December 25, 2011

Yes, Virginia, it's a wonderful life.

Sometimes it takes years for an audience to catch up with a classic. It's a Wonderful Life is a case in point.  Sixty-five years after its original release the Frank Capra film is as much a part of many Americans' Christmas as the Christmas tree. Yet, sixty-five years ago, it was accounted a box-office flop.

From the beginning of his career, in such popular favorites as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Capra dealt with the average man struggling to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds through good humor and integrity. The director's career was interrupted by World War II, during which he produced propaganda films for the army. When the war was over, Capra returned to Hollywood.

Of the many movie projects submitted to him, the one that caught his eye was a little story by Philip van Doren Stem, written on a Christmas card. In it, George Bailey, a man from the small town of Bedford Falls, dreams of escape and adventure but is held back by obligations to friends, family, and the town. One Christmas Eve, George, in despair over his life and his failing business, goes for financial help to his archenemy, the banker Henry Potter. Potter harshly turns him down. Depressed and beaten, George decides to jump off a bridge. Suddenly an angel named Clarence, in the unlikely form of a bum, throws himself into the water, and George springs to the rescue. Still bitter, George says that he wishes he had never been born. Clarence then shows him how sadly life would have turned out for all the people he cares about if in fact he had never been born. His brother Harry would have died as a child, in a frozen lake. His wife would have wound up as a scared old maid. In fact, the entire town would have turned into a Dickensian scene of gloom called Pottersville. George learns that he really has made a difference; his faith in life is re-affirmed.
Within the framework of a classic confrontation between good and evil, what interested Capra most was the darker theme of the self-doubt and discouragement that good men fall prey to. He began working with the top screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, refining his ideas into a tightly composed screenplay-writing new dialogue, changing characterizations, eliminating some scenes, and adding more action.
With just the barest outline for a script, Capra knew he wanted Jimmy Stewart for the part of George Bailey. Stewart embodied the heroic Everyman that Capra sought. As their different accounts show, the two men remember their first meeting very differently-but either way, it might be a scene from Capra. The director was having difficulty describing the story and was about to give up completely when the actor begged to be signed up, script unseen.
If the finished product did not reach as great an audience as Capra hoped for, it was not because anyone had prevented him from making exactly the film he wanted to. In casting, as in all other matters, from the largest conceptual concerns to the smallest technical details, he had a completely free hand. The special-effects team, for instance, inspired by Capra's love of technology, fabricated snow so convincing that it won them a special Academy Award. The entire town of Bedford Falls, that symbol of small-town America, was constructed on four acres of land-one of the largest sets ever built.

During shooting, a powerful publicity machine kept the upcoming film in the public's mind, reporting on the most minor happenings on the set. One such story was about Stewart's apprehension over his highly memorable first postwar film kiss. As the star remarked, "A fellow's technique gets rusty." Already in his late thirties, he was nervous, too, about playing opposite the much younger Donna Reed. Exploiting that real-life nervousness, Capra staged and shot the now famous first kiss between George and Mary to enhance the underlying tension of the scene. It cost a page of dialogue, but Capra printed the first take.
The producers, directors, actors, and friends, who saw a special preview of the film, shortly before its Christmastime premiere, in 1946, were confident that the film would break box-office records. That was not to be. Many problems converged. The ad campaign was misleading. It promised a lighthearted love story and made no mention of the darker issues, so early viewers were put off. Besides, after the war, a shell-shocked audience was looking for light, fluffy entertainment. It was movies like The Jolson Story and Sinbad the Sailor that were packing them in. Unbelievable as it may seem, IAWL had only a certain succes d'estime. While it was nominated for Academy Awards in all major categories, it lost out in every one.
Disappointed, Capra turned his attention to other projects, although in his heart IAWL remained his favorite. In 1952, television accomplished what the original release had not. As Capra described it, "I woke up one Christmas morning and the whole world was watching It's a Wonderful Life. And they all wrote me about it!" Fan mail is still coming in. The film has become the success Capra has always believed it should be.
But at its peak of popularity, a villain came along. Through a legal oversight, the film's copyright passed into the public domain. Against Capra's wishes and at great expense, a company, Colorization Inc., manufactured a computer colorized version that destroyed the intended look of the black-and-white original. I take as dim a view of the product as did the director: "They have no spiritual right to make a buck off a film they had no creative involvement in!"


Henry Potter would no doubt be gloating. Nevertheless, this development cannot destroy the film's appeal. Nostalgic as it may appear, its human issues have not aged. Capra himself put it best: 

"I think that people understand films better now than they did then. They were labeled 'corny' then because people didn't know what to call them. The critics particularly wanted the more obscure things, the more negative things. This positive attitude toward life, this optimism, this great reverence for the individual that is dramatized in all my films, was a little bit too sticky for them at the time. Yet, are the people today any cornier than they were in those days?   No, people today seem to be much more aware of something that is real, good, and true than even people of my day. So to me that's a big plus. There is no generation gap between my films and the present generation at all."

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