It’s a Wonderful Life!
A taster of Christmassy things to come! On the 20th of December 1946, Frank Capra’s film It’s A Wonderful Life had a preview showing for charity at New York City’s Globe Theater, a day before its official premiere. “This was Frank Capra’s 1946 exploration of small-town America and its faith or lack of it in the values of home, family and friends. James Stewart played George Bailey, a gentle, humorous, intelligent, conscientious and deeply frustrated man unable to escape the prison of his small town, Bedford Falls. When, in despair after an irreplaceable sum of money goes missing on Christmas Eve, George attempts suicide, he is saved by his guardian angel, an elderly soul named Clarence Oddbody, who dives into the water and forces George, once more, to put someone else before himself. He then shows George what Bedford Falls would have been without him, and causes him to be grateful for his family, his friends and, ultimately, his life. Meanwhile, all George’s acquaintance rally round and replace the missing money.” (Sophie Hillan King, ‘A Map of Our Dreams: Cinema and Cultural Identity, 1955-72’, Writing Ulster, No. 5, America and Ulster: A Cultural Correspondence,1998). At the time of the movie’s release, the press was quick to dismiss Capra’s new film as sentimental overkill – Richard Winnington’s review in the News Chronicle called it “an embarrassment both to flesh and spirit”; Frank Capra himself tried to make fun of some of his movies’ effusive, corny emotionalism, referring to them as ‘capracorn’.
The fact is that when the director first summed up the tale of It’s A Wonderful Life to returning war hero James Stewart, it seemed flaky and improbable to become the subject of a film. Stewart had just returned from the war where he had served as a commander pilot; he was uncertain about his future and the relevance of being a movie actor, as a whole. His colleague Lionel Barrymore who played the evil and destructive Potter in the film persuaded him that acting could make a difference as significant to people’s lives as his participation in the war: “Don’t you realize, that you’re moving millions of people, shaping their lives, giving them a sense of exaltation. What other profession has that power or can be so important?A bad actor is a bad actor. But acting is among the oldest and noblest professions in the world, young man.” (Roy Pickard, James Stewart. The Hollywood Years, 1997). Stewart then decided to play the leading role, moreover, he was later recorded saying that, “It has always been amazing to me that after the war people didn’t want this story. They had been through too much. They wanted wild slapstick comedy, they wanted westerns – stuff like that. It just took a while for the country to sort of quiet down. Then we could start to think about family and community and responsibility to family and work and so on.” (Jeanine Basinger, It’s a Wonderful Life Book, 1986).
The film was shunned by viewers in post-war America and relegated to television. There was a material reason for its undying TV exposure ever since – the film’s copyright was not properly renewed in 1975, so It’s a Wonderful Life was able to be freely used by stations at no cost each year. In the short run, it brought financial failure for Capra and audiences thought it was depressing and morally too heavy at a time when the nation’s mood needed to be lifted by lighthearted entertainment. But as we know, it has done pretty well for itself in the long run, having turned into a Christmas classic, a naturally nostalgic addition to our traditional turkey and cranberries!