No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends
January 7, 2020
This film, officially released in theaters on January 7, 1947, was plagued with missteps from the start. Its history of challenges, actually, seem appropriate as it is a film about failure and redemption and has become one of the world’s most beloved Christmas classics. The movie: It’s a Wonderful Life.
Its story begins in 1939 when Philip Van Doren Stern writes a short story he titles The Greatest Gift. Unable to find a publisher, Stern self publishes 200 booklets which he gives as presents to friends during Christmas 1943.
The story ended up being seen by Carey Grant who was interested in adapting the story into film with him as the lead. RKO, a movie studio, purchased the rights in April 1944 to do just that. Work commenced on the screenplay. For whatever reasons, Grant went on to other projects and the partially completed script was eventually sold to Frank Capra’s production company in 1945.
Capra – recognizing the potential in the story – hired a writing team to work on the script. But there were problems. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Capra salvaged a few scenes from Odets’ earlier screenplay and worked with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker (brought in to ‘polish’ the script), on many drafts of the screenplay.
It was not a harmonious collaboration. Goodrich called Capra ‘that horrid man’ and recalled, ‘He couldn’t wait to get writing it himself.’ Her husband, Albert Hackett, said, ‘We told him what we were going to do, and he said ‘That sounds fine.’ We were trying to move the story along and work it out, and then somebody told us that [Capra] and Jo Swerling were working on it together, and that sort of took the guts out of it. Jo Swerling was a very close friend of ours, and when we heard he was doing this we felt rather bad about it. We were getting near the end and word came that Capra wanted to know how soon we’d be finished. So my wife said, ‘We’re finished right now.’ We quickly wrote out the last scene and we never saw him again after that. He’s a very arrogant son of a bitch.’
Later, a dispute ensued over the writing credits. Capra said, ‘The Screen Writers’ Arbitration committee decided that Hackett and Goodrich, a married writing team, and I should get the credit for the writing. Jo Swerling hasn’t talked to me since. That was five years ago.’ The final screenplay, renamed by Capra It’s a Wonderful Life, was credited to Goodrich, Hackett, and Capra, with ‘additional scenes’ by Jo Swerling.”
In order to make the film ‘Oscar’ eligible it was released at the Globe Theatre in New York on December 20, 1946 rather than wait until early 1947 as originally planned. The change likely cost It’s a Wonderful Life a Best Picture Oscar as the competition for 1946 was much more difficult. Best Picture winner was a movie titled The Lost Weekend, a movie now pretty much lost in time. It’s a Wonderful Life ended up with five nominations including for Best Picture and Best Actor for Jimmy Stewart.
The movie was under water some $525,000 at the box office.
It wasn’t until the late 1970’s when the copyright expired and the movie was ‘discovered.’ Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“The film’s elevation to the status of a beloved classic came three decades after its initial release, when it became a television staple during Christmas season in 1976. This came as a welcome surprise to Frank Capra and others involved with its production. ‘It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen’, Capra told The Wall Street Journal in 1984. ‘The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be President. I’m proud … but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.’ In a 1946 interview, Capra described the film’s theme as ‘the individual’s belief in himself’ and that he made it ‘to combat a modern trend toward atheism’.”
It was in December 1981 when I first saw the movie. The hubby and I had purchased our first house six months earlier. It was a 1910 fixer upper in West Seattle and a hodge-podge of never ending projects. Our first weekend in the house involved ripping out pet urine soaked carpets and removing part of the narrow with a 90 degree turn staircase in order to get our queen size bed up to the bedroom. Behind the 1960’s era kitchen cabinets we later discovered a painted over window with the curtain rod still attached to the wall. Unfortunately, the curtains – mostly rags – also still hung there. The fix list went on and on. During the time we owned that house, it was one critical project after another.
Forward to the week before Christmas 1981. I was home sick from work with a bad cold, puttering around our drafty old house, doing what I could to get ready for the holiday. I had the TV on to keep me company when this old black and white film appeared.
I was hooked within moments and, snuggled up on the couch in a blanket, I watched the whole thing. The afternoon light faded to night just as George Bailey descended into his own winter solstice crisis. There I sat, commiserating with poor George over a house that needed constant fixing and worried about how he was going to find the money that Uncle Billy lost. I could relate as money was tight for a pair of house poor, married barely a year, kids.
There’s a moment in that film which sums it all up. It’s when George arrives back home – alive once again – and hugs the kids but cannot find Mary, his wife. The bank examiners arrive and tell George they are going to arrest him and his response is just the best. He tells them how wonderful it is for no other reason than because he’s alive and that is enough.
Just then, Mary bursts through the door, she and George embrace and he tells her how much he cherishes her. But she has a surprise for him – the community has come to their rescue and raised more than enough money to cover the missing funds.
It’s this scene which had me bawling. What a gift it is to be so loved, so valued, that your friends and family will do anything to ease your burden. Every time I watch It’s A Wonderful Life I hold it together until that scene comes on and George receives a gift from his Guardian Angel, Clarence, with the following sentiment:
“Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings, Love Clarence.”
As always – the links: