One good film leads to another and Cinema Paradiso is the perfect place to follow up your favourites by searching for other titles along similar lines. So far, we've focused on recent releases to tempt you into exploring our unrivalled selection of DVDs and Blu-rays. But we're going back in time for a festive special that celebrates one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
The Second World War couldn't have come at a worse time for Frank Capra. The Sicilian-born director was at the peak of his powers and his patented brand of feel-good screwball comedy - which has acquired the nickname 'Capra-corn' - was box-office gold. Moreover, it had earned him the respect of his peers and he became the first to win the Academy Award for Best Director three times, for It Happened One Night (1934), Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can't Take It With You (1938). But Capra joined the US Army the moment war was declared against Japan in December 1941 and he devoted himself to producing propaganda to rally a once-Isolationist nation to the global cause.
A Return to Capra-Corn?
Capra had spent much of his career at Harry Cohn's Columbia, which had been on Hollywood's Poverty Row when he produced such early collaborations with Barbara Stanwyck as The Miracle Woman (1931) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). But, while these pre-Code melodramas had suited Capra's serious side, he had also shown with the Jean Harlow vehicle, Platinum Blonde (1931), that he had a gift for the kind of fast-talking comedy that would become known as screwball.
What made Capra's spin on the style so distinctive, however, was that he laced his underdog stories with sentiment. He found his feet with Lady For a Day (1933) and Broadway Bill (1934), which respectively focused on an elderly apple seller and a misfiring racehorse. But he made screen history with It Happened One Night, which became the first film to win the Big Five Academy Awards and he refined the blend of wisecracks and emotion in Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe (1941), which also revealed that Capra could be provocatively political.
Keen to experiment, he had adapted Lost Horizon (1937), James Hilton's bestseller about the idyllic paradise of Shangri-La, and had tried his hand at left-field farce with both You Can't Take It With You and Arsenic and Old Lace. But, in Capra's wartime absence, the tone of American cinema had changed. The feel-good schmaltz that had worked during the Depression no longer washed with audiences that had lost loved ones in Europe and the Pacific and the studios had responded by dabbling in film noir and 'problem pictures' that tackled a range of pressing social issues.
Realising that he needed to rethink his strategy, Capra also recognised that he had become so used to working with comparative freedom in the Army Signals Corps that he was reluctant to sign a contract with a studio that would have the final say over his work. Consequently, he persuaded fellow film-makers William Wyler and George Stevens to join him and produce Samuel J. Briskin in Liberty Films, an independent company that would control all aspects of production and distribution. In both creative and financial terms, operating outside the studio system represented a huge risk. But Capra was sure that he had found the perfect property with which to launch his audacious enterprise.
The Greatest Gift
Philip Van Doren Stern was shaving when he had the idea that became It's a Wonderful Life. A respected author of books on the American Civil War, Stern would go on to edit the pocket literary anthologies that were given to US service personnel during the Second World War. But, in February 1938, he came up with a story about a man named George Pratt, who is about to commit suicide from a bridge when a stranger gives him the chance to see what life in his small town would have been like if he had never existed.
The text went through several drafts before Stern decided to set the action on 24 December. Yet no magazine was willing to publish the 4100-word story and Stern decided to have 200 copies printed up to send out instead of Christmas cards in 1943. One found its way on to the desk of RKO producer David Hempstead, who bought the rights for $10,000 in April 1944, as a possible vehicle for Cary Grant. Pulitzer Prize winner Marc Connelly wrote the first draft of the screenplay and changed the plot so that the newly named George Bailey became a politician who is running for governor and witnesses from Heaven in the company of Angel B-29 how life would be if a ruthless version of himself had survived. In a revised draft, Connelly created three Georges - a decent fellow, an unscrupulous politician and a grasping businessman - and concocted a far-fetched finale in which the first and third incarnations fight on the bridge, with the villain being knocked into the water by a calliope busker, who has been prodding Good George's conscience.
It's this version that introduces the notion of a ringing bell signifying that an angel has got their wings. But the line is spoken by Mary rather than Zuzu Bailey, who first appeared in a screenplay written by playwright Clifford Odets, who was hired after an unsigned script had included an ending in which Good George dives into the river to save his evil self. Odets also came up with iconic incidents like George rescuing his brother Harry, the near-disaster at the drug store and the moonlight dance. However, the second half of the storyline is unrecognisable, as it has Zuzu falling dangerously ill and her grandfather (who is now Angel 1163) being called away from harp practice to witness a film showing how George Jr. will turn out unless his father mends his ways.
Also ending with an alter ego battle on the bridge, this draft lacks the folksy wit and warmth that were Capra's trademark. But there's no guarantee that he added them to the mix. He was alerted to Stern's story by RKO chief Charles Koerner when Liberty Films signed a distribution deal with the studio and he asked Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to take a look at the existing scripts, one of which seems to have had the input of Dalton Trumbo, who was so memorably played by the Oscar-nominated Bryan Cranston in Jay Roach's Trumbo (2015).
Eager to start filming, Capra kept chivvying Hackett and Goodrich and passed their work on to fellow writer Jo Swerling for polishing. He happened to be a good friend of the husband-and-wife team and they took exception to Capra going behind their back. Consequently, they abruptly abandoned the screenplay, which Capra completed with the uncredited help of Michael Wilson and Dorothy Parker, who, like Connelly, was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, the literary coterie celebrated by Alan Rudolph in Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). When it came to confirming the writing credit, Hackett and Goodrich reluctantly had to share the billing with Capra, while Swerling had to be content with an 'additional scenes' nod. By all accounts, any friendships that existed at the start of the process were well and truly over by its conclusion.
Next Stop, Bedford Falls
There has long been a debate about the origins of George Bailey's home town of Bedford Falls, which is renamed Pottersville during the course of It's a Wonderful Life. According to Philip Van Doren Stern, he had the iron bridge in Califon, New Jersey in mind when he wrote the original story. But barber Tom Bellissima claimed that he had given Frank Capra a haircut when he visited Seneca Falls, New York in 1945. He insists that Capra had asked about a plaque commemorating the selfless heroics of Antonio Varacalli, a barge worker who had drowned while saving the life of Ruth Dunham, who had tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Bridge Street Bridge on 12 April 1917.
Film historian Jeanine Basinger, who is the curator of the Capra Archive at Wesleyan University, disputes the claim. But surviving cast members Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu), Jimmy Hawkins (Tommy) and Carol Coombs (Janie) have all attended the annual Seneca Falls festival celebrating the connection. Yet, shooting for the picture took place on the opposite side of the country on the ranch at Encino, California that RKO had owned since the making of Wesley Ruggles's Cimarron (1931), which had become the first Western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Production designer Jack Okey's four-acre Bedford Falls including a 300ft main street that ran for three blocks and contained a bank, a post office, a library and 24 full-grown oaks, as well as 75 different façades. As well as this downtown area, Okey also designed a residential estate, a factory site and a slum district.
While construction was taking place, Capra set about confirming his cast. He had always hoped that he could reunite with James Stewart after You Can't Take It With You and Mr Smith Goes to Washington and the actor was more than willing to team up with a familiar face after returning to Hollywood following his distinguished war service over Europe in the US Air Force. Moreover, Stewart knew all about small towns like Bedford Falls, as he had grown up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father had kept the Best Actor Oscar that his son had won for George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940) in the window of his hardware store.
Hopes of re-pairing Stewart with Jean Arthur after Mr Smith were dashed when she couldn't get out of a commitment to headline Garson Kanin's play, Born Yesterday, on Broadway. Ironically, Arthur dropped out of the project during its out-of-town tryouts and she was succeeded by Judy Holliday, who went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress in Cukor's 1950 screen version. In searching for the ideal Mary Hatch, Capra considered Olivia De Havilland, Martha Scott, Ann Dvorak and Ginger Rogers, with the latter rejecting the script because it was too bland. Eventually, Donna Reed landed the role, only to find herself being challenged over her rustic roots in Iowa by co-star Lionel Barrymore, who bet her $50 that she couldn't milk a cow.
Luckily, having pipped Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Louis Calhern and Raymond Massey to the part of the hissable Henry F. Potter, Barrymore had the money to pay the wager. Henry Travers was also grateful to be cast as Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody, as he had missed out on playing Pa Bailey (Samuel S. Hinds), Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and Gower the pharmacist (HB Warner). They all assembled on the lot on 8 April 1946 and the picture wrapped precisely on schedule 90 days later. Not that there weren't problems along the way, however, as the initial $1.7 million budget ran out two-thirds of the way through the shoot and a further $2.1 million had to be raised to complete and premiere the film at the Globe Theatre in New York on 20 December 1946.
Capra relished being back in harness and shot in sequence to show how 12 year-old George lost the hearing in one ear while saving his younger brother from drowning and how he later abandons plans to tour the world after meeting Mary and agrees to run the Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan company. But, while Capra could rely on his estimable ensemble, he had to endure recurring problems with his cinematographers. He dismissed Victor Milner for being too pretentious, only to have to part company with replacement Joseph Walker when Harry Cohn summoned him back to Columbia to work on Alfred E. Green's The Jolson Story (1946).
Joseph Biroc proved an admirable replacement, with his crisp monochrome imagery helping editor William Hornbeck earn an Oscar nomination. But RKO special-effects artist Russell Shearman went one better, as he received the Technical Achievement Award for creating faux snow that not only looked authentic but was also silent enough not to interfere with John Aalberg's Oscar-nominated sound recording. Previously, effects units had used gypsum and painted cornflakes. But Shearman combined the foamite found in fire extinguishers with soap flakes and water to produce a fluffy texture that floated convincingly when fired from high-pressure pipes. He also used 250 tons of limestone and plaster and 3000 tons of crushed ice to make authentic snowbanks and frozen tyre tracks. Moreover, Shearman had to use 6000 gallons of chemicals to keep the Bedford Falls set looking wintry, as the temperatures during the summer of 1946 hit the 90s before filming ended on 27 July.
From Flop to Festive Favourite
Capra and Stewart were so pleased with the way things had gone that they threw a picnic for the cast and crew. On 9 December, the director also hosted a dinner-dance for 300 exclusive guests at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, which included a special preview screening. Among the luminaries present were Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, Joan Fontaine and Greer Garson. Despite such a treat, however, when the members of the Academy cast their votes for Best Picture and Best Director, Capra lost out to Liberty stablemate William Wyler for The Best Years of Our Lives.
Although Hollywood legend has it that It's a Wonderful Life was panned by the critics, it received decent reviews and also did reasonable box-office business. But the film only went on general release in January 1947 and many people were too deep in the post-holiday blues to be in the mood for a chunk of festive feel-good. Moreover, when the picture was recycled at the end of the year, it came up against George Seaton's Miracle on 34th Street (1947), which offered much more frothy family entertainment. As a consequence, RKO ended up losing $525,000. What no one knew then was that the film and its makers were also being scrutinised by the FBI at the very time that Hollywood was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. A report criticised Capra's depiction of capitalism and noted the involvement of such left-leaning writers like Trumbo, Hackett and Goodrich.
But, while no action was taken, the shadow of HUAC and the disappointing takings impacted upon Capra's fortunes, as he was forced to sell Liberty Films to Paramount. As a result, State of the Union (1948), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, was released with the studio's famous mountain logo. Although Capra continued to make features like A Hole in the Head (1959) and A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) - which was a remake of Lady For a Day - his moment in the spotlight had passed and he spent his later years lecturing and producing scientific shorts at the same California Institute of Technology.
In 1951, Paramount relinquished its control over Liberty Films and a TV syndication brokerage called M&A Alexander acquired the rights to Capra's film in 1955. The company became part of National Telefilm Associates, which handled small-screen broadcasts until 1974 when a clerical error led to the picture lapsing into the public domain. This meant that any channel across the United States could show the film and it quickly became a staple on the Christmas schedules. As the fine print meant that he was still entitled to royalties, Capra was delighted by the free publicity and the fact that his feature had become a national treasure. Critics of the calibre of Robin Wood and Andrew Sarris respectively declared it 'one of the greatest American films' and 'an all-time masterpiece'. Not even a hare-brained scheme to colourise the images in 1986 could take the gloss off a revival that Capra proclaimed 'the damnedest thing I've ever seen'.
Two years after Capra died on 3 September 1991, Republic Pictures won a case to re-copyright the picture according to the precedent established by another popular James Stewart outing, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). This licence has since reverted back to Paramount, which now charges networks a screening fee. But most are happy to pay it, as Capra's gem has become essential holiday viewing.
It has inspired homages in such TV shows as Mork & Mindy (1978-81) and Red Dwarf (1988-2017), as well as such animations as The Simpsons (1989-), Family Guy (1999-) and American Dad (2005-). Moreover, Peter Capaldi achieved what the original never did by winning an Oscar for his 1993 short, Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life. And maybe this time next year, we'll know how Paul McCartney has got on transforming the story into a West End musical.