couple of contemporary popular songs a la the Andrews Sisters.  She also greatly expanded the script’s called for cast of 5 actors, standard for live radio drama in those days with each actor playing multiple roles, to 13 including four children, who would have been voiced by an actress.  With the exception of the three leads playing George and Mary Bailey, Mr. Potter and the children, each actor still has multiple parts, but far fewer than with a 5 person cast.  This allows for better differentiation between characters portrayed by actors who may not have mastered the multiple voices required of a radio pro.  On the other hand the shuffling of all of those actors to the three microphones at the front of the sage was sometimes a tad clumsy.
The cast, with varying levels of experience and skill, was necessarily uneven and some had occasional difficulty reading from a script or quickly picking up cues.  The principals were solid.  Mathew Schufreider as George channeled a young James Stewart without opting for imitation of Stewart’s voice and mannerisms.  Heidi Allen was appropriately sweet, resolute, and loyal.  Robert Wilbrandt, a local siting judge with wide community theater experience, was a perfectly villainous Mr. Potter.  But for my money the performance of the night was turned in by little Lia Hyrkas as ZuZu the only actor to work from memory without a script and who was both perfectly natural and charming.
As entertaining as the evening was, of course, nothing could make us forget the play’s source.

Despite stiff completion from films like Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, White Christmas, various versions of The Christmas Carrol, and more recent fare like Elf and the Polar Express, Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life remains the most beloved popular holiday movie and still makes lists of the best films of all time. It was the personal favorite of its director, its star James Stewart, and of its leading lady Donna Reed.
Legend has it that the film was a total failure upon its release.  Not quite so.  It opened to strong reviews and good audiences on December 20, 1946.  But it faced stiff competition in the theaters that holiday season—Disney’s Song of the South, The Best Years of Our Lives, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, and the epic Technicolor western Duel in the Sun among others.  Released just 5 days before Christmas, the film did not have time to build a holiday audience and in those days interest in Yule flicks faded as soon as the tree came down, then generally the day after the holiday or no later than New Year’s Day. 
But the big problem was the cost of the film. The independently produced film was partly financed and released by RKO Studios which bet on Capra on the strength of his enormously popular pre-war populist hits at Columbia.  He had a relatively lavish budget which he over ran the budget spending lavishly on a top cast and on the elaborate Bedford Falls sets.  In the end, it cost a $3.8 million—a lot for black and white comedy/drama—and just barely recouped the expense in its first release.  The studio didn’t make a dime.  
Despite that disappointment, the film was recognized for its importance and quality.  It was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor and won a technical effects award.  It also won Golden Globe and National Board of Review awards.  By no stretch of the imagination could it be called a failure.
Frank Capra and James Stewart share a laugh during the filming of the picture's grim suicide scene.
Capra had returned from his World War II service a changed man.  Four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 he gave up his lucrative career during which he had experienced unprecedented success with films like It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizons, You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe as well as his presidency of the Director’s Guild to enlist in the Army.  He was personally tapped by Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshal to create and lead his own documentary film unit outside of the usual Signal Corps authority under Marshall’s direct command. 
As a result Col. Capra produced and directed or co-directed Why We Fight, seven feature length documentaries including Prelude to War (1942), The Nazis Strike (1942), Divide and Conquer (1943), The Battle of Britain (1943), The Battle of Russia (1943), The Battle of China (1944), and War Comes to America (1945).  The films were shown to GIs to explain in an understandable way why they were going to war and used unprecedented battle action sequences filmed on all fronts and oceans.  Marshal considered them so powerful that they were release for theatrical showings in the U.S. and Britain.   Prelude to War was awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.  Outside of that feature Capra also made The Negro Soldier in 1944 and Know Your Enemy: Japan, Here Is Germany, Tunisian Victory, and Two Down and One to Go all in 1945.  Capra always considered these films the most important of his career.
Hollywood had just been reminded of how popular a film maker Capra was when Arsenic and Old Lace, which had been hurriedly filmed for Warner Bros. in 1941 starring Cary Grant, Pricilla Lane, and Raymond Massey, was finally released after the long run of the Broadway production, was finally released in 1944.  Every studio in Hollywood wanted to sign him, but Capra, who had a bitter and contentious relationship with his longtime boss at Columbia Pictures, was determined never again to be under the thumb of a studio boss and to have total creative control over his pictures.
Capra and two other directing powerhousesWilliam Wyler and George Stevens, formed Liberty Films, The first independent company of directors since United Artists in 1919 and one of a tiny handful of independent studios like Selznick International Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Productions that aspired to produce A list films in head-to-head completion with the major studios.  With Wyler and Stevens finishing up their studio commitments, Capra was slated to helm the first product.
For source material Capra turned to an obscure short story by magazine editor and Civil War historian Philip Van Doren Stern.  Stern wrote the story after experiencing a vivid dream obviously influenced by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1938.  He tinkered with the tale for a few years before trying unsuccessfully to find a publisher for it.  In 1943 he privately printed an edition of 200 as The Greatest Gift which he distributed to friends as Christmas gifts.  It finally found magazine placement with a literacy journal before Good Housekeeping picket it up for its January 1945 issue as The Man Who Was Never Born.
Somehow Cary Grant spotted it and expressed interest in doing a film version.  His studio, RKO bought the film rights for $10,000 where several screen writers took unsuccessful cracks at the story.  With Grant moving on to other projects like I Was a Male War Bride, the studio was more than happy to sell it to Liberty Pictures for what it had paid and expressed interest in distributing the film if Capra directed.
Capra wanted to direct all right.  Working with a team of script writers he whipped the screenplay into shape—something darker than his pre-war films although both Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and especially Meet John Doe had despairing moments but that ultimately affirmed humanity.
There was never a doubt about his lead, the frustrated small town building and loan operator George Bailey.  Although Henry Fonda may have briefly been considered, the role went to his close friend James Stewart.  Stewart had been the boyish idealist in Capra’s most successful film, Mr. Smith and been the straight man beau in the ensemble screwball comedy You Can’t Take it With You.  A small town boy himself from Indiana, Pennsylvania who had labored at his father’s Main Street Hardware Store before making the break for college and the daring leap from there to the New York stage.  Capra knew he would totally understand his character. 

Then Major James Stewart with his B-24 crew before a combat mission.  War changed the actor.
Stewart had also returned from the war deeply changed.  He was visibly aged and much more serious.  Although many Hollywood stars served with distinction in the war, none matched Stewart’s combat record.  After being drafted in 1940 as an Army private after twice being rejected for being underweight, he managed to talk his way into the Air Corp because he was a licensed pilot.  Like other stars he was first used stateside as a flying instructor and used in recruiting.  Once again he talked his way into combat in Europe as a B-24 pilot.  He rose rapidly in rank and responsibility and completed more than 20 official missions becoming a Squadron and the Group commander.  As a staff officer he assigned himself to probably twice that many missions which were completed unofficially, including several in which he led critical raids or flew dangerous pathfinder missions.  He may have flown more combat missions than any other pilot in the 8th Air Force.  Stewart was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in combat, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters for campaigns participated in, and the French Croix de Guerre. He was one of the few men to rise from private to full colonel in the course of the war.  Experiences like that will age and change a man.
After taking some time off to decompress from his harrowing experiences, Capra’s new film, now re-titled It’s A Wonderful Life marked Stewart's first return acting.  He was deeply unsure of himself and doubted he either could resurrect his acting career of if he wanted to.  As a founding investor in Southwest Airlines he had seriously considered throwing everything over to become the infant airline’s chief pilot.  As filming commenced he was suffering full scale post-traumatic stress syndrome fighting feeling of disorientation, rage, and self-loathing.  A large part of his healing was channeling all of that into his character of George Baily.  Always a fine, natural actor, Stewart was now doing much deeper work than he had in his pre-war years and it would open the door to more mature and challenging roles with other directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann.
Some were worried that Stewart would not be able to convincingly play the youthful George Bailey, yearning to “shake the dust” of the small town off his feet and who instead fall stupidly in love with the sweetly perfect home town girl.  But Stewart showed an uncanny ability to evoke for audience the shy, stammering youth of his early films.  They literally suspended disbelief to embrace the middle aged actor as restless young man.  Stewart would continue to be able to do that even as he aged as he demonstrated when he played boyish Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis in 1957 and especially in John Huston’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962 when both he and John Wayne had to recapitulate their youthful archetypes.
If Stewart was the obvious choice to play George Bailey, Capra’s reliable favorite lead actress Jean Arthur was a natural choice.  She had been paired with Stewart in both of his previous Capra outings and she was interested in doing the picture despite having virtually retired from film work after her Columbia Pictures contract expired in late 1944.  She wanted to work again with Capra, but was committed to the Broadway production of Born Yesterday which was in rehearsals and out of town tryouts.  However she succumbed to increasingly crippling stage fright and dropped out of that project opening the door for Judy Holiday.  But by that time the part of Mary Bailey had been cast and the film was in production.

Donna Reed had been the wholesome girl friend pin-up that World War II GI's dreamed of coming home to. Later her devotion to them and her horror at nuclear war would make her a tireless anti-war activists and spokesperson for Another Mother for Peace.
Capra’s other favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck, had already transitioned into playing middle age and matronly parts and was considered too old for the part although she was Arthur’s contemporary.  A string of top actresses were considered and Capra approached and was turned down by Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott, Ann Dvorak, and Ginger Rogers mostly because the part was so small and because, as Rogers said in her memoirs because it was “to bland.”  In the end Capra turned to a younger, rising actressDonna Reed who had attracted attention as the brave nurse in They Were Expendable and as Mickey Rooney’s sister, a wholesome small town girl, in The Human Comedy.  She was also a girl-next-door favorite pin-up of GIs during the war.  This film would make her a real star.
It seemed like every older character actor in Hollywood, especially those who played heavies was considered for sour Old Man Potter.  Edward Arnold who had appeared in both Mr. Smith and You Can’t Take it With You was one obvious choice.  Others were Charles Bickford, Edgar Buchanan, Louis Calhern, Victor Jory, Raymond Massey, Vincent Price, and even Thomas Mitchell.  Lionel Barrymore, despite having starred in You Can’t Take it With You for Capra, was not an immediately obvious choice.  In recent years his screen persona had largely been avuncular, kindly men like his Dr. Gillespie in the successful Dr. Kildare movie franchise.  What finally sold Capra on Barrymore was his annual radio turns as Scrooge in A Christmas Carrol.  Barrymore could play a mean man, even one with no hint of a lurking heart of gold.

Bulah Bondi has played the long suffering mother of ungrateful James Stewart in the tear-jerker Of Human Hearts.
Thomas Mitchel may not have made the cut playing against type as the villain America’s favorite and probably busiest character actor fit the role of gentle, addled, and pixilated Uncle Billy like a glove.  Beulah Bondi, who by the way was a graduate of my alma mater, Shimer back when it was a female seminary, was one of the movies’ busiest mothers when she wasn’t playing spinster school teachers.  In fact she had already played mother to Stewart’s ungrateful and neglectful son in the tear jerker Of Human Hearts and was Ma Smith in Mr. Smith. 

Henry Travers as Angle Second Class Clarence Oddbody.
Mitchel was also briefly considered to play Clarence Oddbody, the Angel Second Class assigned to George’s case.  But the role went to Henry Travers, a veteran English stage actor who found a second career in American films playing kindly but slightly befuddled old men.  He had received an Academy Award nomination for his part as the rose-loving gardener in Mrs. Miniver and had just finished The Bells of St. Mary’s with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman as the unwitting donor of a new school building.
Silent film star H. B. Warner, best known as Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings, had already appeared in five Capra flicks when he was tapped to play Mr. Growler, the pharmacist who employed twelve year old George Bailey.  Several other members of Capra’s informal stock company also had roles.
Gloria Grahame would go from the soiled dove of It's a Wonderful Life, to the fatal temptress in a parade of film noirs.
Small town vamp and fallen woman Violet Bick was played by 23 year old Gloria Grahame near the start of her film career.  She would go on to be the queen of film noir temptresses and bad girls.
The rest of the company was sprinkled with interesting and accomplished performers.  Ward Bond and Frank Faylen played Burt the cop and Ernie the cabdriver—and yes those character names inspired the Sesame Street puppets.  Others of note include Sheldon Leonard as Nick the Bartender, Moroni Olson as the voice of the Senior Angel who narrates George’ life story, and even a brief appearance of Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer as Freddie, Mary’s annoying high school suitor.
All in all it was a strong an ensemble cast as was ever assembled.

More than three blocks long the Bedford Falls set was planted with more than 20 full size oak trees in the boulevard.  Technicians won an Oscar for the developing a new kinds of chemical snow for the production.
If the film was costly due to the cost of the cast and the sets—especially the three-block-long downtown Bedford Falls with 75 stores and buildings, the long center boulevard through which a desperate George ran planted with 30 mature oak trees, and a separate residential neighborhood—at least Capra, always an efficient director, was able to finish principle shooting between April 15, 1946 and July 27, exactly the 90 day schedule.
During the filming Capra continued to tinker with the script, shooting and then junking different versions of how George’s little brother Harry fell through the ice and of the famous climatic scene.  He scrapped a version with George falling to his knees in prayer as unnecessarily over the top.
The finished film was an obvious nod to the Dickens classic that had inspired the original story writer.  But where Scrooge was a bad man with a hardened heart who had to be terrified into unlocking a kernel of long buried kindness and letting it flourish, George Bailey was a deeply frustrated man who repeatedly makes good choices when he must but barely contains seething resentment who must be shown that his own life was worth living.  This was subtle stuff and far beyond the usual black and white morality of most Hollywood fare.  Those who accuse Capra of over sentimentality in this film or glossing over the stultifying drabness and rigid conformity of the small town George always wanted to leave overlook the real anguish that underlines it.
It’s a Wonderful Life went into general release on January 7, 1947 and was 26th out of more than 400 features that year in revenue, one place ahead of another Christmas film, Miracle on 34th Street which was released late that year.  Not nearly as bad as legend would have it.
Despite the accolades the film received it might have faded in the public memory. In subsequent years Miracle on 34th Street and the 1938 and 1951 versions of A Christmas Carrol usually let the lists of favorite holiday films.  Capra’s work could easily have sunk to the level of say Christmas in Connecticut, a film admired by movie buffs but below the radar of casual viewers.
What saved it from that fate was one of the most spectacular and inexplicable business blunders in film history.
Liberty Pictures went belly-up after completing just two films, the second being Capra’s State of the Union with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.  It’s two movie film library and other assets were purchased by Columbia Picture and then repeatedly re-sold to a bewildering succession of companies.  In 1955 it was bought by a little known investment outfit called M. & A. Alexander which sold the copyright to the original nitrate film elements, music score, and the film rights to the story on The Greatest Gift as well a television syndication rights to National Telefilm Associates (NTA), syndication specialist.
In 1974 a nameless functionary at NTA flubbed the copyright renewal of the film’s visual images and it passed into public domain.  Anyone could broadcast or reproduce the film on other media without having to pay syndication fees or royalties on the film, although they did have to pay royalties for the story and music which remained under protection.  Local TV stations around the country snapped up the gift from heaven that was plopped in their laps.  Many began annual showings, often multiple showings.  In some markets every station aired the movie.  It was almost impossible to get through a holiday season without seeing the film.  Millions of Americans and multiple generations saw the film and fell in love.
In the 1980’s with the rapid spread of home VCRs several companies released tapes of the film, many of them very muddy and poor quality.  These included colorized versions denounced by both Cara and James Stewart.
In 1993, Republic Pictures, which was a successor to NTA, regained protection after a prolonged legal battle relied based on a 1990 a Supreme Court ruling in Stewart v. Abend, which involved another Stewart film, Rear Window) to enforce its claim to the copyright. While the film’s copyright had not been renewed, Republic still owned the film rights to The Greatest Gift protecting its status as a derivative work still under copyright.
Is there ever a dry eye in the living room when the bell on the Christmas tree rings and the whole town sings Auld Lang Syne to George and his family?  I didn't think so...
Although the film disappeared from local television re-broadcasts, since 1996 Paramount, which now owns the rights to the Republic library, has licensed rights to NBC which shows the film to wide audiences twice during each holiday season.
Pull out the hankies and fill the popcorn bowls.  It’s A Wonderful Life will soon be on your home flat screen TV again.

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