Payday Loans
(Frank Capra . 1946)


“A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.”




“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 horrors of war, Jim 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. He signed up on November 5, 1945. After all, who was better as "a Good Sam who doesn't know he is a good Sam"? (Well, there had been talk of Henry Fonda).

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)...  the married Gene and Kathleen Lockhart up for the Potter and Ma Bailey… even WC Fields as Uncle Billy.

Mary Hatch Bailey .   While James Stewart  proclaimed he picked  directors, not  stories, another Capra favourite, Jean Arthur (she shared  his Mr Smith Goes To  Washingtonwith Jim) was now picking Broadway plays, not movies as Stewart's wife, thank you very much.  Capra mused upon Olivia De Havilland, Ann Dvorak, Martha Scott.  And there was always Laraine Day, newly arrived  at RKO after quitting MGM when her promised Undercurrentwas 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 - so good with Stewart  in Vivacious Lady,1938.  (Ginger found Mary too bland. “Foolish, you say?”). Two days after Hopper's pitch 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 .    Or Herbert, at first… Capra rummaged around 27 possible penny-pinchers for the Scrooge of Bedford Falls. From the usual  heavies - Edward Arnold, George Bancroft, Charles Bickford, Edgar Buchanan,Louis Calhern, Ray Collins,George Coulouris, Albert Dekker, Charles Dingle(New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called him the perfect villain),  Dan Duryea, Victor Jory, Otto Kruger, Gene Lockhart, Raymond Massey, Vincent Price, Claude Rains, Lee Tracy… to more amiable Walter Abel, Leon Ames,Henry Hull, Thomas Mitchell (who became Uncle Billy) and Henry Travers (more perfect as the  angelic Clarence Odbody)… on through the lesser known: true Brit Stanley Ridges(of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre troupe), Richard Gaines and Charles Halton(also up for Mr Gower, he ended up as  Carter). Lionel Barrymore had the edge onthem all. As far as American was concerned, he was Ebenezer Scrooge, himself,  in Yuletide radio versions of  A Christmas Carol. He was also been party of Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.1937. Barrymore signed up on April 1, 1946, as his make-up team began creatiung evolving his look from Grant Wood’s classic 1930 painting, American Gothic.

Uncle  Billy .  Walter Brennan, WC Fields, Barry Fitzgerald,  actor-playwright 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 Odbody . 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, Gower… but he more he looked at him… Two of Travers’ rivals, Samuel S Hindsand HB Warner, became Peter Bailey and Gower. Travers’ 52 films include  Hitchcock’s #1 favourite of all his work, Shadow of a Doubt, 1942.

Ma Bailey .  Kathleen Lockhart, Selena Royle and Mary Young were on the list.  Plus Anne Revere, a future victim of the repugnant  Hollywood blacklist in 1951.  Related to the American Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere, she called herself “a free thinking Yankee rebel and nobody's going to tell me what to do!"  So, once again Beulah Bondi mothered Jim Stewart. A task she managed, with ease - five times in all.

Pa Bailey . Ward Bond, Thurston Hall, Russell Hicks, Utah actor-playwright Moroni Olsen,Henry Travers  and Tom Tully- they all had to bow to Samuel S Hinds as James Stewart’s old man. "So perfect," said Capra, "he looks like two fathers."   Er, really?!

Harry Bailey .   David McKaywon Stewart’s pilot brother Harry  - until a sudden change in his draft status. Enter: Todd Karns, son of character actor Roscoe Karns.

Officer Bert .  Ward Bond beat John Alexander, Irving Bacon, James Burke(invariably a cop, as Irish-American as he was), Sam Levene, Barton MacLane, Robert Mitchum... Walter Sande was the only actor up for Bert andErnie. This cop and cabbby duo, was first aimed at at Brown and Carney,  RKO’s reply to Abbott and Costello - Wally Brown and Alan Carney. (The Sesame Streetduo of Bert and Ernie were unconsciously named after the Bedford Falls pair).

Ernie Bishop .  Ex-Keystone Kop Barclay, Steve Brodie, Edward Brophy, Walter Catlett, William Demarest, Wallace Ford, John Ireland, Frank Jenks (aka Off-Thr-Cuff Jenks, due to his diverse and rapid character studies), Charles “Red” Marshall, Frank McHugh (eleven times James Cagney’s co-star, more than anyone else, even Pat O’Brien).  Walter Sande was the only actor seen for Ernie andBert, the cop and cabbby duo.

Violet Bick .  Veda Ann Borg, Myrna Dell, Ann Doran ,Isabel Jewell, Jean Porter and  Ann Sothern were the   "bad  girls" short-listed  for Violet.  Dell was never  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.”


Mr Gower .  Donald Meek also turned up among the contenders for Emil Gower, the drunken chemist, alongside Irving Bacon, the Scottish EJ Ballantine, Jimmy Conlin, Harry Davenport(Dr Meade in Gone With The Wind), Charley Grapewin, Charles Halton(a Boston blowhard also up for old man Potter), Jean Hersholt,Samuel S Hinds, Guy Kibbee, Percy Kilbride (the future Pa Kettle), Philip Merivale, Reginald Owen,John Qualen and Erskine Sanfordfrom Orson Welles’ stage and screen work,  Citizen Kaneincluded.  The sad 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 .   Bill Goodwin,Van Heflin, WWII hero John Howard, Dean Jagger, Allyn Joslyn,RKO stalwart Gordon Oliver, Gene Raymond, Kent Smith, Phil Warren -  who became a newspaper retail advertising manager in LA in 1950 after 82 screen roles.

Annie .  Sara Allgood, Helen Broderick, Jane Darwell, Ruth Donnelly, Connie Gilchrist (Brooklyn’s stage star in the UK, US and France), Hattie McDaniel, Una O’Connor, Irene Ryan  were tried and tsted - Lillian Randolph won!

Giuseppe  Martini .   The SpanishLuis  Alberni, Maltese Joseph Calleia, SicilianFrank Pugliaand, naturally, several Italians - Fortunio Bonanova, Edouardo Ciannelli,  Chef Milani (the Hollywood Canteen chef made 17 movies), Nestor Paiva, and the actor (62 films)-director (110) Robert C Vignola   - were seen for heading the Martinis -  based on Capra’s family of Sicilian immigrants reaching America in  1903.

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!

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