Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The 70th Anniversary of It's a Wonderful Life

When it comes to Yuletide movies, none may be more beloved than It's a Wonderful Life (1946). It regularly ranks at the top of lists of the greatest Christmas movies ever made. On review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes list of "The 25 Best Christmas Movies of All Time" it came in at #1. It also came in at #1 on a list of the 50 best Christmas movies of all time compiled by Good Housekeeping this year. What is more it is counted as one of the greatest films of all time and may well be the best known film director Frank Capra ever made. It was 70 years ago today that It's a Wonderful Life premiered in New York City.

The origin of It's a Wonderful Life can be traced back to the story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern. In 1939 Mr. Stern awakened from a dream inspired by A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. While he began "The Greatest Gift" in 1939, he would not finish it until 1943. Unable to find a publisher for the story, he printed 200 copies of it and sent it out as a Christmas card to friends during the holiday season of 1943. The story would seem very familiar to anyone who has seen It's a Wonderful Life. It centres on George Pratt, a man thinking of suicide on a bridge on Christmas Eve in 1943. Pratt is approached by an unnamed stranger with a bag, with whom he begins a conversation. When Pratt wishes he had never been born, the stranger tells him he should take the bag and tell people he is a door-to-door salesman if anyone ask. When Pratt returns to town, he finds it very different. No one knows who he is, not even his closest friends and family, and everything is very different. Quite simply, it is as if he had never born. Pratt returns to the stranger, who restores Pratt's life to normal.

"The Greatest Gift" was later published in the December 1944 issue of Reader's Scope magazine. Good Housekeeping published the story in its January 1945 issue under the title "The Man Who Had Never Been Born". Regardless, one of Philip Van Doren Stern's original Christmas cards came to the attention of David Hempstead, a producer at RKO. Mr. Hempstead showed "The Greatest Gift" to Cary Grant's agent, and in April 1944 RKO bought the screen rights to the story. At that time the goal was to turn the story into a vehicle for Cary Grant. After three failed drafts of the screenplay, however, RKO ultimately shelved the film. As to Cary Grant, he went onto star in another holiday classic from the mid-Forties, The Bishop's Wife (1947).

Fortunately, there was still a chance for a movie based on "The Greatest Gift" to be made. The head of RKO, Charles Koerner, suggested to director Frank Capra that he read "The Greatest Gift". Frank Capra became interested in making a film based on the story, and in 1945 RKO sold the film rights to Mr. Capra's brand new production company, Liberty Films. As part of the deal RKO included the three unused scripts. Frank Capra,  Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Jo Swerling,with input from a few other screenwriters, took liberally from all three screenplays and ultimately came up with a whole new script entitled It's a Wonderful Life.

Today it is hard to picture anyone but Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed as George and Mary Bailey, but others were considered for the parts. In addition to James Stewart, Frank Capra also considered Henry Fonda for the role of George Bailey. As to the role of Mary Bailey, Frank Capra initially wanted Jean Arthur for the role of Mary, but she was already committed to performing in the play Born Yesterday on Broadway. Ginger Rogers was approached about the role, but turned it down as being "too bland". Frank Capra also considered other actresses, including Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott, Laraine Day, and Ann Dvorak.

Many actors were considered even for the role of the villain, Henry F. Potter. Among those considered were Edward Arnold,  Charles Bickford, Edgar Buchanan, Louis Calhern, Victor Jory, Raymond Massey, and Vincent Price. Even Thomas Mitchell, who would play Uncle Billy in the film, was considered for the role of Potter. Ultimately the role went to legendary actor Lionel Barrymore, who had played the similar role of Ebeneezer Scrooge for literally years on radio. Frank Capra and Lionel Barrymore had earlier worked together on You Can't Take It With You (1938), in which Mr. Barrymore played the very different role of "Grandpa" Martin Vanderhof.

While both Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore had worked with Frank Capra before, one star of It's a Wonderful Life had worked with the director many times before. Jimmy the Raven first worked with Mr. Capra on You Can't Take It With You. Afterwards he appeared in some role in every Frank Capra film. In It's a Wonderful Life he had one of his bigger roles, that of Uncle Billy's pet raven.

It's a Wonderful Life would be filmed at RKO properties from April 15 1946 to July 27 1946. Interior shots were filmed at RKO Radio Pictures Studio in Culver City. For exterior scenes in the fictional city of Bedford Falls, Max Ree's sets from Cimarron (1931) were assembled on RKO's ranch in Encino and redressed as "Bedford Falls". To the old Cimarron set Frank Capra added a centre parkway lined by trees, 20 fully grown oak trees, and a functional bank set. Naturally, for the reality in which George had never been born, the Bedford Falls set was redressed as "Pottersville". The exterior of  Martini's house was actually a home in  La Cañada-Flintridge, California. The gym floor with the hidden swimming pool was shot in an actual high school gym. It was shot at Beverly Hills High School. The gym and its swimming pool still exist to this day.

It's a Wonderful Life premiered on December 20 1946 in New York City. It then began its run in that city the following day. It premiered in Los Angeles on December 26 1946. It went into wide release in the United States on January 7 1947. It's a Wonderful Life received positive reviews over all, with the only real criticism being the sentimentality of the film (a common criticism of Frank Capra's movies at the time). Contrary to common belief, It's a Wonderful Life did not bomb at the box office. For the year 1947 it ranked no. 26 out of over 400 feature films released this year. It ranked only one place above another holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street, which was considered a hit at the time. The problem was that It's a Wonderful Life was a fairly expensive movie to make. Its budget was $3.18 million. Even raking in a respectable $3.3 million at the box office, it lost $525,000.

As to why It's a Wonderful Life was released to Los Angeles before it was the rest of the country, this was to put it in consideration for the Academy Awards for 1946. Ultimately it would be nominated for five major awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Frank Capra), Best Actor (for James Stewart), Best Film Editing (for William Hornbeck), and Best Sound Recording (for John Aalberg). Ultimately it lost all of them, four of them to the juggernaut that was The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).  Many historians and critics believe It's a Wonderful Life might have fared better at the Oscars if it had been released in 1947, when competition was not not quite as stiff.

That is not to say that It's a Wonderful Life walked away from the Academy Awards with nothing. Russell Shearman and RKO's special effects department won a Technical Achievement Award for the development of a brand new method of faking snow on movie sets. Before It's a Wonderful Life, snow was created on movie sets with corn flakes coloured white. Unfortunately, the corn flakes would make a crunching noise when stepped upon, which meant any scenes in the "snow" would have to be redubbed later. There was no need for redubbing with the chemical snow developed at RKO. Made using water, soap flakes, foamite and sugar, it was relatively quiet to walk upon.

Just as It's a Wonderful Life was not exactly a box office failure, it was not exactly forgotten after its initial, general release in 1947. It's a Wonderful Life continued to be shown in theatres throughout the Fifties and even into the Sixties. It was shown regularly on television in the Fifties and even more so during the Sixties. Even before it was incorrectly assumed that it had fallen into public domain, It's a Wonderful Life was a very well respected movie. In his column from March 27 1962, Associated Press writer Bob Thomas compared the Oscar nominees of 1946 with the Oscar nominees of 1961, mentioning It's a Wonderful Life quite favourably. By 1977, not that long after it had been assumed that the film had become part of the public domain, It's a Wonderful Life was already being referred to as "Frank Capra's classic". It's a Wonderful Life was not forgotten between its premiere in 1946 and when it was assumed to be in the public domain, nor did it achieve the status of a classic only after it was assumed to be in the public domain.

That having been said, the assumption that It's a Wonderful Life was in the public domain would introduce the film to a wider audience and would largely be responsible for the film becoming considered by many to be the greatest holiday film of all time. The rights to Liberty Films were initially bought by Paramount Pictures. In 1955 Paramount sold its pre-October 1950 library to U.M. & M. TV Corporation. This included It's a Wonderful Life.  U.M. & M. TV Corporation was bought out by National Telefilm Associates (better known simply as NTA) in 1956. It was a clerical error at NTA that resulted in the copyright for It's a Wonderful Life not being renewed in 1974. Since the copyright had not been renewed, it was assumed by many that the film was in the public domain. As a result hundreds of television stations would show It's a Wonderful Life during the holiday season throughout the Seventies and Eighties.

As it turned out, however, It's a Wonderful Life was not in the public domain. It was based on the story "The Greatest Gift", whose copyright had been properly renewed in 1971. As a derivative work of a story that was still protected under copyright, It's a Wonderful Life then belonged to whoever owned the screen rights to "The Greatest Gift". This happened to be Republic Pictures (as NTA renamed itself in the Eighties), who asserted their claim to It's a Wonderful Life in 1993. In 1998 Viacom bought out Spelling Entertainment, who then owned Republic Pictures. The end result of this is that Paramount, which is owned by Viacom, again owns the rights to It's a Wonderful Life.

Given it was assumed to be in the public domain, there would be multiple releases of It's a Wonderful Life on VHS in the Eighties and Nineties. By the advent of DVD Republic has already reclaimed its right to It's a Wonderful Life, so there have been fewer DVD releases. It's a Wonderful Life was first released on DVD on September 19 1995. Since then have been several more DVD editions of It's a Wonderful Life, including a 60th anniversary edition and now a 70th anniversary edition. It has also been released on Blu-Ray.

In 1993, when it was still assumed that It's a Wonderful Life was in public domain, the film was released on CD-ROM for viewing on PCs with Windows 3.1. At the time it was the longest running video that could be viewed on a computer. Besides being able to watch the entire film on a computer (which was novel enough at the time), one could also follow along with the screenplay. The It's a Wonderful Life CD-ROM was developed by , Kinesoft Development, with help from Republic Pictures.

It's a Wonderful Life would be responsible for the existence of at least two television movies. In 1977, when it was still assumed that Its a Wonderful Life was in the public domain, ABC aired a television remake entitled It Happened One Christmas. The film reversed genders, with Marlo Thomas playing Mary in what essentially the George Bailey part and Wayne Rogers playing George in what is essentially the Mary Bailey part. It Happened One Christmas first aired on December 11 1977. It would be rerun in 1978 and 1979, but has not been aired since. It Happened One Christmas has never been released on VHS or DVD.

A spinoff from It's a Wonderful Life, simply titled Clarence, aired on the Family Channel on November 24 1990. Clarence centred on the guardian angel Clarence Oddbody, who must help a woman in 1989. None of the other characters from It's a Wonderful Life appeared in the film.

Since 1994 It's a Wonderful Life has aired exclusively on NBC. For the past many years the network has aired it early in the month of December and then again on Christmas Eve.

After 70 years It's a Wonderful Life shows no sign of fading in popularity. It still regularly tops lists of the greatest Christmas movies ever made and the greatest films ever made. In 1990 it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. Over the years there have been several adaptations to other media, including a Lux Radio Theatre radio play in 1947 and a musical version, simply titled A Wonderful Life, in 1986. The film is referenced so often in American popular culture that even a short list of references would require a small book. It's a Wonderful Life may have made no money at the box office on its initial release and won only one Oscar, but it has become one of the best loved films of all time.

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