WASHINGTON, December 25, 2014 – Director Steven Spielberg has said that whenever he goes on location for a new film, he takes along a copy of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to show his cast how movies should be made. Not surprisingly, a great many film goers would enthusiastically agree with Spielberg’s attitude toward this film.
Frank Capra’s wonderful movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” has long been regarded as one of the most enduringly popular films of the Christmas season. It celebrates the common man and American values as well, which is likely a major source of its continuing appeal. Building in our earlier observations, this 2015 edition of our List of Ten examines ten reasons why we love this film.
10. Public domain – At one point, the film was a Christmas perennial on television. Why? The film’s copyright lapsed in 1973 because then-owner, National Telefilm Associates, failed to apply for a renewal and for 27 years the movie fell into the public domain, meaning anyone could air it without paying royalty fees. The film became a holiday classic on TV and gathered iconic status. However, in the late-1990s, NTA’s successor, Republic Pictures Corp., regained control of the film’s rights and began charging royalties. The film is now aired less often.
9. Appealing – This ubiquitous Christmas film, with its buoyant populism and portraits of small-town family life, appeals to red state and blue state folk alike. We feel George Bailey’s pain. We despair at the fate that keeps him from fulfilling his dreams of adventure, but salute as George selflessly aids his family, friends and community.
8. The Romance – Has there been a more romantic scene? James Stewart and Donna Reed crowd the frame with only a telephone between them, listening to their rich friend Sam Wainwright talk about how his new plastics factory is “the chance of a lifetime,” yet unable to pay attention to Sam’s words. That’s because they acutely feel each other’s presence and are barely able to breathe, with years of private longing nearly ready to explode. In this amazing scene, Frank Capra achieved a level of passion unmatched by anybody else in film.
7. The Underdog – We love the underdog, and this film, with its classic rags-to-riches story, is a ringing affirmation of American opportunity. Typically, the film was originally panned by the critics when it was first released. The New Yorker said the film was “so mincing as to border on baby talk.” The original failure of the film cost Capra his independent production company, Liberty Films, which he had created to escape studio control.
“I will deal with the little man’s doubts, his curses, his loss of faith in himself, in his neighbor, in his God,” wrote Mr. Capra in his autobiography. And he did. Which is probably why the New Yorker hated it and why everyone else loved it.
6. The hero was human – Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey is our hero in this film, but he was not a saint. He lost his temper, he was ambitious and despondent, and he was faced with temptation. George was also suicidal in the lead-up to the film’s pivotal moment. But this small-town savings-and-loan founder regains his faith in himself and others. Tellingly, he suddenly reveals his true colors once again when he abandons his suicidal mood to jump into a freezing river, not to end his life but to save Clarence. Also in the film, George Bailey did not judge the promiscuous Violet. He didn’t approve her lifestyle, but he was merciful to her. Sadly, this is a real-life lesson we rarely see in films today, and perhaps this is yet another reason why we treasure “Wonderful Life.”
5. Donna Reed – As Mary Hatch, George Bailey’s love interest, Donna Reed plays an innocent and unsophisticated young women, but she is a key figure in the film. Mary has to be working behind the scenes to rally friends and family around her deeply depressed husband. Ironically, Reed won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her performance as Lorene, a prostitute, in the 1953 film “From Here to Eternity.” She later went on to become the quintessential mom in TV’s popular sitcom, “The Donna Reed Show.”
4. Clarence – We all love angels. Clarence Odbody is an angel second class who has yet to earn his wings. So he is sent to earth to save Jimmy Stewart’s character from suicide in hopes he can earn them. English-stage actor Henry Travers played Clarence. Travers, whose original name was Travers Hagerty, was raised the son of a doctor in the town of Berwick-on-Tweed on the Scottish border. He was often cast in films as a dignified and amiable senior citizen. He was nominated for an Oscar for best Actor in a Supporting Role in “Mrs. Miniver,” in 1942. He only made four films after “It’s A Wonderful Life,” retiring in 1949. He died in 1965 at the ripe age of 91.
3. Zuzu – How cute can you get? Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey, the sickly daughter of Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, only got six minutes on the screen. But she also got to say one of the most memorable lines in the film: “Look, Daddy: Teacher says that every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
Grimes was just six-years-old when she played Zuzu. She was orphaned at 14 when her mother died, and later went on as an adult to work as a medical technologist for 20 years. The Seattle-based 74-year old now makes a living appearing at frequent film showings, and regularly travels to Seneca Falls, N.Y. – the locus for early feminists and also the model town for the movie’s fictional village of Bedford Falls – to sign autographs at the annual festival in tribute to the film. It has been reported that Grimes will return in a purported “Wonderful Life” sequel as an angel who shows Bailey’s unlikeable grandson (also named George Bailey) how much better off the world would have been had he never been born.
2. Jimmy Stewart – Could any other actor have played the role of George Bailey as brilliantly as James Stewart? Stewart credited “It’s a Wonderful Life” for saving his career. He had been serving in World War II for five years, an eternity to be absent from the screen. He returned to his MGM contract, but the studio had found no projects for him, so he leaped at the chance to work with Frank Capra again. They had worked together before on “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “You Can’t Take It with You.”
Although Capra and Stewart’s 1946 film received five Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best actor for Stewart, it did not come up a winner at the box office. Nevertheless, it seems to have recharged this actor’s career. Stewart, who had previously copped an Oscar for Best Actor in 1940’s “Philadelphia Story,” would later go on to make classics such as “Rear Window,” “Vertigo” and “Anatomy of a Murder.” The popular actor died in 1997 at the age of 89.
1. Redemption and Hope – Life does have meaning. During this film’s most desperate moments, Stewart’s suicidal character is visited by an angel who shows him how much poorer other people’s lives would have been without him. As George Bailey, and indeed as all of us learn from Clarence, if George simply hadn’t existed, life would have still gone on in Bedford Falls. But we all get to see how poor that life might have been for the average citizen.
George Bailey indeed makes a difference. In the redemptive finale of the film, we see Stewart and his adoring wife, played by the lovely Donna Reed, joined by the simple townspeople of Capra’s mythical upstate New York village singing “Auld Lang Syne” around a Christmas tree. Good people do make a difference. It’s a lesson we can still learn from today. In fact, it’s a lesson that’s needed more now than it ever was before.
Merry Christmas to all.
—Compiled by John Haydon. Original article updated by Terry Ponick.
Sources: The Associated Press, Gary Arnold of The Washington Times, The Journal (Newcastle, UK).