Prior to 1993, anytime you wanted to watch the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) on the small screen all you had to do was surf to any random cable channel. Because IAWL was on a metric ton of stations, apparently due to its quasi-public domain status (someone forgot to cross an “i” and dot a “t” when the copyright came up for renewal in 1974). When National Telefilm Associates (who acquired IAWL around 1955 from Paramount) changed its name to Republic Pictures in 1986, one of their first areas of exploration involved restoring the copyright to the film, based on the fact that they owned the rights to the source material (the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Stern). Say what you want about Republic (there’s an irony in that they’ve since come back to the Paramount fold), but they recognized a cash cow when they saw one. It’s a Wonderful Life has now become a Christmas Eve tradition on NBC (I believe the network airs it twice in December; I also saw it unspool on the USA Network one night during Sister Kat’s visit), but for those of us who’d rather not sit through the commercials it’s readily available on VHS, Blu-ray, etc.
I’m still watching, as a matter of fact, the original Artisan Home Entertainment disc I purchased in 2000—I know there have been newer versions released since that one, but I’ve never felt the need to upgrade. I’m also an unabashed fan of the movie, and I predictably bawl like a baby all the way through its 129-minute running time. I know a lot of people don’t care for it (I blame the endless PD showings for this in a way) and that the truly cynical take delight in giving it a good ribbing (Gary Kamiya did a nice job for a Salon piece in 2001, and my godfather Scott C. lacerated it at World O’Crap in 2006 with a Better Living Through Bad Movies-like treatment). My love for IAWL is such that I can read pieces like Gary or Scott’s, laugh myself silly, and still stubbornly cling to my adoration for the feature film that its director, Frank Capra, declared his favorite among the many movies on which he held the reins (he also made watching IAWL with his family a Yuletide tradition).
The concept of one man functioning as “the glue” in his community is pretty hard to resist because—well, let’s be honest: there’s something in the human condition that compels us to want to make our mark on the world and do great things…and if we fall short of this goal, we entertain thoughts that it’s all been for naught and we’ve failed. It’s a Wonderful Life proves John Donne knew what he was talking about when he wrote “No man is an island”; every task we perform, no matter how small or insignificant, impacts another person’s life in the most amazing way. “Strange, isn't it?” marvels Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), the “angel” sent to Earth to keep frustrated businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) from throwing away “the greatest gift.” “Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?”
George Bailey was a chump—even a rent collector (Charles Lane) for his nemesis Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) observes this to be so—a man who missed out on so many opportunities to spend his entire life being altruistic to the inhabitants of a small town. I think that’s what I love so much about IAWL; George is the only bulwark against the tyranny represented by Potter, and despite the fantasy elements of the film the Potter situation is presented fairly realistically in that he’s responsible for the Bailey Building and Loan’s financial trouble (by keeping the money that Thomas Mitchell’s Uncle Billy so foolishly misplaced) and like so many outcomes in the annals of white collar crime, he appears to get away with it. (Yes, I am aware of the Saturday Night Live skit where the citizens of Bedford Falls kick the stuffing out of Potter in the “lost footage” of IAWL. I laughed at that, too.) Lionel Barrymore wasn’t able to play Ebenezer Scrooge in the MGM version of A Christmas Carol (1938) due to his precarious health (he had made the part his own in several radio productions dramatizing Dickens’ classic) so his Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life gives him an opportunity to fulfill that acting dream (and Potter is worse than Scrooge—at least Ebenezer got redemption at the end). The casting of the parts in IAWL is another of the movie’s assets; in addition to stars Stewart and Donna Reed you have a gathering of such first-rate character thesps as Barrymore, Mitchell, Travers, H.B. Warner, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen (the original Bert and Ernie!) and so many more. (The old-time radio devotee in me loves seeing Lillian “Birdie” Randolph as Annie, and of course Sheldon Leonard as Nick the bartender—“Get me! I’m givin’ out wings!”)
The first occurs during the honeymoon night of George and Mary Bailey, in which the couple take residence in an old dilapidated house because the money earmarked for their vacation has been doled out to Building and Loan customers to keep the joint running when there’s a run on the bank. Earlier in their courtship, the couple threw rocks at the abandoned house (George explains that if you throw a rock and break glass, any wish you make will be granted) and when Mary lobs a stone and achieves the desired result, she’s coy about what she wished to George. Honeymoon Night, as the couple go in for a clinch, Mary tells her husband: “Remember the night we broke the windows in this old house? This is what I wished for…” (I am not crying—I just have something in my eye, damn it!)
Maybe it’s because I’ve always been close to my parents and family, but the sequence in which an uncomprehending George attempts to seek shelter in his mother’s boarding house and Ma Bailey (Bondi) stares back at him with those cold, cruel, uncaring eyes literally tears me up. It’s much more effective to me than George’s later discovery that Mary has become an unattractive spinster (hey, she’s a librarian—at least she’s working steady); we’d like to think that no matter how much trouble we get ourselves into, our family will be there in our corner to help us weather out the storm. Actress Bondi is so wonderful as Ma Bailey; she’d play Jimmy Stewart’s mom in three other films, including the Frank Capra-directed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
It’s still an entertaining movie, but what struck me was how it would make a great (if a bit long) double feature with It’s a Wonderful Life. The two movies share similar premises (as well as appearances from IAWL’s Karolyn “Zuzu” Grimes and Bobby Anderson, who played George Bailey as a yute): an angel is sent down to help out a mere mortal, only in the case of Wife it’s Cary Grant as the messenger who helps the ecclesiastical David Niven when Niven has difficulty drumming up funds for a big honkin’ cathedral. As it turns out, it’s not the cathedral that’s the problem (that gets shunted off to the side before the closing credits roll in favor of wealthy dowager Gladys Cooper’s decision to donate generously to the poor and needy): the relationship in Niven’s marriage to Loretta Young has become quite strained, and Cary (as Dudley the Cherub) is only too happy to lend a hand.
(“You win, Lord…I’m going to look into this celibacy priest thing.”) If the angel in Wife had been played by IAWL’s Henry Travers…we would have dismissed Wife in a heartbeat. There are so many great character veterans in Bishop’s Wife, which is another reason why it’s such fun: Elsa Lanchester, Sara “Aunt Milly” Haden, James Gleason, and the indestructible Regis Toomey. For me, Monty Woolley is the real reason you should watch Wife; they don’t come right out and say it but his Professor Wutheridge is an atheist (which makes sense, given his line of work) and his interactions with the out-of-this-world Dudley are among the movie’s highlights. I particularly enjoy the scene where Cary and Loretta pay Monty a visit and he offers them the last bit of some sherry on hand; whenever Woolley isn’t looking, Grant uses his heavenly talents to refill his glass at every turn. Finally, Monty looks at both the glass and the bottle and says matter-of-factly: “We don’t seem to be making much headway.” (Never fails to break me up.)