I haven’t seen the film yet this holiday season, but I did listen to the radio version, also starring James Stewart and Donna Reed last night. It’s not much of a substitute. As it was with last year, this movie’s intended message needs to be considered and taken to heart in 2021. Frank Capra, the movie’s director ,designed the film to explain why it’s a wonderful country we live in. It may be that more, and more vocal and powerful people want to send the opposite message today than ever before.
The fascinating and moving documentary “Five Came Back” (on Netflix) has been shown several times in the Marshall house this year. It tells the story of how five of Hollywood’s greatest directors, William Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford, John Huston and Frank Capra were recruited by the Pentagon to document World War II, some of their efforts to be used as propaganda, some as a record of remarkable time. All five directors were profoundly changed by what they saw, and Capra was no exception. He went into the war as perhaps America’s most popular film director, creator of upbeat movies celebrating common Americans doing extraordinary things, the nation’s families, the power of love and American exceptionalism. They called his movies “Capra Corn,” and the description fit such classics as “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” “Meet John Doe,” and other critical and box office hits. Following World War II and his experience overseas, Capra no longer felt as upbeat about life and human nature, though he remained a passionate patriot. Like the returning soldiers found the culture changed and his emotions raw. Families whose loved one had died or returned with disabling wounds struggled to believe that their sacrifices were justified. The atom bombs that ended the war also opened up a dangerous new era of paranoia and fear.
Capra and his director compatriots in the war effort decided to start a new production company, driven by directors rather than soulless studio moguls. “It’s A Wonderful Life,” a far more complex and often dark story than the pre-war Capra creations, was chosen to be the first project of the new Liberty Pictures. Based on an idea by author Philip Van Doren Stern, it was the story of a good man who becomes bitter and disillusioned when his plans and aspirations become derailed by the random surprises of life. Unable to get his short story published, Stern had sent it to friends as a 21-page Christmas card. Film producer David Hempstead read it, and bought the movie rights for Capra’s company. The story was just what America needed, Capra reasoned, to restore its belief that what the nation had accomplished was worth the pain, loss and sacrifice, and that the nation itself had led a “wonderful life” despite many mistakes and missteps. The new film could restore the nation’s flagging optimism, pride and hope.
Capra immediately thought of actor and now war hero James Stewart to play protagonist George Bailey. Three years of flying bombing raids against the Nazis in the US Air Force had left the the 37-year-old suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, and like his non-celebrity comrades in arms, Stewart returned home in 1945 to find that everything had changed: his contract with MGM had run out, his agent had retired, and other stars had taken his place. Stewart signed on with the ambitious project, hoping neither of them lost their touch.
As production proceeded in 1946, the cast and crew felt they were making an important movie. Bedford Falls became one of the largest American film sets ever created to that point at four acres, with 75 fake stores and buildings, a three-block main street, and 20 full-grown oak trees. To avoid the traditional problem of fake-looking snow, the special effects department invented a new and more realistic process. (I wish it was used more often: fake snow drives me crazy in movies.)
Stewart, who was still suffering from the effects of the war and at times was close to quitting. In the scene where George, in a roadside bar, desperate and defeated, is praying to a God he doesn’t believe in. He rubs a trembling hand against his mouth, and starts to cry. The gesture wasn’t in the script, or requested by Capra. It was real.
Stewart explained years later,
“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.”
Stewart felt George Bailey was his career’s best performance (it is) and Capra believed he had made his best film. “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made,” he said later. “Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”
It may be, but it started out as a catastrophic flop. The movie lost money and its failure killed Capra’s production company. His directing career never recovered, and what he believed was his greatest work was forgotten for decades. Republic Pictures, which owned the film’s copyright, didn’t bother to renew the rights in 1974. It was essentially free to local television channels, and they began showing it constantly.
Quality and genius have a way of defeating critics. Capra was right, Stewart was right, the cast and crew were right. It is a classic; more than that, it is a movie that can change lives. The story accomplishes just what Cara intended it to accomplish. In a Times piece about the movie by a self-professed cynic, Wendell Jamieson wrote about seeing the movie for the first time as teen in a classroom showing, and confessed,
It’s something I felt while watching the film all those years ago, but was too embarrassed to reveal….That last scene, when Harry comes back from the war and says, “To my big brother, George, the richest man in town”? Well, as I sat in that classroom, despite the dreary view of the parking lot; despite the moronic Uncle Billy; despite the too-perfect wife, Mary; and all of George’s lost opportunities, I felt a tingling chill around my neck and behind my ears. Fifteen years old and imagining myself an angry young man, I got all choked up. And I still do.
Yeah, me too. But the reason isn’t that its a manipulative, sentimental ending, though that was what contemporary critics complained about. The reason is that Harry’s toast states a life truth that too many of us go through our own lives missing. What makes our lives successful (or not), and what makes makes our existence meaningful is not how much money we accumulate, or how much power we wield, or how famous we are. What matters is how we affect the lives of those who share our lives, and whether we leave our neighborhood, communities, associations and nation better or worse than it would have been “if we had never been born.”
It’s a tough lesson, and some of us, perhaps most, never learn it. “It’s A Wonderful Life,” though it shows how one man finally got the message using Heaven, alternate reality, angels and fantasy to do articulate it, can be a powerful ethics tool.
1. “If It’s About Ethics, God Must Be Involved”