While shaving on the morning of February 28, 1938, a man named Philip got an idea for a short story. The whole thing came to him at once, from beginning to end. It was about the averted suicide of a desperate man named George, who, with a little help from a heavenly friend, finds out what would have happened had he not been born. Excited, Phil hocked his little fable to editors everywhere.
No one wanted it.
But Philip Van Doren Stern never gave up. He printed 200 copies of his 24-page mini-epic and gave them as Christmas gifts to friends, including his Hollywood agent, in 1943. In the parlance of Facebook, this is when it got “liked.” Big-time.
A producer at RKO Studios thought Cary Grant might be a good fit for the role of the suicide wannabe. Mr. Grant begged to differ. Three different scripts were churned out, but none captured the charming spirit of Stern’s original. On September 1, 1945, RKO head Charles Koerner off-loaded all three scripts, plus Stern’s original pamphlet, for the lowly sum of $10,000 to a successful director who had recently returned from a four-year stint serving in World War II, when he had made pro-American documentaries to boost morale for the U.S. war effort.
His name was Frank Capra.
Colonel Capra had just formed an independent production company called Liberty Films, and he brought in new writers (Michael Wilson, Dorothy Parker, Jo Swerling, and husband-and-wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) to adapt Mr. Stern’s Christmas story, which he renamed It’s a Wonderful Life.
Another returning veteran by the name of James Stewart, whom Capra had cast in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take It With You, was tentatively climbing his way back up the Hollywood caste system. Both Stewart and Capra hitched their fortunes to the tragicomic tale of George Bailey, an all-American Bob Cratchit. It was Liberty’s first production.
It’s a Wonderful Life opened two weeks before Christmas, in 1946. In spite of an aggressive marketing campaign, Capra’s labor of love earned mostly so-so reviews and proved itself a dud for investors. Liberty Films produced only one other film, Capra’s State of the Union, in 1948, before shuttering its doors. Postwar America had changed. Moviegoers thought they were paying for a light romantic comedy, not a Dante-esque vision of drunkenness, despair, and suicide. Nominated for five Oscars, it came home with none. The British press savaged it. Frank Capra might well wish that his creation had never been born.
So how did a movie that stumbled so badly out of the gate end up a champion?
There are many explanations. Two things happened that Capra took as signs his film had accomplished what he dreamed for it. First, the personal, often emotional, fan letters started rolling in. Less than a year after the film’s anti-climactic debut, the warden of San Quentin prison mailed him a bag stuffed with more than 1,500 letters scrawled by inmates; the letters told of the film’s impact on them. For decades to come, the letters kept arriving, and Capra personally answered every one of them. He knew that his movie had reached “his people.”
The second thing that gave his movie a wonderful life was network television. A 1974 clerical error put it into public domain, and the rest is symphony. To this day, with each successive Christmas season, its fan base grows as parents introduce their kids to the film that has become a holiday-season institution. The American Film Institute ranks It’s a Wonderful Life number one in the category of “America’s Most Inspiring Movies” and number nine in the list of the best American films of all time, where it easily beats such mega-hits as Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., and The Godfather II.
The film itself can boast of several exceptional, if mysterious, qualities. First, its lucid script is a near-perfect rendition of a simple, profound question: How would things be different in your world if you didn’t exist? It’s not usually thought of this way, but beneath its sunny sentimentality, It’s a Wonderful Life is an extended exploration of failure, anxiety, and death—qualifying it as film noir. What saves it from maudlin sentimentality is the Christmas Eve backdrop—the bright canvas of hope on which Capra paints the melancholy portrait of George Bailey.
Although Capra shot the film in chronological order, the story proper does not begin until four-fifths of the way in, just after George breaks down in front of his family and kicks over the physical reminder of his forgotten dreams: his model bridge. When George flees to Martini’s Bar to drown his sorrows, he finds that sorrow is an able swimmer. Mary calls around town asking for prayers, which loops us back to the start of the movie. Eighty percent of It’s a Wonderful Life is a flashback, starting with an earthly-minded heaven and ending with a heavenly-minded earth.
The film’s second marvelous aspect is the four- to five-minute span in which it deftly lays in three prefigurements, one after the other, of things to come. One of George’s first lines (in the frozen-pond scene) is “And here comes the scare-baby, my kid brother, Harry Bailey.” George rescues Harry after he falls through the ice, and Harry (Todd Karns) grows up to be the picture of bravery as a Navy pilot. George’s rescue of the Blaine family from the poison mistakenly prescribed by the drunken druggist Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner) foreshadows George’s eventual rescue of the whole town of Bedford Falls, which he can save only because he never left town, repeatedly renouncing his dreams of traveling the globe. Finally, our first introduction of Peter “Pop” Bailey (Samuel S. Hinds) shows George defending his father against the angry humbugging of Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Old man Potter comes to learn that fireball Junior Bailey is a tougher foe than worn-out Senior.
Third in the film’s list of wonders: How about the pitch-perfect casting? It’s a Wonderful Life is well-nigh unimaginable with other actors, so we smile to learn that Ginger Rogers was first offered the role of Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) and that both Vincent Price and Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy) were on the short list to play Mr. Potter, whom we can see as an amplified version of George’s selfish side, his psychological doppelgänger. And it’s not only the stars who were perfectly cast. Crowds are integral to almost every Capra movie. Every walk-on bit player, every extra, received directorial notes from Capra. Even Bedford Falls is a kind of character, one that might be insecure about not being New York or even Buffalo.
Fourth, at the center of the movie’s strange magic stands Jimmy Stewart. His tour-de-force performance put a dagger through the heart of his pre-WWII typecasting as the screwball-comedy male lead. Capra tapped into a depth of passion and pathology that would mark Stewart’s later work with Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Anthony Mann.
Finally, there’s the Catholic thing. Capra never fully lapsed from the Italian Catholicism of his childhood, and his films are frequently sprinkled with biblical and spiritual allusions. George Bailey embodies the Christian idea of redemption through suffering. More Job than Jesus, George descends into an icy despair — triggered by Uncle Billy’s innocent forgetfulness — that is only the beginning of a long and trying holiday of darkness. By the end, as we learn, he emerges not merely “better.” He is purged, exalted. He has fallen upward to a great height.
As with many a Capra movie, It’s a Wonderful Life is about the money and yet not about the money. Lucre is a curse, and it also bestows grace. The final scene in which friend after friend hustles into the Bailey living room to disgorge cash gifts onto the card table — complete with the telegrammed “advance of $25,000” from Sam “Hee Haw” Wainwright (Frank Albertson) — delivers one of the biggest emotional wallops in movie history. Capra lets fly one goose-bumpy climax after another, all of which are capped off by the surprise entrance of a resplendent Harry Bailey, who sums up the delirium: “A toast . . . to my big brother, George. The richest man in town!” If you don’t have at least a lump in your throat, you’d better check your pulse.
Scorned at birth, Frank Capra’s masterpiece forever belongs to those for whom he made it: we the people. For no movie is a failure that has friends.
— Patrick Coffin is a radio host and author. He blogs at patrickcoffin.net.