Popular theory and received wisdom dictates that your Christmas is incomplete if, at some point or other, you haven’t sat down and watched Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s A Wonderful Life on TV, but I laugh in the face of popular theory and spit in the eye of received wisdom, because up until this Christmas I’d never actually sat down and watched it. More fool me. I now understand why it is considered to be a perfect fit with this particular time of year, given that it’s a heartwarming, charmingly innocent and simple tale that can be enjoyed by all members of the family, whatever their age. A bit like Game Of Thrones.
I knew the premise well before watching: It’s A Wonderful Life is a fantasy comedy about the life of an all-round nice guy named George Bailey (James Stewart), who lives in the Rockwellian town of Bedford Falls, New York. George puts his own life plans on hold in order to help others in the town as they strive to own their own houses, and raises a family with wife Mary (Donna Reed) while doing verbal battle with local capitalist landlord Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). When a series of events leave George in a suicidal state he is rescued by a guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who shows George how Bedford Falls would look if he had never existed.
Inspiration for Philip Van Doren Stern’s original tale, The Greatest Gift, can probably be traced back to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is famously shown three versions of Christmas by three different spirits, one of which is a vision of the future. Stern had trouble getting his short story published, and ended up sending out 200 copies to friends and family as a Christmas card. It came to the attention of RKO producer David Hempstead, who showed it to Cary Grant’s agent. RKO bought the rights for $10,000, attached Capra to the project and commissioned a screenplay, which went through several stages of re-writing.
Capra supposedly based Bedford Falls on the town of Seneca Falls, which he visited in 1945, but the film was shot at RKO Radio Pictures Studio in Culver City, California, as well as the RKO movie ranch in Encino. The set of the 1931 film Cimarron was used and three separate parts of the town were created, including a main street that stretched 300 yards with 75 stores and buildings. Capra also added a working bank and a tree-lined central parkway (he even planted 20 full grown oak trees). Pigeons, dogs and cats were allowed to roam freely around the set to add realism, and RKO even invented a new kind of fake snow to ensure Bedford Falls looked sufficiently Christmassy. (Previously a cornflake-like substance had been widely used in films as fake snow, but the noise that was made by actors walking upon it meant that lines had to be overdubbed afterwards.)
The scale of the set and the attention to detail means that Bedford Falls itself feels as important to the film as most of the characters; it is a character in itself, a wonderfully-realised mock-up of a town with shops and pavements packed with small design details that add up to a very believable whole. Today the look of Bedford Falls is more associated with Disney, a corporation that has developed similar idealistic locations inside and outside their Magic Kingdoms, but the scale of the production for 1946 is remarkable. It’s A Wonderful Life cost over $3 million to make, received mixed reviews upon release, and actually made a loss at the box office of half a million.
The film came under fire after it began to appear in theatres, with the message it carried being questioned. The FBI claimed that the portrayal of the wealthy upper class was unbalanced, and that it contained “obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ (well, yeah…perhaps that’s a nod to Dickens, eh spooks?) so that he would be the most hated man in the picture”. The Feds even suggested this was a common trick used by Communists, although I’m not sure what the Communist equivalent of It’s A Wonderful Life was circa 1946, exactly. I expect the FBI didn’t know either, but that clearly didn’t stop them from trying to start a moral panic about a fairly innocuous film that actually celebrates good values and the ideal of the American Dream.
Still, the movie’s stance on affordable housing for all is resolutely anti-capitalist, and it’s hard to think of a film before or since that celebrates the idea of community more thoroughly. Perhaps these messages are the reasons people feel It’s A Wonderful Life ties in with Christmas, in addition to the fact that it’s approaching Christmas in the movie, and there’s plenty of fake snow on show.
Then again, would you really want to live in a place like Bedford Falls? Bah! Humbug! It has no edge, no dirt, no sign of vice, and could well be a very boring place to inhabit as a result. By contrast Pottersville, the alternative-reality town Bailey is shown, is the red-light antithesis, with smoke-filled all-night bars hosting a rogue’s gallery of gangsters, hookers and drunks. I’m all for Pottersville, and its narcotic delights. George Bailey should be all for Pottersville, too, but he shrugs and whimpers and tells Clarence he wants to go back home to safe, quiet, boring Bedford Falls. The sap!
It’s difficult to shut out the fact that Bedford Falls is a joint concoction by a film studio, a bunch of writers, a director and his crew, and their mission first and foremost is to make people happy and put bums on seats before imparting any insight into the real-life post-war America. It’s the first ‘perfect’ lab-grown town, in a nutshell, with all the little creases ironed out by the Hollywood machine. Little surprise that Disney took the idea and turned it into a money-spinning ethos in the following decades.
Although it’s an overly-sentimental film, even as an avowed cynic I found my hard exterior melting as George carried out all sorts of nice deeds and went about his business helping various immigrant families. This is the first film by Frank Capra that I have watched, and something about his wide-eyed re-telling of the story and its (white, rural) setting reminded me of Spielberg, another director who isn’t averse to a dash of expertly-calculated saccharine mawkishness.
Of the cast, the ever-likeable James Stewart is enjoyable to watch as George Bailey, energetically zipping around the town as the character that aims to please all and sundry. The film details several different periods of Bailey’s life (a younger George is played by Bobby Anderson), and a pattern of boy scout-ish behavior transpires across these periods which Stewart seems the perfect fit for. Little wonder this study of unfailing decency became one of the actor’s most celebrated performances. There are also good supporting turns from Reed, Travers and Barrymore; the latter in particular has some great moments where he gets to chew the scenery as the wealthy, money-grabbing and scheming landlord.
It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I can see why It’s A Wonderful Life is cherished by a great number of people. As a love story it may be a little corny, but its charm comes from the way it exudes a sense that all is / all will be well in the world. If you’re religious, the message that you are being watched and looked after by an omnipotent being and his angels will also presumably be a reassuring one. Bedford Falls is a fascinating and impressively-realised version of an American town, a set that shows Hollywood’s desire to strive for greater, grander things was increasing in the post-war years. Such is its believability it will probably come as a surprise to many to learn that the snowy, wintery scenes in the town were filmed during a record-breaking heatwave.
On paper many aspects of this film would ordinarily be enough to make me run a mile, but I guess if my guard is ever going to be lowered a little it’s at this time of the year. A heartwarming fable and a Christmas classic … just as long as you’re in the mood for it.
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, Frank Capra, Philip Van Doren Stern
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
Running Time: 129 minutes