BEDFORD FALLS — With World War II only a few months behind us, 1946 was one of those years that will forever define American History.
Tupperware was hitting department store shelves, bikinis were invented, Donald Trump was born, and a box office disappointment titled “It’s a Wonderful Life” marked the return of then-two-time Academy Award winning director, Frank Capra.
There’s no question each of the above mentions deserves its own article, but seeing as I write about classic films here at KSL.com, I’ll go ahead and focus on that last bit about Capra’s seemingly lackluster return to filmmaking.
As Emily Todd VanDerWerff of Vox puts it, “if you were to tell Capra back in the late ’40s that his film would go on to become a perennial favorite, he might have scoffed at you. Upon release, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was greeted with weak box office earnings and reviews that amounted to, ‘It’s fine, but nothing special.'”
VanDerWerff goes onto point out the critical attention “It’s a Wonderful Life” enjoyed probably had more to do with Capra’s name than how the film was received at the time.
So, what happened?
How did a movie marked as forgettable holiday fodder go onto become the quintessential Christmas classic, and why did Capra’s name mean so much during a time of bikinis and plastic food containers?
As we do each month here with KSL’s Classic Movies, let’s talk about the highlights:
In 1938, writer Author Philip Van Doren Stern had a dream which he eventually worked into a short story titled “The Greatest Gift.”
The story was collectively rejected by publishers, so in 1943, Van Doren Stern sent the 21-page story out as a holiday greeting and as the story goes, “The Greatest Gift” found its way to the desk of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead who, fun fact, was born in Salt Lake City.
Hampstead liked the story so much he purchased the rights for $10,000 which is how it caught the eye of Capra, who at that time was considered by many to be America’s filmmaker.
Before transforming “The Greatest Gift” into “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Capra had already made one of my all-time favorite movies “It Happened One Night,” in addition to “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take It with You,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services noted of Capra, “In many ways, Capra, a naturalized Italian immigrant, made some of the most quintessentially ‘American’ movies of the era.”
But Capra was more than just a filmmaker living in America, Capra was a man who believed in American ideals. Just four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Capra resigned as president of the Screen Director’s Guild and gave up his lucrative career as a filmmaker to become an enlisted man. He is quoted as saying of the decision:
“I had a guilty conscience. In my films I championed the cause of the gentle, the poor, the downtrodden. Yet I had begun to live like the Aga Khan. The curse of Hollywood is big money. It comes so fast it breeds and imposes its own mores, not of wealth, but of ostentation and phony status.”
Capra made “It’s a Wonderful Life” his first project after the war and said of the project, “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”
As the monthly KSL Classic Movies article goes, we discuss the history, the influence and the longevity of influential films. In this case, however, the beloved “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a bit ubiquitous, hasn’t it?
As Donald Liebenson of Vanity Fair states, “It is perhaps the most cherished, quoted, and oft-seen American Christmas film.”
Every year the movie finds its way into new pop culture references and every year we see our personal favorite Christmas movie or television special protagonists take a minute to enjoy “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Why? Because if you want to make a character relatable, you have that character enjoy a movie you know 100% of your audience has already been affected by.
So, instead of discussing an obvious point here about how everyone cherishes a movie made over 70 years ago, let’s just discuss how one scene affected one of America’s favorite actors.
Alexandra Pollard of The Independent tells the story of how, like Capra, James Stewart had also recently returned from the war. As Stewart delivered his lines from the now-famous prayer in a roadside bar, Pollard records, “with an almost unwatchable desperation, to a god he only half believes [Stewart prays] ‘I’m not a praying man,’ he says, ‘but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, god…’ As he rubs a clenched, trembling hand against his mouth, he starts to cry. That moment, which actor Carol Burnett later described as ‘one of the finest pieces of acting anyone has ever done on the screen,’ wasn’t in the script.”
Stewart said of the scene, “I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. That was not planned at all.”
Does it hold up today
Obviously, the answer to the question of “Does this movie hold up today?” is a resounding “Yes!”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is the perfect marriage of an author’s dream, a director’s deepest beliefs, and an actor who understood that George Bailey represents every person who feels lost or broken during the holidays. When one watches “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there is “nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see,” to borrow a phrase from Linus van Pelt.
So, whether you’re feeling the sadness that often sneaks into the holiday season, or you just want to be reminded of the potential we humans have to be on the right side of love, it’s not too late to block 135 minutes of your holiday to be reminded just one more time in 2019 that “It’s a Wonderful Life.”