December 25, 2013


Behind the scenes of 'It's a Wonderful Life': The holiday fixture is a film classic, but the production wasn't always angelic. (Stephen Cox, December 23, 2006, LA Times)

It's no mystery why this year the American Film Institute named Capra's postwar classic "It's a Wonderful Life" the most inspiring motion picture ever made.

To most, it's an enriching, sentimental Christmas favorite not to be missed â€" almost sacrilege when viewed during any other season.

It's all the more remarkable that this homespun movie, which was not initially envisioned as a "holiday" film, has become so entrenched in popular culture, such a beloved tradition for families to share.

Oddly enough, the film was unceremoniously released during Christmas week of 1946. Never mind the yuletide flavor, the wintry snowdrifts in Bedford Falls and the holly wreath George Bailey carries slung around his arm â€" this Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed romance was originally scheduled to open in January 1947. But RKO Studios knew it had something special and rushed it into theaters a few weeks early to meet the deadline for Academy Award consideration that year.

Capra shot much of the film on a specially constructed quaint-town set located at RKO's ranch in the San Fernando Valley â€" a site that has long been overtaken by property development. In media interviews at the time, Capra did not portray it as a holiday film. In fact, he said he saw it as a cinematic remedy to combat what he feared was a growing trend toward atheism and to provide hope to the human spirit. In a moment of possible revisionism decades later, Capra said that he also realized that with the holiday season comes an inherent vulnerability in all humans, and that this uplifting tale might just ride on that sentiment.

Without question, however, is the fact that audiences trusted Capra to deliver such patriotisms, all neatly wrapped with a ribbon and bow. Like "Meet John Doe" (1941), about a lie that sparks a political movement. Some critics accused Capra of presenting a "naive" faith in the common man within a syrupy-slick presentation. So skillful in his flair for filmmaking and eliciting emotion, his titles were once called "Capra-corn."

But the Oscar-winning director has had the last laugh.

"It's a Wonderful Life" keeps popping its way back into homes on television, in commercials, on DVD, routinely broadcast twice each season on NBC. (It's being broadcast Sunday night.)

Capra, an Italian-born filmmaker who gave us such early classics as "It Happened One Night" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," died in 1991, but not before witnessing "It's a Wonderful Life" take on iconic wings of sort when television began airing it regularly in the 1970s.

The movie transcended time and soared well beyond his imagination.

"It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen," Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I'm proud ... but it's the kid who did the work. I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."

In probably his best-loved role, and a dark one at that, Stewart plays selfless everyman George Bailey through a tumultuous timeline that climaxes in near suicide on Christmas Eve. In answer to his desperate prayer at the bar, George is rescued by an unlikely angel with a smiling marshmallow face â€" a little fellow named Clarence â€" who convinces him that life is precious and that each man's life touches another with untold influence.

"I think, as the story unfolds," Stewart explained years ago, "it becomes clear that the movie is about hope, love and friendship."

Perhaps the best programming decision in television history was to buy back the rights to the film and put it on a network one night a year, making it the sort of old-fashioned event broadcast that we all watch at the same time.

[originally posted: December 23, 2006]

Posted by at December 25, 2013 12:36 AM

C'mon, admit you miss the days when December was, as Woody Boyd (the barkeep on Cheers) said, "It's A Wonderful Month."

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at December 23, 2006 11:21 AM

Mulled cider? What is this, Puritan nation? In my house we prefer whiskey punch -- hot water, Powers, lemon, brown sugar, cloves and cinnamon.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 23, 2006 1:55 PM

Did Jimmy Stewart shoot his eye out?

Posted by: ghostcat at December 23, 2006 2:04 PM

Wikipedia has a long entry, with lots of interesting things in the "Appearances and references in popular culture" and "Trivia" sections.

Posted by: PapayaSF at December 23, 2006 5:43 PM

"We serve real drinks to real men who wanna get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around here to give the place atmosphere."

Posted by: ted welter at December 25, 2007 7:45 AM

Potter was right.

Posted by: Perry at December 25, 2007 10:42 AM
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