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Frank Capra’s gift to the World – It’s A Wonderful Life

It’s A Wonderful Life – Frank Capra’s gift to the world.

Frank Capra’s 1946 Masterpiece, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, has rightly gone down in film history as one of the greatest feel good movies of all time. From its humble beginnings as a short story, ‘The Greatest Gift’, which its author Philip Van Doren Stern included on Christmas cards he sent to family and friends, it has become, perhaps, the most cherished of all movies, regularly topping best picture polls either side of the Atlantic. In America particularly, Christmas isn’t Christmas without the family gathering around the TV to watch this incredibly affecting festive tale.

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Frank Capra’s – Its a wonderful life. – Indie Birds.

The main reason that ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ continues to stand the test of time, can be explained in two words – Frank Capra. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War (during which he made the exemplary documentary series, ‘Why We Fight’), Capra had established himself as one of Hollywood’s premiere directors, with a string of box office smashes to his name. The most notable of which, 1934’s romantic comedy ‘It Happened One Night’, became the first film to win all five major Academy Awards picking up Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay and of course, Best Director. Capra had become a master craftsman and a master storyteller, specialising in crowd pleasing ‘moral fables’ about the honest Joe, the American everyman, who stands up for ‘liberal’ ideals and values against corrupt businessmen and politicians.

Screen giants like James Stewart and Gary Cooper had turned in widely acclaimed performances in Capra’s ‘Mr Smith Goes To Washington and ‘Meet John Doe’ respectively, and it was to Stewart, his most trusted actor, that Capra turned when casting the part of quintessential nice-guy George Bailey. Stewart, one of the few major stars to enlist in the war against fascism, had been away from Hollywood for the best part of five years, and was in anguish about resuming acting again when Capra called to offer him the role, that ultimately, film critics would regard as the best of his distinguished career. Luckily, the director was able to talk Stewart around, and the rest, as they say, is history!

Stewart’s nuanced portrayal of the decent, unselfish, yet ultimately tormented Bailey, offers us a master-class in screen-acting, playing through a succession of comic, romantic and dramatic scenes with absolute confidence. Stewart is able to convince us of George’s good heart and of his deeply felt moral opposition to scurrilous Banker Henry Potter, whilst also capturing the frustration eating away at George’s soul, as he sees life passing him by and his friends leaving to make their own mark on the world. George Bailey is a man divided against himself, as Stewart’s reflective performance gradually makes clear.

Thankfully, the supporting cast are equally as good, with Lionel Barrymore turning in a career best performance as Potter, the Dickensian villain, who tries to drive the Bailey family business into ruin in his quest to monopolise the wealth of Bedford Falls. And, as the years have gone by, it’s become impossible to imagine anyone, other than Henry Travers, playing the very special emissary, Clarence Odd body, whose celestial mission it is to save George Bailey from the tragic fate that awaits him on Christmas Eve.

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Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore in “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946)

The story begins with George Bailey, a young boy determined to travel the world and “shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet”. He subscribes to National Geographic magazine and spends his days dreaming of “going out exploring some day, you watch”. Family tragedy and financial difficulties combine though, to ensure George’s ambitions are thwarted at every turn, and he feels trapped into running the family Building And Loan Company, set up by his father, and the only institution in town not owned by slum landlord, Potter. George, although he seems unable to acknowledge it, is loved by the whole of Bedford Falls for standing up to Potter and, in a crucial scene which delineates Capra’s humanitarian worldview, he confronts him about the way he treats his tenants:

“Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr Potter, this rabble you keep talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him.”

Stewart is acting out of his skin here, visibly trembling with anger, for me it’s one of the most genuinely moving scenes in film history.

Though George has quietly transformed the lives of all those who reside in Bailey Park, he is unable to find consolation in his own achievements. He cannot free himself from the resentment he feels, as first his younger brother, Harry, take his place at College and then as his old friend Sam Wainwright cuts a dash through the business world. Drunk and despairing on Christmas Eve, he wishes he’d never been born.

Throughout the film Capra remains in complete control of the story. Each scene plays perfectly, the transition between episodes is seamless and the script cohesive from start to finish. This is all the more remarkable given the number of writers involved in developing the screenplay. Whilst the final screen credit went to husband and wife screenwriting team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich as well as Capra himself, there were already three fully developed scripts in existence when Capra bought the property from RKO in 1945.

Three of the biggest names in the business had failed spectacularly in adapting Van Doren Stern’s quirky fantasy. Neither Marc Connelly, the Pulitzer winning playwright and fully paid up member of the legendary Alongquin roundtable, Dalton Trumbo (an Oscar winner for The Brave One) or Clifford Odets, the famous left wing firebrand whose plays with the Group Theatre had revolutionised Broadway in the thirties, found a way to incorporate the various fantasy/reality elements of the plot into a coherent whole.

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No Holiday Is Complete Without…It’s A Wonderful Life!… Jimmy Stewart (1946)

While Connolly and Trumbo’s contributions were dismissed out of hand by Capra, some key scenes from the Odets script were retained. According to Jeanine Basinger, curator of the Capra archives, his scripts “bring into focus the elements found in the final movie: the accident on the ice in which Harry nearly drowns; the Gower drug store sequence and George’s marriage to Mary.” It’s worth noting that at this stage the Potter character simply did not exist. The dramatic conflict in each of the scripts was between a good and evil George.

None of this turmoil is reflected in the finished movie itself. Capra was able to unfold his story with clarity, balancing the requirements of the plot with his need to convey an uncompromising message to the audience. In the same way that Dickens, who was on a lifelong crusade to improve the conditions of the poor, wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ to try and ferment social change in Victorian England, so Capra, who was just back from the Second World War, his film cans stuffed with footage of the horrors of the camps, passionately wanted to tell a story that would make a serious statement about the times in which he lived.

Dickens’ plea to his readers was for them to follow the example of a reformed Scrooge when, at the novellas end, he pledges to “honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year round”. Capra’s motivation was equally straightforward. He had in mind a reaffirmation of John Donne’s view of the human condition

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man

Is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”

Still haunted by a war, in which Historians currently estimate, up to 70 million people died, Capra was at pains to point out how one man’s life touches another. His Christmas message was for us all to extend a helping hand to the next fellow.

When I went to see’ It’s A Wonderful life’ at my local cinema, last Christmas, the usherette, on taking my ticket said “I hope you’ve brought a supply of hankies”. Indeed, I had. I never get past the very early scene, with a distraught Mr Gower and the young George Bailey, in Gower’s drugstore, without breaking down. And, of course, the famous finale with George, having escaped from his nightmare existence in Pottersville, charging joyously through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve, wishing everyone and everything a Merry Christmas, has me in floods of tears every time I have the privilege of seeing it.

Watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ every Christmas, making it a part of the ritual and tradition of the festive period means it can be hard to be wholly objective about the film as a work of art. For good or bad the film comes imbued, perhaps even burdened, with our own memories and associations. In the darkness, as the credits begin to roll, we suddenly sense The Ghost of Christmas past sitting next to us in the cheap seats.

For others, Capra is too sentimental and the derogatory term “Capra-corn” applied by some cynics to his films has stuck over the years. Look beyond the joyous, feel-good message of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ though, and there is a real darkness rooted within the heart of small town America. Capra, having witnessed at first hand, the atrocities of a World War knew all about the evil ordinary people were capable of, but he was an optimist first and foremost, and a true believer in the brotherhood of man. Ultimately, though, the fact that a film, a work of art can bring us to tears is what truly makes us human. If you haven’t done it yet, put this film right at the top of your’s list.

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