12 facts of `life' behind a classic Christmas film

December 10, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

This Sunday, the Senator Theatre presents its annual Maryland Food Bank benefit showing of Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life (together with the wonderful 1951 A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim).

For decades, the exuberant comedy and affecting drama of this seasonal favorite has propelled audiences past its mawkishness and message-mongering. It's an ode to a small-town American life that no longer is, and possibly never was. It gives James Stewart the role of his career as George Bailey, the village good guy who never rises in the world because he's too busy giving a shoulder-up to everyone else he knows. Stewart has lightness as well as warmth, as much gentle restraint as enthusiasm. One can't conceive of another actor - not even Henry Fonda - carrying the role and the movie. He's on screen almost constantly. Capra builds the entire film on his character's honesty, and Stewart never hits a false note.

By now, everyone thinks they know everything about It's A Wonderful Life because it's become a holiday institution. Capra saturated the film with Yuletide sentiment - but it was not intended as a Christmas release.

That's one of 12 things you may not know about It's A Wonderful Life. Thanks to Joseph McBride's 1992 biography, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success - and to Gary Fishgall's 1997 Pieces of Time: The Life of James Stewart - here's a dozen factual nuggets beneath the Wonderful Life myth:

1. Stewart's stay-at-home George Bailey welcomes back his Navy-flier brother Harry, who's just been awarded the Medal of Honor. In reality, it was the first movie Stewart made after his four-year, two-month stint as a genuine World War II hero. He left the Army Air Forces as a colonel. Biographer Fishgall states, "Among the first to answer the call to arms, he sustained a record of achievement that few of his peers had equaled and none could better." Although Stewart never made a public display of his valor, he flew 20 bombing missions over Europe and was so affected by the experience that he felt "he had lost all sense of judgment."

2. Capra called on veteran character actor Lionel Barrymore - who ironically played George Bailey's nemesis - to calm Stewart after nearly a half-decade away from acting. "Forget about being away for five years," Barrymore said. "Don't you realize you're moving millions of people, shaping their lives? What other profession has that kind of power? Acting, young fella, is a noble profession. Now just do what you're doing."

3. Capra belittled the film's source story, "The Greatest Gift," as "a Christmas card." But according to McBride, the author of "The Greatest Gift," biographer and historical novelist Philip Van Doren Stern put together the three crucial plot elements, including a suicidal small-town American, his guardian angel and a Christmas setting. It was printed not in a Christmas card but in 200 24-page pamphlets.

4. If not for Cary Grant, the film might not have been made. The actor exhorted the RKO studio to purchase film rights.

5. A handful of mostly left-wing writers toiled over the script. Dalton Trumbo, the most prolific member of the Hollywood Ten (and later renowned for Spartacus), did the initial draft; Marc Connelly (The Green Pastures) and Clifford Odets (Golden Boy) rewrote it. After Capra bought the property from RKO, he hired the solid husband-and-wife team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett to take a new approach. But before Capra was through, Michael Wilson polished it. (The screenwriter, who was blacklisted shortly after, is best known for A Place in the Sun and The Bridge on the River Kwai.) That famous wit Dorothy Parker spruced up the dialogue, and Jo Swerling tinkered with some scenes. Although Capra's reluctance to credit some of them has been pegged to his growing fear of liberal-radical politics, the film's most essential statement is the same one George Orwell got from Charles Dickens: "If men would behave decently, the world would be decent."

6. Jean Arthur was Capra's first choice for Mrs. George Bailey, but she turned the director down. "I wouldn't have liked to have been that girl, I didn't think she had anything to do. It was colorless." Donna Reed ended up playing her with sexiness and strength; there's more genuine emotion in this movie's high-school graduation dance and the Baileys' coyly avid courtship than there is in Mr. Deeds' blowing a tuba or Mr. Smith's mooning over the Lincoln Memorial.

7. The film began shooting on the same day as William Wyler's masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives. Wyler and Capra were partners (along with George Stevens) in the short-lived independent company Liberty Pictures, though Wyler was making The Best Years of Our Lives for Samuel Goldwyn. Wyler wired Capra, "Last one in is a rotten egg."

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