Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell
It’s a Wonderful Life is the ultimate expression of what Capra was attempting to do, combining sentiment and American values into a perfect blend of entertainment and cinematic artistry. And audiences through the years have felt the same way. At the time it was released, however, post-war audiences weren’t quite ready for the sentimentality of the film and reviews were mixed. But over time it has come to be recognized for what it is, the apotheosis of the career of a great American director. What’s interesting is that the director today who most resembles Capra is Steven Spielberg, and yet the two have had almost opposite career trajectories. Capra began with earnest attempts at Academy Award recognition in the thirties with films like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, but when he won his first Oscar for the romantic comedy It Happened One Night he abandoned those pretensions and built the rest of his career aiming toward the brilliance of his holiday classic. Spielberg, on the other hand, began with sentimental claptrap like E.T. and Close Encounters, and thus had to toil for years before finally earning the grudging respect of the Academy with Schindler’s List.
The original story was written by Philip Van Doren Stern, who was unable to get it published at the time, and had it printed himself as a Christmas card. His agent, however, was able to sell the movie rights to RKO and it eventually wound up in front of Capra, who could see the potential at once. Unlike some of his other classics of the late thirties and early forties, this film seems far less forced. The aspirations of his characters are not idealistic, they are firmly realistic, and it is in the face of ordinary but equally realistic enemies that the common man prevails. If someone were to ask for one film that represented the cinema of Frank Capra, this would be it. Another aspect that counts, not insignificantly, for its greatness is that this is the first film that Capra had complete, creative control over. Though it was released by RKO, it was Capra’s film, made under his new production company, Liberty Films. He thought of Jimmy Stewart for the lead right away, while Jean Arthur was first offered the part of Mary, which would have replicated the leads from his Oscar winning You Can’t Take it With You. And while Donna Reed was at the end of a long list of actresses, her onscreen innocence was perfect for the part. Lionel Barrymore, who played the nominal hero in the earlier film, was eventually brought in as the villainous Mr. Potter. A host of brilliant Hollywood character actors rounded out the cast.
The film begins with many people praying for Jimmy Stewart, while up in heaven god and Joseph have to decide who to send down to help him. The choice is Henry Travers, a bumbling but intuitive angel who hasn’t earned his wings. The first part of the film is Travers seeing Stewart’s life from childhood, then maturing and working at his father’s building and loan. He meets Donna Reed--a rival of Gloria Graham in the film--and falls in love with her, but wants to see the world before settling down. When his father suddenly dies, he is faced with the choice of leaving for college or seeing the building and loan closed at the behest of the richest--and meanest--man in town, Lionel Barrymore. Stewart stays and watches everyone else become successful, including his brother Todd Karns. When his uncle, Thomas Mitchell, loses eight thousand dollars of the business’s money--actually stolen by Barrymore, Stewart sees no way out other than suicide. It’s then that Travers intervenes, and shows Stewart how bad life for others would be without him. It’s a sobering journey for Stewart, especially when he sees how bad things are for those he loves the most, and the purity of the upbeat ending is one of the greatest in all of cinema. It was exactly what Capra had been attempting his entire career and he finally achieved it.
The film is a long one at over two hours, and something a studio would have frowned on. But with his freedom Capra could do as he pleased. The film was shot on the RKO lot, and the set for the main street of Bedford Falls underwent several changes during the shoot, not only to indicate different seasons but to reflect the alternate universe in which Stewart doesn’t exist. Dimitri Tiomkin, one of Capra’s frequent collaborators, was hired to write the film score, but most of it was toned down so much, or not used at all, that it essentially ended their working relationship. Though Capra remembered mostly negative reviews at the time, there were some positive, but the film failed to make back its investment. It wasn’t until the 1970s, and the film’s saturation on television during the Christmas season, that a new generation of viewers recognized the film for the classic it is. At the time, the film’s release was pushed up by RKO for the holiday season, thus putting it into stiffer competition at the Academy Awards. It earned six Oscar nominations, including best picture, but failed to win in any of the categories. Fortunately Capra lived to see the resurgence of the film’s popularity. Along with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life will be forever associated with the magic of Christmas and the holiday season.