Blog Directory CineVerse: No film is a failure that has friends

No film is a failure that has friends

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Why "It's a Wonderful Life" is a perennial classic

by Erik J. Martin

(Note: This is part 1 of a 4-part series to publish over 4 weeks; part 2 will post next Wednesday.)

The first time I saw "It's a Wonderful Life" was in 1979, when it was played uninterrupted on local public television. I was just a 12-year old kid sprawled out in front of the living room TV, mesmerized--Christmas tree glistening off to the right and powderflake snow wafting down outside the front window as George Bailey stood grinning like a gingerbread man while his friends and family sang a heartwarming “Auld Ang Syne.”

Over 30 years later, I can easily say I’ve seen the movie over 40 times. The film has so touched my life that I even proposed to my then girlfriend during a Christmastime viewing in 1993. (Needless to say, she accepted: After watching George and Mary fall in love in one of the silver screen’s classic romances, how could she say no, I reasoned.)

Today, more than 60 years after its original release, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is as rich and golden a viewer’s experience as it’s ever been. For all its would-be "sentimental hogwash,” the movie has captured a world audience unlike any other film to date. It's ever-increasing charisma is undeniable, its acting and production standards impeccable, and its reflection of wholesome, simple human values is timeless. 

Yet, amazingly, this unanimous cinematic classic experienced a rocky history, failing to enchant its audience upon its inception in 1946 and reaping miserable profits. Considering its dismal initial impact in the post-war 1940s, it is amazing to consider the incredible shared cultural phenomenon it has become today. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is truly the definitive film phoenix risen from the ashes.

What if Abraham Lincoln had never been born? Philip Van Doren Stern, an established author of the post WWI literary world, was shaving the morning of Lincoln's birthday, 1938, when that sudden thought struck him. He developed the concept, imagining what the world would be like for an ordinary man if we wished he'd never been born. Stern dismissed the idea for a while, but went back five years later, developing it into a story entitled, "The Greatest Gift", which he sent out to over 200 people as Christmas card substitutes in 1943.

The author's agent received a copy and was so impressed that he convinced Cary Grant's agent to purchase the story for $10,000. The property changed hands with over 10 different people (including Howard Hughes) until it finally came into the possession of Frank Capra--director extraordinaire of the '30s with already four academy awards to his name. Capra was so charmed by the story that he immediately decided to turn it into a full-length motion picture, under his production and direction. It would, in fact, be the first project attempted by his newly created company, Liberty Films, formed in collaboration with William Wyler, George Stevens and Samuel Briskin--three other celebrated directors of their time.

The ultra-perfectionist Capra, however, was not satisfied with the troublesome script for his movie, which was renamed "It's a Wonderful Life" (referred to as IAWL, henceforth), so he assigned famous husband and wife screenwriters Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich the job of entirely reworking the script--even penning a bit of it himself.

A filmmaker's unique vision
Capra re-envisioned his story not as a Christmas yarn, but as a story intended for any time of year. He wasn't intimidated by the tale's dark implications of suicide and despair. He saw the potential for transcendence and inspiration, and the depiction of abundant human emotion. Capra was already well-skilled in this art by virtue of his previous sentimental works like “Meet John Doe,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

From the start, there was only one actor who could fill the "small town-everyman" shoes of George Bailey for Capra, and that was Jimmy Stewart. A proven winner for the director in the thirties, Stewart was more than eager to work with Capra on their first commercial post-war film for each of them. Tedious scrutiny went into the selection of the rest of the cast. Capra wanted, above all, colorful characters and recognizable personalities, so he picked a rich stock of excellent character actors. He wasn't afraid to cast actors against type, or to sign personable black actors, either.

Capra's work ethic was rigorous and gruelling. He engrossed himself entirely in IAWL only four months after returning from active duty in World War II as a filmmaker, compiling a top-notch crew and affixing a 90 day shooting schedule on a budget of over $2 million.

From the beginning, Capra conceived IAWL as his masterwork. "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made," Capra states in his autobiography. "It wasn't made for the oh-so bored critics or the oh-so jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people.”

As an immigrant child, Capra was impressed by common, everyday people whose lives he so grew to appreciate that his ambition was to someday project them onto the screen. His greatest talent rested in his power to represent the ordinary man's strength to face apparently insurmountable evil, thereby benefitting his fellow man. Capra realized this power early in his career, when he decided to create films that would exhilarate the depressed spirits of the American public, inspired personally by his dramatic recovery from a serious illness.

"Improving the individual and bringing a more hopeful outlook on life to him is the only way you can improve the nation and ultimately the world,” thought Capra. It was 1946, and both he and his fellow Americans were numb to the events of the war. IAWL seemed like the perfect cinematic salve.

Next week: Sizzle turns to fizzle at the box office

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP