The Hotel Clarence In The News
Wonderful Life didn't start out wonderful
By Mark Dillon / Toronto.com - Toronto Entertainment News
Dec 01, 2011
RKO FILE PHOTO
Jimmy Stewart, centre, as George Bailey is reunited with his wife, played by Donna Reed, and their children during the final scene of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Stewart has his arm around child actress Karolyn Grimes, who played his daughter Zuzu.
It didn’t cover its costs at the box office, was snubbed by the Oscars and is still dismissed by some critics, but It’s a Wonderful Life is one of Hollywood’s most beloved films.
Los Angeles has declared Saturday “It’s a Wonderful Life Day,” honouring the movie’s 65th anniversary. Paramount Pictures is donating a DVD copy to each of the city’s public libraries and has released a Blu-ray collector’s set.
It’s the only 1940s movie that airs regularly on prime-time network TV. It returns to CTV and NBC Saturday at 8 p.m., with an encore presentation on Christmas Eve.
Last year, It’s a Wonderful Life drew a combined audience of 1.3 million to CTV’s two broadcasts. And it’s not only the older nostalgia crowd tuning in: 11.5 million Americans in the 18-49 demographic watched on NBC.
The American Film Institute ranked it 20th best picture of all time, having already named it the No. 1 most inspiring.
And yet, It’s a Wonderful Life initially met a tepid reception. The film’s $3.3 million (U.S.) domestic box office didn’t cover the $3.8 million it cost to produce and distribute, and it was shut out at the Academy Awards despite five nominations.
Directed by Frank Capra, the movie tells the story of reluctant martyr George Bailey (James Stewart), who is driven to suicidal despair on Christmas Eve when his altruistic building-and-loan firm faces bankruptcy. His guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) intervenes and convinces George he’s not a failure by showing him what a cesspool of unhappiness his town of Bedford Falls would be had he never been born. The film contains themes that continue to resonate.
“As the world grows increasingly rampant with consumerism, commercialism, greed and corruption, it’s heartening to spend a couple of hours in a place that respects old-fashioned values: the most important being self-sacrifice,” says Ottawa filmmaker Keith Davidson, whose Capraesque script It’s a Wonderful Death is in pre-production with indie producer Chris Meztista under the title Eternally Yours.
But when it was released in 1946, audiences who had just come through World War II may have found it out of step with its reactionary idealization of small-town America and overly familiar elements recycled from A Christmas Carol and Capra’s own work. Particularly, the idea of a bank lending on faith and being saved from insolvency by its customers was right out of his 1932 drama American Madness.
Some critics remain dismissive.
“I always detect the odor (sic) of rodentia whenever rich filmmakers try to peddle a load of clams about how poor people are better off and happier and more important than they are,” writes Ken Hanke, author and critic for North Carolina’s Mountain Xpress, in an email. “And the bad version of the town is almost ludicrously bad and the good version is just too treacly.”
In the 1930s, Italian immigrant Capra had taken home Best Director Academy Awards for hits It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can’t Take It With You. The relative failure of It’s a Wonderful Life was disappointing.
He would regress creatively and finally hang up the megaphone after 1961’s Pocketful of Miracles. But interest in his films would be revived among left-leaning students attracted to the recurring theme of the common man triumphing over powerful, corrupt forces, as depicted in George’s tussles with Scrooge-like bank owner Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). It’s a Wonderful Life would find an especially big audience on TV starting in the mid-’70s as local stations took advantage of a 20-year window in which its copyright was in the public domain.
Few of Capra’s new fans were aware he was a Republican who had been shrewd enough to tell audiences what he thought they wanted to hear. “They assumed Capra’s films were all his products and didn’t realize he had generally left-wing writers who may have put more of the content into the films than he did,” says Joseph McBride, author of Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success and the forthcoming Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless.
The liberal banking philosophy in American Madness (lifted for It’s a Wonderful Life) was devised by screenwriter Robert Riskin before Capra joined that project, while the conflicting political messages of It’s a Wonderful Life can be attributed to many screenwriting cooks. McBride discovered that the script — based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story “The Greatest Gift” — had five contributors besides the credited Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Capra and Jo Swerling. While both films espouse keeping money in circulation — FDR’s strategy to get out of the Great Depression — Capra hoarded most of his savings out of distrust of banks.
It’s a Wonderful Life’s monetary philosophy has kept it topical. In the darkest days of the recent recession, Newsweek praised the Bailey Building and Loan’s investment in its community (“in Joe’s house . . . and in the Kennedy house and Mrs. Macklin’s house”) as opposed to, say, gambling on mortgage-backed securities, while Portfolio.com countered by asking “Was George Bailey a reckless subprime lender?”
In this year of the Occupy movement, George’s boardroom counterattack against Potter has a timely ring: “This rabble you’re talking about — they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”
But more than for its politics, the movie’s enduring appeal lies in the touching romance between George and wife Mary (Donna Reed), the sentimentality and humour and, above all, the realism — guardian angels and alternate worlds aside.
“It means a lot to people because it’s true to the ups and downs of an ordinary person,” McBride offers. “Things could be going along great, then some terrible thing will happen to us, then we rebound. It captures that truth about life.”
The Real Bedford Falls?
Seneca Falls, N.Y., believes it’s the model for the fictitious Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life.
The film is undoubtedly set in New York state, with Rochester, Buffalo and New York City all name-checked. Seneca Falls bears a physical resemblance to Bedford Falls (which was created on an Encino sound stage), right down to a steel truss bridge from which a young man leapt to rescue a drowning woman in 1917. Capra may have seen a plaque dedication to this brave act during a 1945 stop en route to an aunt’s house in nearby Auburn, and it may have inspired the scene in which George jumps off a bridge into icy waters to save Clarence.
Seneca Falls holds an annual It’s a Wonderful Life celebration. The 65th anniversary edition takes place the weekend of Dec. 9 and features appearances by Karolyn Grimes and Carol Coombs-Mueller, who played George’s daughters Zuzu and Janie. Don’t miss the Dance by the Light of the Moon & Swing Contest and Ma Bailey’s Hot & Hearty Cook-Off. Unfortunately, rooms at the Hotel Clarence are all booked up.