It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Header Photo: Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life (1947)
© Paramount

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It's a Wonderful Life (Promo Poster)
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It's a Wonderful Life ~ Movie Quote

"Now Jimmy, it starts in Heaven.
It's all about this small town family man
who's in serious financial difficulty and think's
he's a failure. As he's getting to jump
in the river on Christmas Eve,
an angel named Clarence who wants to
earn his wings jumps in first.
Since Clarence can't swim, our hero has to save him.
Then Clarence shows the man what a wonderful life he's had...
Gee, Jimmy, it doesn't sound so good when I tell it, does it?."

- Frank Capra to Jimmy Stewart

frank capra's it's a wonderful life opening credits
© Paramount

It's a Wonderful Life ~ All the Facts

It's a Wonderful Life (Colour/B&W) [UK 2 Dvd Set]

Source: Extract from Donald Dewey's seminal book James Stewart

As Stewart has recounted it on numerous occasions, that attempt by Capra to outline the plot of It's a Wonderful Life was his first encounter with the character of George Bailey; it wasn't an especially productive one, either. No sooner had the director mulled over what he had been saying during a meeting at his home in the late fall of 1945 than he threw up his arms in exasperation, deciding that, instead of a legitimate story for a picture, he had "the lousiest piece of shit I've ever heard." Capra then thanked the actor for coming over to listen to him and sent him on his way with the advice to "forget the whole thing."

But Stewart didn't forget about it. He telephoned the director a couple of weeks later and, breaking his procrastination about resuming his film career, announced that he definitely wanted to do the picture. It was the kind of push that Capra needed; within only a few weeks, he was ready to begin production.

As both a story and a production, It's a Wonderful Life had a tortuous history. It started life in February 1938 as a two-page outline for a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. But the writer couldn't make the material work to his satisfaction, so he put it on the shelf for five years. In 1943, he made another try under the title The Greatest Gift, but collected nothing but rejection letters from magazines for his efforts. As a last resort, he printed it himself and enclosed it with Christmas cards to relatives and friends. One of those receiving it was his agent, who promptly sold it to RKO for $10,000. There followed several months when the studio sought to tailor it as a vehicle for Cary Grant, first hiring Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter, then bringing in both Marc Connelly and Clifford Odets to rework Trumbo's labors. In September 1945, RKO finally gave up and sold the property to Capra.

At the time, Capra would have been the last one in Hollywood to claim that there was anything wonderful about life. In even more of a funk about his career than Stewart was about his, the maker of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was shocked to discover in the waning months of the war that his absence from Hollywood to make Army documentaries had not been particularly lamented by Columbia's Harry Cohn or any other studio boss. Although there were cumulative reasons for this attitude, two of the largest were the increasingly extravagant shooting schedules of his pre-war films and an equally swelling ego (Edward Bernds: "Capra really started getting caught up in himself as the great artist dedicated only to making the Ultimate Masterpiece"). The hostility of the traditional studios prompted him to form a partnership with producer Samuel Briskin and, later, directors William Wyler and George Stevens in an independent venture they called Liberty Films. After discarding a number of other projects viewed as sure legitimizing moneymakers, including a western with Gary Cooper, Liberty announced It's a Wonderful Life as its first feature.

As Capra told Stewart at their first meeting about the film, It's a Wonderful Life is narrated from the point of view of an angel (Henry Travers) as he is given the background on his assignment to go to Bedford Falls and save the desperate George Bailey, who is on the verge of suicide. Lengthy flashbacks inform both Clarence and the audience that Bailey has always been a generous, industrious man who has put his sense of responsibility ahead of what were once ardent dreams of leaving his town to make his way as a world-famous architect. Every time he has been about to leave, some disaster—the death of his father, a threatened takeover of his savings and loan operation by the evil banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), and a bank run, most prominently—has instead committed him more deeply to preserving his savings and loan, which is looked upon by the poor of Bedford Falls as their only hope of rising above misery. He has been further rooted to his home by a marriage to Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) and the birth of their four children. For his part, Bailey tries to act philosophical about his fate, rejecting the idea that he is envious of the business success of a schoolmate (Frank Albertson) or the war heroics of his younger brother (Todd Karnes)— accomplishments that might have been his.

But Bailey loses his tranquil demeanor when his absentminded uncle (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces $8,000, exposing his loan company to ruin and himself to fraud charges. What he doesn't know is that Potter has found the money and, rather than return it, sees it as his opportunity for destroying his competitor. The berserk Bailey snaps at his family, goes into a meaningless tirade against the teacher of one of his children, gets drunk, and gets slugged by the husband of the offended teacher. As snow flutters down on Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve, he stands on the town bridge, chewing over Potter's cutting remark that his $15,000 insurance policy makes him "worth more dead than alive" to his family.

Before Bailey can go through with his intention of jumping into the river under the bridge and killing himself, Clarence arrives on the scene as a drowning man. Bailey saves him, but dismisses the man's claim that he is an angel who has to perform a good deed to earn his wings. Bailey sees the light only when Clarence takes up his muttered wish that he never had been born. Bailey is then forced to see Bedford Falls (or, Potterville) as it would have been if indeed he had not been born. Nightmare leads into nightmare. Not only do the local people (including his wife) not know him, but Potterville is something of an extended juke joint catering mostly to hookers and boozers; even the thousands of lives his war hero brother saved have been lost because he himself had not been around to save his brothers life after a childhood accident on a frozen pond. Persuaded that life is worth living, Bailey returns to his real surroundings in joyful gratitude. His final surprise comes with the overwhelming generosity of all the townspeople he has helped and made sacrifices for along the way: alerted by Mary of the crisis at the savings and loan company, they pool thousands of dollars to make up for the lost $8,000 and then some, underlining the film's explicitly stated theme that a man with friends can never be considered poor. Bailey's redemption earns Clarence his wings.

It's a Wonderful Life (60th Anniversary Edition) [US Dvd]

Although Stewart has made it sound as if he were being totally whimsical in accepting It's a Wonderful Life on the basis of Capra's meandering talk about the angel, the plot was actually not all that radical for the 1940s, when the military uncertainties of the war and the social uncertainties of its aftermath honed Hollywood's taste for kindergarten religiosity. Among the pictures made during the decade in which supernatural creatures (evil as well as good), ghosts, or the dead figured prominently were Here Comes Mr. Jordan, I Married a Witch, I Married an Angel, The Remarkable Andrew, Happy Land, That's the Spirit, The Horn Blows at Midnight, The Human Comedy, Heaven Can Wait, The Cockeyed Miracle, Angel on My Shoulder, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Bishop's Wife, Down to Earth, and Portrait of Jennie.

Stewart's decades-long consistency in naming It's a Wonderful Life as his favorite film has also tended to create the impression that the production resembled the final scene under the Bailey Christmas tree, when in fact the atmosphere was much closer to that of George Bailey discovering that Bedford Falls had been replaced by Potterville. Already something of an outcast because of his problems with the major studios, Capra froze his relations for good with Hedda Hopper when he opted for Reed in the role of the wife, instead of Ginger Rogers, as proposed by the columnist; Hopper thereafter called Stewart's performance in It's a Wonderful Life the worst of his career (Rogers herself disclaimed any keen interest in the part, describing the character of the wife as "too bland" for her taste). Counting Trumbo, Connelly, and Odets from the earlier RKO attempts to fashion a screenplay, eight writers took a swipe at the script at one stage or another, precipitating a Screen Writers Guild arbitration hearing to determine who had done what. The writers who emerged with the major credit—Frances Goodrich and her husband Albert Hackett—refused to see the completed picture because of what they described as a "horrid" experience with Capra, who also received screenwriting acknowledgment. During production, the director and cinematographer Victor Milner crossed swords continually, until the cameraman was replaced and many of his scenes had to be reshot by Joseph Walker. Even at the post-production stage, Capra got into hair pulling with Dimitri Tiomkin, charging that the composer was so absorbed with another musical score, for the western Duel in the Sun, that he had been giving It's a Wonderful Life only the leavings of his energies.

And then there was Stewart.

The actor discovered soon enough that his initial enthusiasm for the project was not the same thing as being able to pull off a convincing portrayal of George Bailey. As he admitted to Elliot Norton of the Boston Post shortly after the film's release:

    "I felt when I got back to pictures that I had lost all sense of judgment. I couldn't tell if I was good or bad. I mean in a given scene. Usually, you can tell what is the right thing to do when youre acting. But I couldn't. I was uncertain."

According to one version of a frequently repeated story, Stewart behaved in such a discombobulated fashion at the start of shooting that he found in his insecurity another reason for quitting acting, and Capra sought out Lionel Barrymore for help before the entire production was compromised. The veteran actor then reportedly took Stewart aside for a lecture about how "acting is the greatest profession ever invented" and about how no other vocation had a similar power to "move millions of people, shape their lives, give them a sense of exaltation." In case that didn't sink in, at least as Capra remembered the conversation, Barrymore also went after Stewart's expressed doubt about acting being a "decent" profession, asking the war ace if he "thought it more 'decent' to drop bombs on people than to bring rays of sunshine into their lives with [his] acting talent." By the director's telling, the Barrymore allusion to the war "knocked [Stewart] flat on his ass."

Stewart always denied that version of the talk, especially the assumption that he was so depressed that he was ready to quit acting or Barrymore's alleged references to his war record. He told The Movies in 1983:

    "I swear I don't know where that got started. I never considered giving it up. What Lionel did was encourage me. I was feeling around and every once in a while he'd come up and say something. It was his encouragement that was a tremendous help to me."

For sure, there were few roles, even if cobbled together by a platoon of writers, that could have offered an uncertain Stewart more personal doors of entry than that of George Bailey. The small-town setting in an eastern area, the shopkeeper ambiance, a young man whose first dreams of escape and success center around making it as an architect, the self-intoxicated spieler, the deft dancer, the immaculate politeness to elders (even while being slapped by one, as with the drunken pharmacist played by H. B. Warner, and being slugged by another, as with the offended husband portrayed by Stanley Andrews)—none of this was exactly foreign territory to him. The same was true of the production, beginning with Capra, running through a slew of actors with whom he had performed before (Barrymore, Warner, Samuel Hinds, Charles Halton, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen), and ending with Beulah Bondi again playing his mother. In the end, as he was to admit, he needed every one of those familiar signposts for what turned into some seventy consecutive days of shooting.

If there is one major note to Stewart's performance in It's a Wonderful Life, its intensity—physical as much as emotional. Throughout the film, his George Bailey is constantly running, yelling, pacing, screaming, and throwing off other kinds of kinetic energy. The most ostensibly relaxed conversational scenes—at the supper table with his father, with the cop and the cab driver on a street corner, with the good-time Violet (Gloria Grahame) in his office, with his wife on their improvised honeymoon in a decrepit abandoned house—all take place within a swirl of rival claims for his attention. All of this makes his raucous surrender to despair, just before the entrance of Clarence, not so much a departure from his previous behavior as a paring down of it—George Bailey finally alone in his peripateticism. In fact, about the only moment in the entire picture when the character reflects quietly, even barring the usual noises of his own ambitions and exasperations, is when he stands on the bridge with his insurance policy, tasting the truth of Potter's jibe. Given those contours, the part represented a far more exhausting challenge to Stewart than any previous role, not merely because of the need to be on camera practically every minute from start to finish, but to be there as a man who always had his ears keened to what was going on around him even as he denied the exposure of his own nerve ends.

The never-admiring Jean Arthur once asserted that the role of George Bailey was so rich that anyone could have played him as convincingly as Stewart. That is doubtful. Whoever the anyone was, he would have been unlikely to bring to the role Stewart's innate hostility to the incessant emotional physicality of George Bailey, and the intelligence to rationalize that hostility as an additional charge from a sometimes humorous, sometimes rancorous expression of small-town respectability, and the technical mastery for bringing about the fusion. Having had more difficulty than Stewart with such a process, another actor—while capable of going off in some other creative direction— would have been next to helpless in suggesting, from just below the surface, the resultant petulance that runs through the character of the filmed George Bailey. This is particularly important since Bailey's petulance is hard to distinguish from Capra's.

In his later years (the director died in 1991), Capra turned what originally had been intended as a critical needle into a protective halberd by referring to the main body of his work as "Capracorn"—in his eyes, at least, a brew of the comic, the sentimental, the rhetorical, the idealistic, and the melodramatic in which the values of the man on the street were raised above those of official authority and in which, even at the cost of gliding over specific plot points, there was inevitably a happy ending. More than once, he cited It's a Wonderful Life as a perfect example of Capracorn, arguing in particular how its theme of Friends Represent the Greatest Wealth (spelled out in the final seconds in a message to Bailey from Clarence) was a basic strength of the common man and a quintessential democratic message.

But comparable to the images offered by Stewart's two previous movies with Capra, the directors "common man" in It's a Wonderful Life is, at best, an annoying rash. Just as he figured most conspicuously in You Cant Take It With You in a jail sequence when his threatening moves against munitions-maker Edward Arnold seemed to emanate from a lynch mob of hoboes, and just as the generic citizenry depicted by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was either stupid or powerless, Wonderful Life's man on the street is most in action (before the finale) when he is making a panicky run on George Bailey's savings and loan. The citizens of Bedford Falls aren't bad people, we are left to understand, but they are easily frightened, they are ungrateful for all that George has done for them, and they are even crass for accepting the offer of his honeymoon trip savings for calming their fears.

Thanks to such sequences, not to mention the flashback device guiding the film from the start, Capra has to labor less than usual to establish his trademark inevitability about what occurs. It is in fact owing only to Stewart's elasticity as an actor that the disappointments and frustrations suffered by his George Bailey day after day and year after year don't make his explosion and breakdown seem even more unavoidable. The performer's humor was never more necessary, nor more in concert with his equally long line in the lightly cranky, to disguise for so long a character who is just waiting to give in to his resentments about the hand dealt him by fate. (How wrong is Barrymore's Potter when he observes that Bailey hates everything about his life and the people populating it?) If Bailey is an American Everyman, a notion that both Capra and Stewart came around to endorsing, then America is a glib but profoundly petulant benefactor waiting for its generosity to be repaid— and the sooner the better.

Stewart's ability to convey these interior cancerous rages while maintaining the exterior of the town healer provides It's a Wonderful Life with a conflict far more suspenseful than his confrontations with the archly Satanic Potter or the awakenings generated by the archly celestial Clarence. Ultimately, the performance hangs out of the collection basket in the last sequence like the news that George Bailey's successful businessman schoolmate is sending $25,000 to cover his financial problems—reducing the urgency, if not the relevance, of all the other gesturing.

After lengthy post production work that inflated the film's budget beyond Liberty's expectations. It's a Wonderful Life was hopped into New York and Los Angeles theaters at the end of December 1946 to qualify for Oscar consideration that year, then released nationally in January. RKO made the distribution decision mainly because Sinbad the Sailor, its originally planned holiday release, ran into Technicolor processing problems in the lab. Initial critical reception was all over the lot. Time called it "a pretty wonderful movie," while Newsweek backed up a cover story with the verdict that the picture was "sentimental, but so expertly written, directed, and acted that you want to believe it." James Agee was even more backhanded in his compliments in The Nation than Newsweek, saying that it was "one of the most efficient sentimental pieces since A Christmas Carol." Some of the other critics were more direct. For Bosley Crowther of The New York Times:

    "the weakness of the picture ... is its illusory concept of life. Mr Capra's nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place, and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes, rather than average realities"

New Yorker critic John McCarten found the treatment ot the story "so mincing as to border on baby talk" and voiced particular solidarity with Henry Travers for "God help him, [having] the job of portraying Mr. Stewart's guardian angel."

When it slipped It's a Wonderful Life into theaters for Oscar consideration, RKO appeared to be supporting the film which garnered five nominations-including one each for the picture, for Capra, and for Stewart. Once down to budgetary decisions, however, the studio threw all its promotional weight behind another heavily nominated production, The Best Years of Our Lives, leaving the inhabitants of Bedford Falls in snows over their heads. The failure of the Capra picture to win in any of its five categories at the Academy Award ceremonies in March 1947 was the last straw for Liberty: stunned by the mediocre box-office reception accorded Wonderful Life, Capra decided that being an independent producer-director wasn't so marvelous at that, and company assets were sold off to Paramount before Wyler and Stevens got around to making their scheduled pictures.

Capra's bitter explanation for the tepid responses to the picture was that:

    "perhaps [I] had too much faith in the human race.... People called me a kind of movie Pollyanna and I guess maybe I was"

Stewart has usually blamed it on the times:

    "The only thing I've been able to come up with is that people had just been through a war and that this was not quite what they were looking for. The picture, even though there was a comedy side to it and everything, was really a very serious picture. There was a dark side to it. I think movie audiences wanted Red Skelton, slapstick comedy, westerns, escapism. We were finished with the war. Maybe it was just the wrong time to make the picture."

One consequence of the dissolution of Liberty Films was the lapsing of copyright control over It's a Wonderful Life, allowing it to resurface on television in the 1970s in the public domain. The Christmas ritualization of its programming since then (NBC acquired the copyright in the early 1990s, announcing a policy of one showing a year around the Christmas season) has forced it to play to even greater sentimental expectations than those designed originally by Capra. What Capra saw as "serious" and "dark" on the big screen has, even without the addition of colorization, gained the wine sheen of a seasonal bauble on the small one.


It's a Wonderful Life: All the Facts >> Cast & Credits >> Making of >> It's a Wonderful Life [UK 2 Dvd Set B/W + Col. with Art Cards] 2014 Release >> It's a Wonderful Life [UK 2 Dvd Set B/W + Col. with Art Cards] 2014 Release >> UK Colour/B&W 2 Dvd Set >> UK Colour/B&W 2 Dvd Set + Poster + Postcards >> Canvas Print >> >> Screen Legend 4 Dvd UK Boxset >> Frank Capra 4 Dvd UK Boxset >> Repro. Movie Promo Poster Gallery >> Search Site

James Stewart: Biog. >> Key Dates >> Filmography >> Interred >> Glenn Miller Story UK Dvd >> Rear Window >> Vertigo >> Advertise >> James Stewart Books and Dvds available @

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