It’s A Wonderful Backstory

This year is the 65th anniversary of the movie It’s A Wonderful Life.  When it was released in December 1946, no one imagined it would become a holiday classic.  In fact, it was surprising the movie ever got made.

The short story it’s based on, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, was rejected by every magazine it was submitted to, from the Saturday Evening Post to local farm journals.  The author eventually had 200 copies of it produced as a 24-page pamphlet and sent it to friends as a Christmas card.  One recipient, the author’s Hollywood agent, wrote him to ask if she could submit the story to the studios.  She did, and it was bought by RKO for $10,000, allegedly at the suggestion of Cary Grant.  The studio had three excellent screenwriters – Marc Connelly, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets – attempt adaptations, but was unhappy with all three results.

The property sat on the shelf at RKO until 1945, when they sold it for the original $10,000 price to Frank Capra.  Capra had just returned from serving in WWII, and hadn’t made a movie since finishing the edit of Arsenic and Old Lace in early 1942.  (Capra enlisted in 1941 but got an extension to allow him to finish the movie; it wasn’t released until 1944.)  He’d formed a new production company, Liberty Films, with 3 other directors, and Wonderful Life would be their first production.

From the start, Capra wanted James Stewart for the role of George Bailey.  They’d worked together before on You Can’t Take it With You and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  Stewart himself had just returned from the war where he’d flown bombing missions over Germany and rose to the rank of Colonel in the Army Air Corps.  In both Capra’s direction and Stewart’s performance, you can feel the impact of the war.  There’s a harder edge to this movie than their pre-war collaborations.

The other roles were harder to cast.  According to Capra’s original notes, he listed 27 actors as possibilities for Henry Potter, including Vincent Price, Raymond Massey, Edgar Buchanan, Dan Duryea, and Thomas Mitchell (who wound up playing Uncle Billy).  Lionel Barrymore isn’t on the list.  Henry Travers, who played Clarence, was also considered for Old Man Gower, Peter Bailey, and Uncle Billy.  Beulah Bondi wasn’t on the list to play Ma Bailey, but she’d been cast as Stewart’s mother several times before.

Capra’s notes also show he considered Olivia DeHaviland, Martha Scott and Ann Dvorak for the role of Mary, and he’d also offered it to Jean Arthur.  Hedda Hopper suggested (in her March 13, 1946 column) casting Ginger Rogers.  Instead, Capra went with 18-year-old Donna Reed, whom he got on loan from MGM.  Reed confessed in later interviews to being nervous about working with Capra and Stewart, but they both fell in love with her from the start of filming.  The scene of her and Stewart talking on the phone with Sam Wainwright was unrehearsed and done in one take.  When they finished, Capra called it “Simply wonderful.”  Then the script girl reminded him they’d left out a whole page of dialogue.  Capra’s response was: “With technique like that, who needs dialogue.  Print it.”

Unusual for most films, Capra filmed it in sequence, and did actual night shooting rather than the common practice of “day for night” using filters.  Joseph Biroc, one of the directors of photography, said in an interview that lighting the night shoots when there was snow on the ground was a challenge, since the snow would reflect any light aimed at it.  There were actually 3 DPs who worked on this film.  The original, Victor Milner, had conflicts with Capra and left after two weeks.  Joseph Walker, who’d worked with Capra before, came in and did the majority of the film, but then he had to leave for a prior commitment.  Biroc was the camera operator throughout the film, and was given the DP job for the final weeks of shooting.  Biroc later did the cinematography for Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, the original Flight of the Phoenix, The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, and won the Oscar for The Towering Inferno.

Snow became a challenge for the production.  The Bedford Falls Main Street set was constructed at the RKO Ranch in Encino (in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles).  When they were shooting, the temperatures were in the 90’s.  Movies in the past had always used Gypsum and white-coated cornflakes to simulate snow.  Unfortunately, cornflakes crunch, meaning any dialogue had to be redubbed.  Capra wanted realistic snow, so special effects man Russell Shearman and the RKO effects department mixed foamite – used in fire extinguishers – with soap and water.  When sprayed under high pressure, it mimicked snow perfectly.  They used over 6000 gallons of chemical snow in the film.

One scene many movie goers didn’t believe was real was the swimming pool beneath the gym floor.  However, it wasn’t cinema magic.  Beverly Hills High School had recently installed a retractable floor over the pool in their gymnasium, and Capra filmed the school dance scenes there.  He’d apparently heard about the floor, and incorporated it into the script.

When the movie wrapped, Capra and Stewart hosted a picnic for the cast and crew.  In all 372 people attended, at a cost of $1,799.09.  Capra sent  Stewart a check for $899.55 – he was know for rounding off amounts.  Stewart, though, somehow decided Capra should have paid $899.48, and sent Capra back a check for 7 cents.

The movie received decent reviews and was nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.  However that was the year of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which won all three of those top awards.  In the end, It’s A Wonderful Life was shut out at the Oscars.  Legend has it that the film was a box office failure, but that isn’t exactly correct.  It didn’t help that the film was marketed like the light-hearted comedies Capra and Stewart had made before the war.  The movie ended up costing around 3 million dollars.  According to RKO’s 1954 summary of earnings, it made 3.2 million, basically breaking even.  However, Capra and his partners in Liberty Films (which, oddly enough, included Wyler, who made Best Years at MGM) were counting on a strong showing to get the fledgling production company off the ground.  It wasn’t enough, and Liberty Films was sold two years later.

The groundswell that eventually led to the picture’s status as one of the premier Christmas stories actually began quite soon after its release.  Most films garner a number of letters in response.  The amount generated by It’s A Wonderful Life was incredible.  Capra would answer the letters himself.  He later told film majors at Wesleyan University, “I sat down to answer a letter about It’s A Wonderful Life in 1947, and when I looked up it was about 1957.”  Among the responses Capra received was a package from the warden at San Quentin.  They had screened the movie for the inmates, and the warden had told them that if they wanted to write to Capra, he’d forward their letters on.  The package contained 1500 letters.  “They were written on everything from toilet paper to beautiful typewritten paper,” Capra later remembered.  “…they all expressed one thing.  They all just suddenly realized that there was a reason for them being alive.”

Television kept the movie going.  When the copyright was mistakenly allowed to lapse, it seemed to be playing constantly throughout December since stations no longer had to pay royalties for showing it.  Later changes to the copyright law reestablished its protection and limited its television play, but it sold well on VHS and continues to do so on DVD.

But what really kept the movie alive, and kept it playing on television all these years, is its message of hope amid the travails of life.  It is, actually, a remarkably unsentimental movie.  In Potter, you have a rarity – a villain without a single redeeming trait – yet it works.  You truly believe that Stewart, faced with financial ruin and public humiliation, would consider suicide.  If anything, the message of the movie rings truer today than it did in 1946.

Both Capra and Stewart considered It’s A Wonderful Life their personal favorite out of all the movies they made.  The movie has legions of fans (myself included), and earns more with each generation.  That’s the definition of a timeless story.

**The major source for this piece was Jeanine Basinger’s exhaustive and fascinating The “It’s A Wonderful Life” Book (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc  © 1986 by the Wesleyan University Film Archives).  It contains the complete shooting script as well as the original short story.  I heartily recommend it (if you can find a copy) to anyone who loves this movie.


2 thoughts on “It’s A Wonderful Backstory

  1. Holy crap, where did you learn all this? Are you Frank Capra’s ghost? 🙂 ….oh, now I see. I’m gonna have to read that book some day. Seriously though, this was incredibly informative. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies–and it is the single most rewatchable film in history.

  2. Another unusual note regarding Mr. Potter… he “gets away with” purloining Uncle Billy’s $8000 with no penalty! Those familiar with the dreaded (or lauded, depending on your point of view) Will Hays Production Code know that crime MUST be shown to be punished in movies! But at the end of the story, Mr. Potter and his fate are simply … irrelevant.

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