I first saw this movie in April 1974 not on a television but on a large screen in an auditorium at the University of Virginia, which was hosting a festival of Frank Capra films, at which the great director himself was present. After the screening, I attended a small reception on the Lawn (in the rooms that once housed Edgar Allan Poe) and had the chance to meet Mr. Capra and ask him several questions about his many wonderful films.
To my mind, It’s a Wonderful Life is not only the best Christmas film and the best of Capra’s many classic comedies, but I think it is one of the best films ever made. Serious film critics would probably scorn this opinion. I know my film professor at UVA did, but I believe it has the best structured script, the finest range of acting from the top stars to the smallest character actors, and some of the best editing and camera work to be seen in any film. Yes, it is a sentimental story, but it is not a simplistic or simple-minded one. There are many dark elements (as there are in many of Capra’s films), but he can be honestly optimistic about the enduring values of faith, family and friendship that enable us to survive life’s shadows.
I never tire of watching this film and always see some new element in it on my annual re-viewing. This time, perhaps because I saw it on a large 4K television, I noticed how intricately decorated each set was. From Gower’s drug store to Potter’s office to the Building & Loan to the Bailey Boarding House to the home at 320 Sycamore, every set is decorated with hundreds of objects that give deep visual realism to each scene. Similarly I can’t think of any film that has a broader or deeper range of superb character actors, several of whom Capra had worked with for more than a decade. They provide a similar level of realism and community to this wonderful film, captured especially in that joyous final scene where they all crowd into the Bailey living room on Christmas Eve.
Believing his life has been a frustrating waste, George Bailey contemplates suicide, but an intervening angel helps him see how his life had changed the lives of all of his family and friends and indeed his whole town for the better, so he comes to realize that he has had a wonderful life.
The central action of the film occurs on Christmas Eve and ends with a joyous resurrection around the family Christmas tree.
This is will be the longest list yet with links to nearly every film on our Christmas cinema garland.
Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy) is perhaps my favorite character actor of all, who unfortunately appears only in this one Christmas film. He had worked with Capra before in Lost Horizon (1937)and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In 1939 alone Mitchell appeared in four other all-time classics: Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Look for him in a fine early screwball comedy, Theodora Goes Wild (1936) and in the classic western High Noon (1952). His last film was also Capra’s last — Pocketful of MIracles (1961).
Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter) appeared in the earlier Capra film You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Barrymore’s best known classics are Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933),but I particularly like his role in Saratoga (1937) with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. He was originally slated to star in MGM’s A Christmas Carol (1938), but health problems prevented him from appearing, so the role as Scrooge went to Reginald Owen.
Henry Travers (Clarence) appeared in some wonderful films, including Shadow of a Doubt (1943), High Sierra (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941).
Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey) has already been seen as a warm, loving mother in Remember the Night (1939).
Frank Faylen (Ernie) had appeared with Jimmy Stewart twice before, in an off-beat screwball comedy with a similar name — It’s a Wonderful World (1939) — and No Time for Comedy (1940). He also had roles in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Grapes of Wrath (1940). At the end of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Faylen plays the sergeant who asks George M. Cohan “don’t you know the words, old-timer” to the song “Over There”? Faylen had an extended TV role as the father, Herbert T. Gillis, in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63).
Ward Bond (Bert) is another of my favorite character actors with a wide range. He appeared as the bus driver in Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934). He also had roles in After the Thin Man (1936), Topper (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939), Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941). He became a frequent member of the John Ford stock company, appearing in My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), Mister Roberts (1955) and The Searchers (1956).
Gloria Grahame (Violet Biggs) had roles in Song of the Thin Man (1947), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and the late film noir classic,The Big Heat (1953).
H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower) frequently appeared in Capra films, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). He was a major stare in silent films and appropriately appeared as a member of the “wax works” in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Frank Albertson (Sam Wainwright) was seen previously in Bachelor Mother.
Todd Karns (Harry Bailey) was seen previously in Good Sam.
Samuel Hinds (Pa Bailey) also appeared for Capra in You Can’t Take It with You (1938).
Mary Treen (Tilly) appeared in films such as Kitty Foyle (1940) and Bundle of Joy (1956). She had an extended TV role as Hilda on The Joey Bishop Show (1962-65)
Sarah Edwards (Mrs. Hatch) has been seen in two previous films: The Bishop’s Wife and The Shop Around the Corner.
Lillian Randolph (Annie) had a small role in The Palm Beach Story (1942) directed by Preston Sturges.
William Edmunds (Martini) has been seen in The Shop Around the Corner and Double Dynamite.
Sheldon Leonard (Nick) was better known as a producer and director than as an actor, but he had roles in Another Thin Man (1939), Guys and Dolls (1955) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961).
Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu) appeared in another Christmas classic, The Bishop’s Wife.
Charles Lane (real estate salesman) was previously seen in It Happened of Fifth Avenue. He appeared in many classic films, such as Twentieth Century (1934), Ball of Fire (1941), He appeared for Capra many times, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Arsenic and Old Lace. He also had extended roles on TV shows such as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Petticoat Junction, where he played the nemesis Homer Bedloe.
Robert J. Anderson (young George Bailey) also appeared in the Christmas classic The Bishop’s Wife.
Edward Keane (Tom in the Savings & Loan) was seen previously in Meet John Doe (1941). He also appeared for Capra in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938).
Frank Hagney (Potter’s Body Guard) had many film roles, including the comic policeman in On the Town (1949).
Ellen Corby (Ms. Davis) was seen in All Mine to Give.
Charles Halton (Carter, the bank examiner) was seen as the detective in The Shop Around the Corner.
J. Farrell MacDonald (man whose tree was hit by George’s car) was seen previously in Meet John Doe, Christmas Eve and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.
Almira Sessions (Potter’s secretary) was seen previously in Good Sam and The Bishop’s Wife.
Carl Switzer (jealous dance partner) is best known for his role as Alfalfa in the Our Gang/Little Rascals comedy shorts.
Charlie Wilson (Charlie) was seen previously in Meet John Doe. He worked for Capra in It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). His other classic film credits include The Kennel Murder Case (1933), Footlight Parade (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933.
Cy Schindell (Nick’s bouncer) appeared in films such as The Talk of the Town (1942), Woman of the Year (1942) and You Can’t Take It with You (1938).
Dick Elliott (man on porch) was seen previously in Christmas in Connecticut.
Harry Holman (high school principal) was seen previously in Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), playing the mayor. He also appeared for Capra in American Madness (1932), which bears a certain resemblance to It’s a Wonderful Life.
Stanley Andrews (Mr. Welch) was seen previously in Meet John Doe (1941) and worked for Capra in You Can’t Take It with You (1938)and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). He also had roles in The Mark of Zorro (1940), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).
Al Bridge (sheriff) was seen previously in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943). He appeared in such classic as A Night at the Opera (1935), The Awful Truth (1937) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Talk of the Town (1942). He was a frequent member of the Preston Sturges stock company, appearing in The Lady Eve (1941), Christmas in July (1940), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Great Moment (1944), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), Unfaithfully Yours (1948) and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949),
Frank Faylen appeared with Fred Astaire in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).
Frank Hagney appeared with Astaire in Let’s Dance (1950).
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
I would double the size of this post were I to detail all of the reasons I love this movie, so let me name just two: the snow and the staircase finial.
I asked Mr. Capra when I met him 44 years ago how he managed such wonderful snow, especially in the scene on the bridge. He told me that he mixed Ivory Snow laundry detergent with corn flakes painted white, which provided an appropriate crunch. I still think it is the best snow in any film I have ever seen.
The staircase finial that comes off in George Bailey’s hand is a masterful touch, symbolizing the narrative track of the film. The first time it is a minor annoyance. The second time, when George comes home facing disaster, he nearly throws it across the room in frustrated anger. The third time, after realizing that his has been a wonderful life, he kisses it with honest, tearful affection.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
After many years when it was shown dozens of times every Christmas on numerous TV stations because the copyright had lapsed, now that the copyright has been renewed it is shown only on Christmas Eve on NBC.