Hark! the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise;
Join the triumph of the skies;
With angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Inspired by a dream one night in 1939, author Philip Van Doren Stern worked for five years writing the short story “The Greatest Gift”. He completed it in 1943, but failed to find a publisher. And so, for Christmas that year, he had 200 copies printed himself as a 21 page booklet and mailed them as Christmas gifts for his family and friends.
A copy found its way into the hands of a producer for RKO pictures, who showed it to Cary Grant. Grant was interested, and RKO purchased the rights to the story for $10,000.
They failed to craft a suitable script treatment of it, however. Three separate attempts were made. None of them turned out satisfactorily, though. RKO showed the story to Frank Capra, however, who saw the potential in it. Anxious to unload the project, RKO sold him the rights (with the three unproduced screenplays thrown in) for the same $10,000 that they had originally paid.
Frank Capra was one of Hollywood’s biggest directors. By the time production began on “It’s a Wonderful Life”, he had already won three Best Director Oscars. “It Happened One Night” (1934), “Mr Deeds Goes to Town” (1936) and “You Cant Take it With You” (1938). That list doesn’t even include what would arguably become his most famous work (aside from “Life”), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Capra enlisted. During World War II he was tasked with creating the “Why We Fight” series of films to be shown to the troops and the American public to help generate support. Considered highly successful and important in the country’s war effort, the series won a Best Documentary Academy Award (“Prelude to War”, 1942).
When the war ended, Capra formed “Liberty Films” (along with directors William Wyler and George Stevens) in order to make movies without Studio interference. It was the first independent picture company to be formed since United Artists, over thirty years earlier. “It’s a Wonderful Life” would be one of only two films that the film company would produce.
By the time Capra began “It’s a Wonderful Life”, however, Cary Grant had moved on.
So he turned to another star just returning to his career after the war, Jimmy Stewart.
Stewart was initially rejected for military service due to not meeting height and weight requirements. Eager to serve (his family had a military tradition), he trained and packed on five pounds of muscle in order to enlist again. A trained pilot already, prior to the war, Stewart successfully was enlisted in the Air Force. Initially relegated to instructor and making celebrity appearances, Stewart pushed hard to see combat duty, and eventually got his wish. He flew 20 sorties while assigned to the 445th and 453rd Bomb Groups. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and rose to the rank of Colonel during his time in the service.
Eventually he would reach the rank of Brigadier General, serving in the Air Force Reserve.
Returning home, he took some time off to reassess his acting career. He was unsure, frankly, how he would be received after taking time off for the war. He declined to renew his contract with MGM, and went out on his own. It’s said that Lionel Barrymore had to convince him to accept the role of George Bailey, as he wasn’t sure he was up to it. “It’s a Wonderful Life” would mark his first film in five full years. It would be his third (and final) time working with Capra.
The film opens with the town of Bedford Falls in prayer. We see a literal outpouring of prayer for George Bailey (Stewart)… prayer that catches the attention of those on high.
Apparently George has hit a difficult moment in his life. So he’s assigned a guardian angel in the form of Clarence (Henry Travers). Clarence seems… a little simple. And he’s still looking to get his wings. So before they send Clarence down to help George, they review George’s life.
George Bailey is one of the most self-sacrificing characters ever to be put on film.
He never lets his own good stand in the way of doing the right thing. He sacrifices his hearing saving his brother from drowning. He takes a slap for correcting the druggist’s near fatal mistake. When his father dies, he sacrifices his dream of college to run the Building and Loan for the town, and stays with it again, later, so that his brother can take a job with his new father-in-law. When there’s a run on the bank right after his wedding, he uses his own money – the money he was planning on using for a honeymoon – to help the people of the town so that they can save the building and loan and not have to sell out at a loss. Though he starts as an idealistic young boy with dreams of traveling the world… life, as it does for so many of us, gets in the way. By the time he marries his wife and has children, he realizes he’s sacrificing his dreams of leaving the town and traveling the world forever.
But Bailey unerringly does the right thing, regardless of the personal cost to himself. And unbeknownst to him, he’s creating a stockpile of good karma that will eventually pay off for him when he needs it the most.
Antagonizing Bailey is Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Potter is described as the richest and meanest man in the county. Early in the film, Potter is shown urging George Bailey’s father to foreclose on the townspeoples’ mortgages. He’s described as nothing short of a slumlord in regards to the housing that he runs, and he’s painted as merciless in running the town bank. It’s when George stands up to Potter in a board meeting that the Building and Loan’s board offers him the job of taking over after his father passes away, and it’s George who prevents Potter from taking advantage of the townspeople’s panic when there’s a run on the bank.
Bailey has proven to be quite the thorn in Potter’s side over the years, so when the opportunity for revenge literally falls into his lap (George’s Uncle loses a large deposit by leaving it in a newspaper he hands Potter), he takes it. Faced with losing such a large amount of money, George realizes that he’s about to lose everything. His job, the Building and Loan itself… he may even be facing jail time.
Despondent, he stands on the town bridge, contemplating suicide.
The two begin to talk and Clarence openly reveals that he’s an Angel, sent to help him. Of course, George doesn’t believe him, and, still despondent, wishes aloud that he had never been born.
Which gives Clarence an idea. Using his angelic powers, he grants George his wish and allows George to see the town of Bedford Falls – now known as Pottersville – as it would be if George had never been born. It’s turned to a seedy place under Potter’s rule, in his absence. Many of the people he helped in life are broken, now as well. The druggist he saved from accidentally poisoning a child is now a helpless beggar. His wife, a lonely spinster. And of course, without George there to save him, his younger brother Harry actually died in the lake when he was young.
Realizing how horrific things would be without him, Bailey runs back to the bridge, only this time, begging to live.
Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!
What follows is one of the most classic scenes in the history of film. George Bailey’s relieved, exuberant run home through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, happily yelling Merry Christmas to everything he sees, even buildings.
But what’s even more joyous is what awaits him when he gets home.
All of the citizens of Bedford Falls whom George had helped over the years eagerly come to his aid in his hour of need. They dig into their own savings (as he had done for them) in order to help save him from ruin. They cheerfully and happily rush to his home to dump piles of money in front of him, hoping to pitch in and repay the many kindnesses he’s shown them over the years.
An emotional George Bailey looks on, overwhelmed, as a Christmas celebration breaks out… and people break into “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Auld Lang Syne”. He looks about, alternately teary eyed and smiling broadly as people sing together before him.
A ringing bell signifies that Clarence, George’s guardian angel, has indeed earned his wings.
Though it failed to recoup its budget at the box office, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was nominated for five Academy Awards. It came home empty-handed that night (Samuel Goldwyn’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” was the big winner that year), but thanks to television turning it into a seasonal favorite, it continued to grow in the public’s estimation.
AFI named it the eleventh greatest American film when it released its “100 Years… 100 Movies”, and when they released the “10th Anniversary Edition” it held strong at number twenty. When they released their list of the greatest heroes and villains, George Bailey was named the ninth greatest hero, and Mr. Potter the sixth greatest villain. They also chose it as the most inspirational American movie of all time by placing it at #1 on the “100 Years… 100 Cheers” listing.
In 1990, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
It’s one of the most beloved films in history. It was Capra’s favorite of his own films, and Jimmy Stewart cited George Bailey as his favorite character he ever played.
But it’s also become a time-honored holiday classic, and for good reason.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a heartwarming tale that perfectly represents the spirit of Christmas. It’s a time of miracles and celebration, a time to recall the importance of family and friends, a time to show people how much you care. It demonstrates the joy of giving so wonderfully that I’m at a loss to think of a film that shows it better. The outpouring of support that Bailey receives from the people of the town – the return of all the kindness he’s shown to others over the course of his life – is one of the most touching and joyous scenes in all of film.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“, but it’s also one that everyone should take to heart.
The true meaning of the Holiday season is showing the people we love how much they mean to us.
I hope that everyone has a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah.