In terms of classics, they don’t come much more timeless than Frank Capra’s 1947 seasonal showpiece It’s a Wonderful Life. Starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, the film has been a staple of familial Christmas entertainment for over 60 years.
And yet it may not have been this way. Upon its release, the film flopped, losing RKO Pictures more than $500,000 at the box office. It was only in the subsequent decades, when it found a home on television during the Christmas season, that it assumed the mantle of a timeless classic.
As classic films go, the journey that led to It’s a Wonderful Life being made was not exactly textbook. The film began life not as a script, but as a Christmas card. Writer Phillip Van Doren Stern had been unsuccessful in getting his story ‘The Greatest Gift’ published, so instead turned the idea into a Christmas card which was sent to friends and family in December 1943.
In another dimension, George Bailey, the part immortalised by James Stewart, could have been played by Cary Grant. That’s if RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead had got his way when he acquired the rights to the story. Unfortunately for Hempstead, the project fell through when the scripts came back and Grant instead took the lead in The Bishop’s Wife (1947).
The film was shelved and that could have been it – were it not for the head of RKO, Charles Koerner, who urged director Frank Capra to read ‘The Greatest Gift’. The rest, as they say, is history.
Whilst the film itself is not exactly held up as a watershed moment in cinematic history, there was one crucial technological innovation for which the film is credited. As the film was shot in California during the summer of 1946, when temperatures held around the 90 degree mark, there was not much chance of snowy conditions. Prior to It’s a Wonderful Life, members of the crew would scatter white coated cornflakes on the ground to create the illusion of snow. Sounds simple enough, except that the crunching noise generated when the actors stepped on the cornflakes was enough to drown out the dialogue, meaning it had to be added in during post-production.
As a trained engineer and a director who wanted dialogue to be recorded live, that was never going to be good enough for Frank Capra. So the crew set about developing their own unique artificial snow. They combined the material used in fire extinguishers with sugar and water and pumped the result through a wind machine to coat the fictional town of Bedford Falls in a velvety coat of white.
The set of Bedford Falls itself was a site to behold. Built in just two months, it still stands as one of the longest sets ever made for an American movie. It comprised some 75 stores and buildings, a factory district and residential areas, not to mention the main street of the town which measured the length of three full-length city blocks.
One of the most famous parts of the set, the Granville House which George (Stewart) and Mary (Reed) will one day call home, provides the scene for one of the more amusing moments of the production.
During the film, Donna throws a rock at a window of the old house, as is tradition among the town’s teenagers. To ensure they got the take right Frank Capra hired a marksman to shoot out a window once Donna Reed had made her throw. However, due to her days playing baseball in high school, Reed broke the window using nothing but her own good aim and without the help of the marksman.
It’s little wonder, therefore, that the film has always maintained the feel of authenticity. This is especially evident during the scene in which George prays in the bar. So overcome was James Stewart at the emotional weight of that point in the film that he began to sob right there and then. As a result, Capra adjusted his shot so as to achieve a better view of the tortured expression on Stewart’s face.
Another moment of real-life charm occurs when Uncle Billy is leaving George’s house. In his drunken state it sounds like he stumbles over some rubbish bins on the pavement. Whilst we’d like to put this down to some method acting on actor Thomas Mitchell’s part, in fact the noise was caused by a member of the crew dropping some equipment right after Uncle Billy left the screen. Both actors continued with the scene and Capra not only decided to keep the sequence in the film, but also rewarded the crew member with a $10 bonus for “improving the sound”.
One final moment of amusement occurred just after the film hit theatres, and it came from a curious source. Upon its release, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) labelled the film as subversive and a vessel for Communist propaganda. Documents published last year reveal that the FBI were keeping an eye on the film’s married screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who were thought to be involved with so-called “known Communists”. The report on the film itself recorded the opinion of an industry source who said that the film’s “obvious” attempt to discredit bankers (as portrayed by the film’s villain, Mr. Potter) “is a common trick used by Communists”.
Yet despite the best efforts of the FBI, It’s a Wonderful Life has become the archetypal Christmas film. It is the film against which virtually every other Christmas offering is judged. It is a work of unparalleled charm and seasonal appeal which has stood the proverbial test of time for more than 60 years and will endure for many more to come.
Merry Christmas everyone.