If Kanye West was at the Academy Awards in 1946, he probably would've stormed the stage as William Wyler won for The Best Years of Our Lives and said, "William, you're a good director, and I'm gonna let you finish. But Frank Capra just made one of the best movies of all time!" And people would've booed him because The Best Years of Our Lives is actually an extremely moving and powerful movie, and it totally deserved to win.
But, in a different year, Frank Capra probably would've taken the Oscar, though it's not like he was short on Oscar gold. He already had three of 'em on his mantelpiece (or wherever he kept them), having six Best Director noms and three wins, more than anyone else in the history of movies up to that time. Well, OK, he was tied with John Ford (though Ford beat him out a little later).
Capra had a classic rags-to-riches story. He was born Francesco Rosario Capra in Sicily in 1897. The family immigrated to the United States when he was a young boy. Capra recalls his first sight of his new home:
Thirteen days of misery. And then the ship stopped, and my father grabbed me and carried me up the steep iron stairs to the deck. And then he shouted, "Chico, look at that!" At first, all I saw was a deck full of people on their knees crying and rejoicing. My father cried, "That's the greatest light since the Star of Bethlehem." I looked up and there was the statue of a great lady, taller than a church steeple, holding a lamp over the land we were about to enter. And my father said, "It's the light of freedom, Chico. Remember that. Freedom." … For America, just for living here, I kiss the ground. (Source)
He fell instantly in love with his new country.
His parents eventually moved the family to L.A., center of the new movie industry. Capra's dad sold fruit for a living, and Capra worked his way through high school, eventually going to Caltech (the West Coast's answer to MIT, then called Throop Polytechnic Institute) and getting a degree in chemical engineering.
While in college, in between holding down a slew of jobs to pay his way, he helped with some films at the college observatory. After graduation, he joined the Army and served briefly during WWI. (Source)
Those were the days when it was somehow possible to have an engineering degree from Caltech and end up unemployed. When Capra came home from the war, he couldn't find work. He spent a few lost years traveling the West, taking odd jobs here and there. Capra felt this experience introduced him to small-town America and its people, the folks who would eventually populate his films.
When he was 24, he got some directing experience with a silent short documentary film with Italian title cards about the visit of an Italian ship to San Francisco. While working as a book salesman, he saw an ad for a San Francisco movie studio and, claiming some Hollywood experience (not), talked his way into a job. He edited dailies and some small film projects, and he was asked to direct a couple of short films based on famous poems. (Source)
Capra said he got infected by the "disease" of cinema. (Source) Addicted to the movies, he moved back to Los Angeles and started working as a writer for legendary producer Hal Roach (the creator of the "Our Gang" series) and slapstick comedy king Mack Sennett. He eventually went to work for Harry Cohn, who founded Columbia Pictures, and that's when his career really took off.
Capra helped Cohn and Columbia Pictures transition to "talkies"—sound movies. Here's where his engineering background really helped him; not many directors could understand the new technology, but Capra could. His collaborators thought that his scientific background helped him stay organized and objective on the set in the face of the technical problems that often arose with this tricky new sound stuff. (Source)
Capra's first major hit for Columbia—It Happened One Night—was nominated for five Oscars and won all five, including Best Picture and Best Director. He went on to direct a string of movie classics in the '30s that made stars of Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Harlow and catapulted Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart into superstardom.
Capra believed in the power of the decent individual. The heartwarming, optimistic "ordinary everyman makes good" films that made Capra's career in the 1930s were the perfect antidote to the Depression-era struggles of those ordinary guys. Capra's movies never treat this struggle ironically—nice guys don't finish last. They look like they're going to finish last, sometimes, but, in the end, they prevail. This is true for It's a Wonderful Life but also for the Capra classics Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and others.
The last line of Capra's Meet John Doe (does a title get any more everyman than that?) is our downtrodden hero saying to the villain: "There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!" That's pure Capra philosophy—evidence of his passionate, lifelong love affair with his adopted country and the American people. (Source)
Capra enlisted in the Army again in 1942. He produced a series of films for soldiers and sailors promoting the war effort and explaining what they were fighting for. Why We Fight had a theatrical release to the general public to drum up support for the war.
Capra had watched Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film that he thought was a powerful piece of psychological warfare. Why We Fight was his answer to Hitler. Using newsreel footage of Axis atrocities, he contrasted the justness of the American cause and American values with the evil Axis powers. He left the Army in 1945 with a Distinguished Service Medal. (Source)
It's a Wonderful Life celebrates the most basic of American values—friends, family, faith, hard work, etc. But, in the paranoid days of the witch hunts by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was convinced that Hollywood was seriously infiltrated by Communists, some saw lurking in the "little guy" story the seeds of socialism and proletarianism. The movie was so successful at portraying the greed and evil of ruthless banker Henry Potter that the FBI suspected it of being Communist propaganda. (Source)
This happened even though Capra was a conservative Republican who said he made the movie "to combat a modern trend toward atheism." Still, the FBI considered the depiction of Potter an attack on the American capitalist system. (You can read the redacted FBI memo here.)
It's a Wonderful Life was Capra's favorite film. He wrote in his autobiography that "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody had ever made. It wasn't made for the oh-so-bored critics or the oh-so-jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people. A film to tell the weary, the disheartened, and the disillusioned ... that no man is a failure!" (Source)
It's enough to make you stand up and cheer.
Props to historian and writer Philip Van Doren Stern who, although not involved in the screenplay, wrote "The Greatest Gift," the story on which the film is based.
Inspired by an actual dream he had, he came up with the basic concept of a selfless guy laid low by life until he's rescued by God and the love of his friends and family. When he shopped it around but couldn't get it published, he made it into a Christmas card, which he then sent to 200 friends and acquaintances. That's how it found its way to RKO producer David Hempstead en route to the hearts of millions of people who watch TV at Christmas time.
Lots of screenwriters worked on this project, and lots of screenwriters got canned. Six years after Hempstead found the story, things finally got under way. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett penned the script with help from Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker (these last three uncredited). Hackett and Goodrich were a husband-and-wife screenwriting team who later won a Pulitzer Prize for adapting Anne Frank's diary into a play in 1956. They also wrote the scripts for the classic comedies The Thin Man and Father of the Bride as well as for the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Swerling had a long career writing plays and screenplays, like one for the Lou Gehrig biopic The Pride of the Yankees. Wilson (who was later blacklisted in Hollywood for his Communist Party associations) co-wrote A Place in the Sun and Planet of the Apes.
Dorothy Parker was an unlikely candidate for writing a film like this. Known for her vicious wit and withering literary criticism, she was a famous writer and member of the Algonquin Round Table—a bunch of comedians and writers who used to hang out at the Algonquin Hotel and trade insults. She was a successful screenwriter, too, most notably for A Star Is Born. Like Wilson, she was actually blacklisted for a while.
With so many different writers contributing—writers with hugely different styles and preferred genres—there had to be a unifying vision. And you know whose. It's a Wonderful Life is Capra's movie: the tale of a noble, small-town hero who takes on malevolent, power-hungry forces and comes up a winner. Check out our "Director" section for more on that.
Sometimes, all you have to do to get a movie made is warm the heart of a Hollywood executive—with a Christmas card. At least, that's how It's a Wonderful Life came into existence. But, the path from studio executive's heart to finished movie wasn't an easy one.
A producer at RKO Pictures named David Hempstead received a short story/Christmas card in the mail entitled "The Greatest Gift." The story was written by Philip Van Doren Stern, and the plot is basically that of It's a Wonderful Life (guy contemplates suicide, guardian angel shows him what life would've been like, guy realizes life is worth living, etc.). Hempstead was moved and saw cinematic possibilities, so he bought the rights to the story for $10,000.
This was in 1939. The movie wouldn't come out until 1946.
It's a Wonderful Life quickly went into what's called "development hell." The idea gets turned into a script, and tinkered with, and developed, and re-drafted and … doesn't quite seem to ever go into production. Hempstead initially wanted to do the movie with Cary Grant, but after three unsuccessful drafts of the script, Grant ended up doing another Christmas classic (also with an angel in it) instead, The Bishop's Wife.
Eventually, RKO sold the rights to the project to Liberty Films, a small, independent production company founded in 1945 by Frank Capra and a partner. Capra was disillusioned with the big studio system and wanted more control over production. He wrote, "Undoubtedly there will always be big studios, but we hope they will be divided by the individual creative efforts of the independents, of which, fortunately, I happen now to be one […]." (Source)
Shooting began at RKO's studios in Los Angeles and at the RKO Film Ranch in Encino, California. The ranch was a sprawling 4-acre set in California's San Fernando Valley—a far cry from the movie's upstate New York location. Capra—who specialized in heartwarming classics—directed, and the rest is movie history. (Source)
Liberty Films only produced one more film in its short life: State of the Union, with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Strapped for cash, due in part to the financial failure of It's a Wonderful Life, Capra sold Liberty to Paramount in 1947.
In a case of life definitely not imitating art, the big guys won this round.
It's a Wonderful Life was filmed in black and white on 35mm film. There's a colorized version floating around out there that Frank Capra absolutely hated. ("Colorized" means that it wasn't originally in color; the color was added later). The classic black-and-white version is the one most commonly shown these days.
The Bedford Falls set actually wasn't built anywhere in upstate New York. It was created in the arid climate of Southern California on RKO Pictures' movie ranch, using some of the set pieces from a 1930s hit Western, Cimarron. The ranch was a sprawling 4-acre set, where Capra reconstructed much of an entire town. The set, which took two months to build, had a Main Street with 75+ buildings, a residential neighborhood, and 20 transplanted oak trees. Capra let dogs and cats roam around the set to make it look realistic. (Source)
The filming took place over three months during a heat wave in California. It was scorching throughout the production. Jimmy Stewart's sweat in the scene on the snowy bridge wasn't just a result of George's meltdown. It was 90+ degrees that day, and he was dressed for winter.
All of the snow used in the movie was fake, natch. Capra thought that the usual fake movie snow (a mix of crushed cornflakes painted white) was too crunchy and noisy, requiring those scenes be dubbed. Capra wanted live sound in the scenes, so they developed another, quieter snow made from water, soap flakes, and a foamy fire-fighting chemical, all blown through a wind machine. The film received an Academy Award acknowledgement for its technical advances for this new "snow." (Source)
Dimitri Tiomkin wrote the score for It's a Wonderful Life as he had for other, earlier Frank Capra movies like Lost Horizon, Meet John Doe, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This time, however, Tiomkin butted heads with Capra when the director decided to remove certain pieces of music and make other changes. In the end, Capra's changes remained in place, and Tiomkin was so angry he refused to actually see the movie. (Source)
Tiomkin was Russian by birth, but he moved to Berlin, then to Paris, and then to New York before finally winding up in Hollywood. Strangely enough for a composer of Russian origin, he became known for his ability to musically evoke the American West, writing scores for cowboy classics like Red River, Duel in the Sun, and High Noon.
In It's a Wonderful Life, Tiomkin matches his music to the film's widely ranging moods. When George realizes that he's experiencing the world as if he had never been born, the music gets really eerie and dramatic. When George returns to Bedford Falls and runs through the streets shouting, the music is joyous and exultant.
The song "Buffalo Gals" is referenced in Tiomkin's score throughout the film, following the development of Mary and George's relationship. Tiomkin also quotes other pieces of familiar songs in his score—like "Pop Goes the Weasel."
Because it became ubiquitous on TV after its copyright expired in 1974, half of America watched the film—over and over again. It became a holiday tradition for families, developing a huge fan base.
Every year, devoted fans make pilgrimages to the It's a Wonderful Life festival in the little town of Seneca Falls, New York, which claims to have been the inspiration for Bedford Falls. There, they can get their picture taken with actors from the movie—like the now-elderly child stars who played George Bailey's kids—among other fun activities that you can learn about here. There's even a year-round It's a Wonderful Life museum in town.
The film has online fan sites like this one, run by the actress who played George's daughter Zuzu. Fanpop gets into the act with a site on which one fan dutifully confesses that she didn't like the film the first time she saw it. The movie has got its own Tumblr and Facebook pages, too. Is it too corny to say this movie has got a timeless appeal? We'll say it anyway.