“A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.”
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE
“The greatest film I ever made.
Better yet, the greatest film anybody ever made...
No man is a failure!”
"It's the story I had been looking for all my life!" enthused Frank Capra. And it stemmed from, of all things, a Christmas card called The Greatest Gift . by Philip Van Doren Stern. It had been on the RKO shelf since purchased, on his say-so, as a project for Gary Grant. Treatments by, in turn, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, Cliffod Odets, didn't gell. Back from the war, Colonel Frank Capra bought it for $10,000 on September 1, 1945, as the first/last production of his Liberty Films.
Apart from James Stewart, there were few of Capra's famous "first, last and only choices." Also back from the horror of war, Jimmy wanted to kick-start his career (if any) with Capra. Except films seemed so... fickle... after WWII. It was Lionel Barrymore who set Stewart straight about the importance of movies and acting - for the public - and persuaded him to stay on board . After all, who was better as "a Good Sam who doesn't know he is a good Sam"?
And was there a better skinflint than Barrymore? Or a better good wife figure than Donna Reed? Well, yes, of course there were.
Directors were really spoilt for choice in the 40s.
For 17 supporting roles, Capra worked his way
through more than 170 contenders.
The inevitables: Mildreds Dunnock or Natwick for Aunt Lara. And some surprises: Gone With The Wind Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel was listed (twice!) for Annie, the cook (Lillian Randolph)... and WC Fields as Uncle Billy.
Mary Hatch Bailey . While Jimmy Stewart proclaimed he picked directors, not stories, another Capra favourite, Jean Arthur, was picking Broadway plays, not movies as Stewart's wife, thank you very much. Capra mused upon Olivia De Havilland, Ann Dvorak, Martha Scott. atch Bailey. And there was always Laraine Day, newly arrived at RKO after quitting MGM when her promised Undercurrent was given to Katharine Hepburn. The roles were better at RKO, said Day, and that was the trouble - she was unavailable for Mary as she was already making her favourite RKO role in The Locket. (Both films opened on December 20).
Hedda Hopper took it upon herself to float the suggestion of Ginger Rogers becoming Mary - they'd been so good in Vivacious Lady, 1938. Two days after Hopper's story appeared on March 13, 1946, Capra concluded three months' secret negotiations with MGM for Donna Reed. (As Columbia czar Harry Cohn would do again seven years later for From Here To Eternity ). Jim didn't feel they had any chemistry as a couple and - and had Donna dropped as his wife in the baseball saga, The Stratton Story , 1949.
Henry F Potter . The Scrooge of Bedford Falls had the longest list of possibilties. From the usual heavies (Edward Arnold, George Bancroft, Charles Bickford, Louis Calhern, George Colouris, Albert Dekker, Dan Duryea, Victor Jory, Otto Kruger, Raymond Massey, Vincent Price, Claude Rains) to the somewhat more amiable Walter Abel, Leon Ames, Charles Coburn, Henry Hull.
Uncle Billy . Walter Brennan, Barry Fitzgerald, Edward Everett Horton, Cecil Kellaway, Donald Meek, Adolphe Menjou, Victor Moore, Frank Morgan, Charles Ruggles, Ronald Young. Thomas Mitchell made Billy his own - even if having to share the screen with a regular scene-stealer in Capra films since 1938: Jimmy the Raven!
Clarence Oddbody . Sole role with no name attached in Capra's list was Clarence, the wingless angel. The British stage star, Henry Travers, who played him so angelically, was already entrenched in the director's mind for one of three roles: Pa Bailey, Uncle Billy or the poor old chemist.
Ma Bailey . Beulah Bondi became Stewart's mother and not for the first time - which left no chance for Ann Revere, Selena Royal, Mary Young among others.
Pa Bailey . Ward Bond and Henry Travers had to bow to Samuel S Hinds as Jimmy Stewart's old man. "So perfect," said Capra, "he looks like two fathers."
Officer Bert . This time Ward Bond won - beating Sam Levene, Barton MacLane, Walter Sande among others to the cop.
Violet Bick. Apart from Veda Ann Borg, Ann Doran and Isabel Jewell, none of seven other "bad girls" short-listed for Violet was ever heard of again. Gloria Grahame certainly was after Capra saw her MGM test. "That's a bad girl if ever I saw one." The studio casting director Billy Grady told him:
“Two years she's been around here snapping her garters.
You can have her for a cuppa coffee.”
Gower . Donald Meek also turned up among the contenders for Gower, the drunken chemist, alongside Jimmy Conlin, Jean Hersholt, Guy Kibbee, Percy Kilbride (the future Pa Kettle), John Qualen. The pharmacist became HB Warner, director Cecil B De Mille's Christ in King of Kings, 1927. "CB will die when he sees me playing a bum."
Sam Wainwright . Newcomers Van Heflin and Dean Jagger had starrier careers than the selected Frank Albertson.
Guiseppe Martini was won by Bill Edmondsfrom... Joseph Calleia, Edouardo Ciannelli and Nestor Paiva were obvious thoughts
Three blocks of Bedford Falls were built at RKO's Encino Ranch and shooting started April 8, 1946, same day as Captra's Liberty partner Colonel William Wyler began another RKO release that would sweep the next Oscars: The Best Years of Our Lives.
Capra's film remains the better known - and loved - winning vast new (and old) audiences on American TV every Christmas. George Bailey was the closest the screen ever got to the real Jim Stewart, observed his great friend and sometime lover Henry Fonda.
“Such a pure movie,” said James Stewart.
“When the movies have a story like this
they do it better than any medium there is.”
Bedford Falls lives on as the name of the company of film-makers Ed Zwick and (thirtysomething, Glory, Legends of the Fall ). They beat Rob Reiner to using it; he settled for Stephen King's township of Castle Rock.
It was a surprise that Capra kept Ward Bond in the movie after he'd run to his master, John Wayne, to check up on the politics of Anne Revere (being seen for George Bailey's mother). Capra blew his top - hell, he'd just returned from the war, while the 4F status Wayne had sat on his fanny "getting rich" in LA. Capra called Wayne: “You can go to hell. I don't give a shit who was a Communist or who wasn't." Some years later, Wayne growled: "I'd like to take that little dago son of a bitch and tear him into a million pieces and throw him into the ocean and watch him float back to Sicily where he belongs."
Ah Hollywood - such a wonderful life!