It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra’s examination of failure.

The Little Man
Enter director/producer Frank Capra. Having returned to Hollywood after World War II, Capra, like many of his fellow servicemen was looking for work and struggling to find his postwar footing. In his autobiography, “The Name Above the Title,” Capra wrote of that time that he “faced a loneliness that was laced with the fear of failure.” In an interview with Esquire magazine in 1981 Capra recalled that, “perhaps I had put too much faith in the human race—you know, in the pictures I had made. Maybe they were too much as things should be. I began to think that I really was a Pollyanna.” Looking for a film that would help him express his complicated war-influenced emotions, Capra saw great potential in “The Greatest Gift,” with its mixture of comedy and soul searching.

Still, the cathartic story of an angel trying to get his wings by saving a suicidal man would give the director pause. While presenting the story line to Jimmy Stewart he realized how absurd “talking angels and heavenly voices” sounded. But Capra would ultimately get his arms around the film’s distilled essence: “It’s a movie about a small town guy who thinks he is a failure and wishes he had never been born,” said Capra. “He’s surprised to learn that he was not a failure, that he did fit into the scheme of life and actually contributed much to the happiness of several people. I think people everywhere will be able to associate themselves with the character and will perhaps feel a bit better for having known him….There’s a little George Bailey in all of us.”

On September 1, 1945, Frank Capra and his new company Liberty Films bought the rights, original material and three complete versions of the script to “The Greatest Gift of All” for a mere $10,000. Jeanine Basinger, curator of the Frank Capra archives and Chairman of Film Studies at Wesleyan University notes that the mid-1940s were a pivotal time for the director. “The vision he had about life had changed,” she says. “As a result, Capra questioned his own ideas about America—about everything. The film was important because it was a chance to speak in a new voice that still was, nevertheless, his old voice.”

The re-written story, now entitled It’s A Wonderful Life, found its delicate balance of humor and pathos. Jimmy Stewart, also newly returned from the military, and a veteran of Capra films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and You Can’t Take it With You, would be George Bailey. The film was assigned a ninety-day shooting schedule and began filming in April 1946 at RKO Encino Ranch—newly transformed into Bedford Falls. Donna Reed was signed to play Mary Bailey, Lionel Barrymore would be the crotchety Mr. Potter, and Henry Travers would be Clarence, the angel.

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