Happy holidays, everyone! The Ticklish Trio closes out 2019 with an episode devoted to the quintessential Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. We dissect Jimmy Stewart’s acting ability, what makes a Christmas film, and what would have happened if this was released in 1947.
From everyone at Ticklish Business, we wish you happy holidays and a safe and happy New Year!
Next Time: We’ll return January 15th with an all-new episode looking at our favorite 2019 classic film discoveries! Be on the lookout for the rest of my TCMFF audio in the interim!
It’s a Wonderful Life Trailer Narrator: Yes, it’s wonderful. When all these wonderful people get into the swim it’s a wonderful life. For never before has any film contained such a full measure of the joy of living and the drama of living and, above all, the glorious romance that makes this such a wonderful life.
Gloria Grahame in It’s a Wonderful Life trailer: Don’t you ever get tired of just reading about things?
James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life trailer: Yeah. Hey, what are you doing tonight?
“Auld Lange Syne” plays as trailer ends
Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: It’s ticklish business any way you look at it. Come on, we’ll stick together.
Opening theme song plays
Kristen Lopez: It’s Ticklish Business, the podcast devoted to honoring and deconstructing the world of classic cinema. As always I’m your host, Kristen Lopez.
Drea Clark: I’m Drea Clark
Samantha Ellis: And I’m Samantha Ellis.
KL: And we are doing our holiday episode for you. This was an episode based on Patreon votes, so it came down to this and Shop Around the Corner by a very, very narrow margin. But the winner was 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life. If you would have liked to change those odds and you want to see democracy at work maybe consider becoming a patron. For just $1 you get pins and you get to vote in really fun polls like this that help influence what we talk about on this podcast. So that’s at patreon.com/ticklishbiz. But for Christmas we are talking all about Frank Capra’s 1946 feature It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra, commonly known for making a spate of films identified as Capra-corn. We’ll be talking all about Frank Capra and his films in a second. This is also a Jimmy Stewart movie and if you were on social media over the weekend then you probably saw that John Oliver hates Jimmy Stewart. Did anybody else see that?
SE: I didn’t see it, but I heard about it and I was livid. And I replied with one of those WWE tweets of holding somebody back, like, hold me back, hold me back. I have a lot to say about.
DC: It’s not even that he just said he hated Jimmy Stewart. He made this sweeping comment about how all actors from back then were no good, especially Jimmy Stewart. And that happens a lot. I feel like that comes up in pop culture a few times in the past year of people just broadly dismissing all of classic cinema as if it doesn’t have something to offer. I don’t even understand it because I’m like, I don’t think you’ve watched an older film if you believe that way. But man, what a bold comment.
SE: If I really searched deep down, maybe I could think of somebody that somebody might say that about and I might be inclined to agree, but Jimmy Stewart in particular just makes me so mad because I don’t know if anyone remembers when we did our episode on the biggest Oscar snubs; my number one basically is Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And this movie is no different, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington I just want to shove that movie and john Oliver’s face. The end scene. Hey, did you realize that he did that?
KL: I want to say that’s why he brought it up, because he was talking about filibustering.
SE: Oh, okay, well, then he’s just either misinformed or :whispers: stupid.
KL: I think that’s the only time I’ve ever heard Sam insult anybody.
SE: I try not to. This is so out of left field for me. I want to track it down, the actual clip, and watch it because I usually like John Oliver. Not like more than average, but I never would have expected this. I’m really mad about it.
KL: I know John Oliver’s a listener, I’m assuming that he’s a listener. So shame on you. Shame.
SE: If you’re listening, John, them’s fightin’ words.
DC: I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.
SE: Not to take a total left turn here but let’s talk about the BuzzFeed article while we’re at it, in the same vein of things that are dismissing classic cinema as a whole.
KL: Then you have not been on my Twitter because I have been arguing for six years about how there needs to be more appreciation for classic cinema and I’m constantly being told that I’m an elitist gatekeeper who demands that everybody watch Citizen Kane and that’s not what I’m saying. That’s a topic for another time. Maybe that’s a future topic worth having its own episode for because it seems to pop up a lot lately.
SE: Yeah. Why lately? Why is everyone picking on all these movies now? I don’t understand. And it’s Christmas, have a heart.
KL: That’s a good segue, Sam, into our main discussion. We’re talking about 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, which is now a Christmas classic, was not always so. It tells the story of George Bailey, played by the :sarcastic: World’s Worst Actor and I say that dripping with sarcasm, Jimmy Stewart. As the movie presents his life to us he is a man who had dreams and ambitions but for various reasons throughout his life was never able to fulfill them. But in the interim he had a wife and a family, was able to help his small town of Bedford Falls. But when everything goes to hell he makes a wish that he was never born, leading to the big third act climax wherein his wish is granted and a world without George Bailey is presented to him.
Full disclosure, up until this morning I didn’t like this movie, mostly because how you consume a movie matters. So I didn’t watch this movie for the first time until I was about 21, but I could tell you what it was about because every piece of popular culture has done an iteration of this movie, Simpsons. Simpsons. You could do a bunch of shows that have done the It’s a Wonderful Life-type of premise. So that had always given me a very specific impression of what the movie was. Most prominently, if you grew up in the ’90s then you remember that the Rugrats did an episode based on It’s a Wonderful Life, wherein Chuckie wished he was never born. So watching the movie for the first time, I thought the entire film was about him wishing he was never born. Turns out, that’s probably about the last like 20 minutes of a two hour and 10 minute film.
At 21, watching this movie, I was sitting there thinking, Okay, why do I need all this stuff? I was lied to; I sold a bill of goods about what this movie was about. And I really think that that colored things. Secondary thing, this year 2019, specifically, for me has been very difficult for various reasons. Watching this movie this morning and seeing that big end scene; there’s a moment when a movie finally clicks with you and I can tell you that It’s a Wonderful Life clicked with me at 9:30 today in the day of our Lord 2019 on December 8 when we’re recording this. I like this movie. I think it’s very smart and a very different type of movie, not just Christmas movie but movie, than what we are used to. Still not my favorite Christmas movie and that might be sacrilegious, but it’s just not. It’s never going to be because I don’t have that long-seeded connection to it that I have with other movies, especially other classic movies. The 1940s was a great year for classic Christmas films. I do have a different outlook on this movie that I probably would have if we’d done this episode 11 years ago, Sam, Drea, what was your background with this movie and what did you think about it then? What do you think about it now? Has any of that changed?
SE: I’m in a similar boat. It’s funny, You mentioned all of the other iterations because the Muppets famously did a similar plot where, again, it’s the whole movie as opposed to the last 20 minutes. I spent my whole life watching all of those versions and never watching the original. I saw the original for the first time maybe three years ago in theaters and I definitely enjoyed it, but this was after I had already developed the huge appreciation that I have for Shop Around the Corner. It’s my favorite Christmas movie and the fact that everybody has their eyes on what, I think, is a little bit of a lesser Christmas movie as opposed to the one that I really love, that gets me. They’re so similar in the sense that they’re both Christmas movies starring Jimmy Stewart from the ’40s that I’m like, “everybody look at this one instead.”
So by comparison, I toss It’s a Wonderful Life aside a little bit, and I probably shouldn’t because there are a lot of really amazing aspects of this film. Your story behind rediscovering it is so awesome because this movie really does resonate with the lost souls, the down hardened, and this movie really covers that area, the people who are a little less happy on Christmas. It doesn’t make everything better but it reaches a hand out and says everything’s going to be okay. The movie really deserves some credit for that. So, in addition to that, Jimmy Stewart, all of the wonderful, wonderful supporting actors that I love so much, I could go on and on about that. I love the movie. Shop Around the Corner I love a little more. It has a place, for sure.
DC: I like the question; it has a place. I watched this pretty young. My grandparents would just be playing this at their house, or at least that’s how my memory tells me it happened. There was always something about black and white films when you’re really young, at least to me, that made them seem like they were fancier. I don’t know why that connection is but I just remember being like, Oh, it’s Christmas. It’s one of the fancy movies. I remember watching it a lot. And then yeah, Kristin, there’s absolutely like an entire website about It’s a Wonderful Life parodies that have filtered into movies and TV because you’re totally right, it’s in a million things. It’s because of a few reasons. One, in the same way that A Christmas Carol has been parodied so often they have really nice narrative devices in place but with It’s a Wonderful Life it’s twofold, right?
The big thing is “what would my world be like if I wasn’t in it,” which is just a great way to tell a story and so it’s easy to take that on and it’s also funny Kristen mentioned that that was her biggest takeaway because it isn’t until the end an you forget that because it’s so memorable. But the other reason this film is a standout for so many and has actually grown in its popularity since when it came out when it was up against basically The Best Years of Our Lives, there’s something about the darkness of this film that is why it has had the longevity it has. Begins with this person who’s completely despondent, looking at killing himself because things are so bad, and things are so bad because of a lot of external factors that are still true in our world. He’s worried about money, he’s worried about things with his family, his legacy. There are all of these things happening that I think so many people identify with.
It’s often said Christmas is actually the saddest time of year for so many, so to have a film that has this inspiring, warm ending, but still doesn’t shy away from the realities of all of that, that’s why people come back to the It’s a Wonderful Life well so often, which, I know I do, because I also have always appreciated that although it ends happily, literally with all of these townspeople shoved into one room and this little child with the ridiculous name saying how an angel got its wings. This man has gone through a journey where he has learned to appreciate his own life, but also that the world is terrible. George Bailey’s takeaway is the world is terrible. Thank God for the small, non-terrible things I happen to have and I think that’s crazy. That’s such a big, heavy thing to put on a Christmas movie, but maybe people love big heavy things.
KL: I will throw out another reference to something modern-day when we get to the end. You brought up Zuzu’s petals and the ending.
DC: Oh, yeah.
KL: There is a modern-day connection that, again, ruins this movie because when they say a line I respond with a different answer. We’ll get to that at the end. But Drea, you’re totally right. This is a movie that, Capra was best known for spouting a lot of – some call it rhetoric, others call it propaganda – but his movies all had a message about the US, specifically about the government. About the need to appreciate the little guy and the individual, especially in the face of this big machine. For Capra, going off of the movies that I’ve seen of his, there was no person more important than, and I’m going to say it and somebody is going to roll their eyes and immediately turn off this episode, there is no person more important than the lone white male.
Now, you might say that he was talking more about the lone person; I’m going to go with no more important than the lone white male, and that was very true coming out as he was, specially in the late ’40s. The war had just ended here in the US the year before and you are getting this collective desire to go back to a time that was safe and positive, while also simultaneously celebrating the future. Because the US have believed that they won the war. They were the clear victories of World War II. So you have a movie here, where George Bailey is a man with dreams and looks back on his life. You look back at this nostalgia of the early 1900s as this time of snow play and being able to live in your small town of Bedford Falls where everybody knows you. How that eventually changes as we age and how cynicism just eats away at us.
Really, the worst nightmare of Pottersville, at the end of this movie, is not necessarily that George Bailey’s family doesn’t recognize him. It’s that everybody’s become so cynical, and everybody’s become so apathetic that nobody wants to do a good turn for anybody. It’s really a different type of Christmas film because most Christmas movies that we’ve talked about, and we’ve talked about a lot of them on this podcast, end with remembering that family is the most important thing. And family is the most important thing of It’s a Wonderful Life, but family also brings with it the simplicity of the past, this idea that you are important, that you have autonomy, your life means something and that’s a great message to share. But in 1946, after the war, as these men are coming home to families that might be drastically different than when they left it’s comforting in its way. It had to be comforting, even though this movie made no money at the time. You’re right, Drea, it is a totally huge burden to put on what it amounts to a Christmas film.
DC: You positioning it historically is such an important thing for people to remember because it was Capra’s first movie after the war, where he went and served. Jimmy Stewart came home and ultimately he was released early with what he basically figured out was PTSD. It wasn’t in those terms because obviously they didn’t call it that, but the idea of a lot of the creative voices behind this looking at oh, let’s make this Christmas story, but also, we maybe the winning side but we are people who have gone through war in the very recent future and how that changes what people are bringing to the artistic table, and probably what they’re hoping for the takeaway to be. And I’m sure you guys could speak more to this, although obviously Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra had a very lucrative collaboration, two previous collaborations, that he was reticent to sign on to this.
Jimmy Stewart wanted to do something uplifting, and happy, and a comedy, and some wedging that mindset, and then Capra’s own recent experiences with the war. It all blends together to something that, if it was made in any other time, would be a very different movie. There’s a lot of things they would have left out of it. And also, I totally agree on Capra’s takes on the government and how he works things in. It is very funny to me that this film is still a film that in 2019 where the bankers, the Potter banker, is ultimate bad guy, right? And then it comes down to like home ownership and how the bank forecloses on things. All of these things that we’ve watched continue to play out for decades afterwards. Strangely, they didn’t get fixed. A banker’s an interesting villain to be putting into an American Christmas piece. T
SE: The time period has a lot to do with how the events play out and one of the reasons why this movie resonates with people today is because it is so relatable. We still face a lot of the same issues. A lot of the people today still feel the same way. Anybody who feels like maybe they’re not doing as well in life as they want to. Jimmy Stewart is so perfectly cast in this movie because he was the happy-go-lucky, all-American. To see his spirit broken in a film like this, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it means something to American audiences when they see that it’s a representation of America down on its knees. That’s such a powerful statement to make.
Frank Capra in particular, it’s funny because he had a lot of the same problems. He was an immigrant himself but he was actually pretty conservative. He relied very heavily on his actors, like Jimmy Stewart, and his writers, specifically, to be the idealists for him and that became a very lucrative relationship as Kristen touched on. It definitely became a lucrative relationship and also, as far as the notoriety of these films and the stage power of these films, all of Capra’s work, he was my favorite director for the longest time when I first started in classic cinema because a lot of his movies represent what classic cinema is to a large extent.
DC: Oh, definitely. The shape of it, how he makes us understand people at a certain time, and then the shape of his drama in that it has sentimentality but also grittiness. He’s a legend for a lot of reasons, but he’s lasted so long because it continues to resonate with people, the things that make him stand out versus there’s other people who are known for more artistic flair or known for things that aren’t as connective. What he does people respond to on a very human level.
KL: Well and at the same time, and I’ll be the resident cynic of the group, Capra’s films are something you either love or you hate. Most people have definitely a favorite Capra film and then there are certain ones where they’re just not really into him as a whole. If you look at his string of films in the early ’30s that he had. Stuff like Broadway Bill and then Mr. Deeds and It Happened One Night, Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith, Meet John Doe. I mean, those are films that have had such a lasting impact and they’re all really different genres, whether that’s screwball comedy, going into more dramatic comedy into drama. And they all deal with this concept of this hardened, usually a guy, having to come up with some type of idealism or change to their routine, whether that’s Peter Warne, Clark Gable’s character, and Claudette Colbert’s flighty woman who makes him realize that he wants to fall in love in It Happened One Night. Or Barbara Stanwyck’s very hardend character in Meet John Doe and the concept of suicide, how that’s dealt with in a very different way than this movie looks at suicide.
And then he took that very long break, as Drea was saying he went into the war, but it’s poignant that he would only direct a couple more times after It’s a Wonderful Life came out. He did documentaries, but his directorial career ended in ’61 with a film called Pocketful of Miracles. That’s telling that he got out of the game in the early ’60s, the studio system was collapsing. The ’60s, as we’d seen, would become very dark and very hopeless, and Capra just realized that the things that he wanted to talk about in films were fairy tales at that point. That there was no putting out a movie and changing hearts and minds, at least in his mind. And so it’s very interesting to talk to people about Capra because he’s always a director that people either love or they hate, or they like one thing and they don’t like anything else.
Capra’s always a very interesting personage to me, but we talked about Jimmy Stewart not being the first choice. The first choice was actually Henry Fonda, who was Jimmy Stewart’s best friend. Henry Fonda ended up turning this down to go film John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, which was probably the better choice. And Jean Arthur was actually asked to play the role of Mary but she wanted to do Broadway and so Capra went down the list of Olivia De Havilland, Ann Dvorak and Ginger Rogers. Ginger Rogers actually called the role of Mary very bland and didn’t want to take it before they ended up on Donna Reed, which is probably some of the like perfect casting right there. Can you guys see any of those names playing this movie or how they would have changed the tone of this film had they been cast?
DC: The idea of Henry Fonda versus Jimmy Stewart in a character like George Bailey; Henry Fonda to me simply realizes so much bleakness and darkness. He has aN inherent sadness to him that I don’t think Jimmy Stewart does. Jimmy Stewart is capable of unlocking that sadness but, do you know what I mean? Henry Fonda, as a persona, had so much more on his shoulders, to how I perceived him anyway. Seeing a George like that would make me very worried about the bookend of it, of like, Oh, yeah, this guy’s gonna jump. Don’t let him near this bridge, because he will be a-jumping. I don’t know if that also means that him coming back from things would have maybe felt even more like a recovery. But the Henry Fonda of it, because he seems less like a person who is just brought down by circumstances but someone who has raging demons, in a way that Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey it was external factors.
SE: Yeah, you make a great point. I didn’t even think about that. Number one, they both really embodied that everyman so, on the surface, it seems like they could possibly be interchanged in a role like this. To Drea’s point, and then I’m also going to say, Henry Fonda, that wrap up and a little bow ending would not have been enough for Henry Fonda. I would have been very worried about his mental health after the fact if Henry Fonda was in the role.
DC: Right? I would have been like, Oh, don’t cut away. Please show me that man going to work, supporting his family.
SE: Absolutely. And then on the point of the actresses in the role of Mary, it’s hard to say anything without dissing Donna Reed and I love her so I don’t want to do that. The role needed a fresh ingenue. It really did because if you put someone like Ginger Rogers, or Olivia Havilland, or Jean Arthur, they were all very smart, clever, hardened dame’s in a lot of their roles. In this kind of a part you wouldn’t believe that they would go be a meek librarian in a corner with glasses and become an old maid, especially not Jean Arthur. So I see the pairing of Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart again, but not in this movie.
KL: The casting of these two really work because they feel so all-American, which cannot be understated is the importance of this film at the time. You have the most all-American guy in JImmy Stewart, who played the little guy so well. And then you have Donna Reed, who only in hindsight, would come to personify the 1950s when she did The Donna Reed Show. Drea is totally right, I mean if you’ve seen some of Fonda’s noir work, even heard Jane Fonda herself talk about her dad; her dad had a darkness in him that I think you can always see behind his eyes even when he’s playing something very nice. It works. It works for both of them.
This is a movie that opens with pretty much undisputed belief that there is a God. Because we start out with the galaxies, or the stars, talking to themselves about sending Clarence down to intervene in the life of George Bailey. Sam is right on the money when she brings up that Capra was conservative because there’s a movie that pretty much says everything is set in stone: God exists, the little man is important, bankers are evil. Like those are the three truisms of this movie and if you’re not really on board with any of those things then you’re going to have a hard time with this film. But I find it to be a fun thing because a lot of early movies of the ’40s and into the ’50s would play with religion as just kind of like a bald-faced fact. Like watching Rita Hayworth in something like Down to Earth where they’re like, of course, the Greek muses are real. That’s undisputed.
That’s only to explain away the narration because over two hours of this movie is pretty standard presentation of George Bailey’s life. How do we feel about the fact that there’s this weird cosmic element that really doesn’t come to play until the final moments and so we have to explain away narration? I always feel that narration Is unnecessary and I think that what this movie does really well was accomplish a very legit need for narration.
DC: I agree. I love looking at the introduction of the angel as the vehicle for the narration itself; I hadn’t thought of it that way but that makes a lot of sense. I’m always fine with injecting a little magical realism, or a little fantasy, into most stories and this one, I thought that the handling of the angel is, other than the narration, bookending the story to prove the ultimate point of what this is about. But there’s a nice absence of heavy religion throughout the rest of it because apparently Capra had scenes of them praying.
There was a scene at one point completely shaped around them going through the Lord’s prayer and by having it just be this haphazard Angel. And I love the military or work rhetoric of this angel trying to move up its station and if it saves this person it gets to get wings. I liked it [that] the angel had something to gain as well. Could be an angel and identify it as much but we weren’t talking about God; we weren’t talking about the Bible. We weren’t talking about things that could either offend people who were deeply committed to them or push away people who had nothing to do with them at all. It was a nice, split balance.
SE: I agree with you for two reasons. Firstly, the post-Code era was very, very heavy on the religion, especially in Jimmy Stewart movies. As soon as you said that, that reminded me of one of my absolute favorite Jimmy Stewart movies, Come Live With Me which about half of it is taken up by the grandma who’s extremely religious and is spouting rhetoric through a lot of the movie and it ruins it for me. It would have driven modern audiences away, too, and that’s another thing that really talks about the staying power of this film. It’s because it doesn’t really lay it on thick with that idea. George builds up this mentality himself. He drives himself to the brink of destruction and then through this story, watching his life, or watching the lack thereof, he brings himself out of it. That’s really important.
DC: That’s a great point, that the idea of it’s his personal work that he’s doing. It’s speaking to the story that begins with him going to this bridge as if he’s going to jump and end things because it’s gotten so bad for him. We see his whole life and then we see the angel show him what all of those things would look like with him removed, if he had never been there and then it goes back to it. And then, ultimately, the angel doesn’t save him from jumping, instead, the angel, although we don’t know that, the angel jumps and George saves him.
And so it takes something that could have been this passive, magical happening and instead the onus is on George Bailey to kick into action to have all of the lessons that he’s learned in this world of survival, and also his genuine decency. That’s one of the defining characteristics is he’s a good guy and he’s often doing good things for people that backfire which gives you sympathy for him but also shapes his ultimate decision. Once again, he’s going to do something good and it’s going to bring about this enlightenment, which is lovely, because a lot of things when you introduce a magical character like this, they’re doing the heavy lifting and the fact that George is the one called to do it himself is a really nice twist to that.
KL: What I appreciate about this movie is, and I’m going to throw in a modern movie because I have to, if anybody’s seen Up, this movie has a lot of commonalities in that it tells the story of a person who has ambitions and dreams of their own and for some reason, whether that’s outside circumstances or really just personal choice, and we can talk about the role of free will in this movie, those dreams get delayed and those dreams become something that could turn into bitterness and resentment But they don’t.
So, case in point, George Bailey wants to leave Bedford Falls and travel the world but for various reasons, whether that’s his dad dying, or he wants to get married, or the savings and loan falls apart, he doesn’t. He, in turn, elevates his brother Harry, who becomes this college football star, and goes to war and comes back as a decorated hero. Never at any point, even when he has this breakdown with his family and wishes he’s never been born, does he resent making those decisions. He resents that they have not turned out to be successful, but up until a certain point he doesn’t regret making them which is something that we don’t see in films today; you always see regret for the choices not made. Here it’s more of just the melancholy of the things that he didn’t do and the appreciation of the things that he did do.
George Bailey is almost godlike in his status as a savior figure. He saves his brother from drowning; he saves that unknown little child who could have consumed poison. There’s this concept of, not like the Wizard of Oz, where the Wizard of Oz is like “you never actually need to leave your house. What you need is right here.” This is saying that if you don’t leave your neighborhood it’s okay because you’ve still made something special that could have only happened because you exist.
DC: I really like all of that and I was going to add to it by saying something else that sets this story apart and could all be put in this giant bag we’re creating full of reasons why this film has lasted. There’s something about the concept that everything happens for a reason that means so much to people because there can be a lot of blame with that. It’s an idea that in your darkest hour you’re like, “why would I deserve this” [and] being able to find comfort from it. In It’s a Wonderful Life, as you mentioned, the idea that he has hearing loss because he saved his brother’s life and, later on, he has a chip on his shoulder because he couldn’t serve in the military because of his hearing loss and then his brother became this decorated hero.
Well, what’s shown to him is that being angry or resentful or bitter, whatever it is about your own inability to serve in that way, you still indirectly led to the saving of all of these lives because if you hadn’t done this for your brother he wouldn’t have been able to do it. For these others people, the idea of a causality of life, that things will add up in ways that you don’t see, there is a hope and optimism that comes with that because if you can think that even the bad things you’re involved with or the good things, that the choices you’re making are branching off beyond what you’re even able to understand, that you’re being helpful. That’s a lovely takeaway to have in a dark moment and it’s so much bigger, and more sophisticated, and layered than just good things happen to good people. That complexity within the story is woven in really well. It’s also, like you said, with the chemist; he not only saved the child’s life, but in this future version with knowing him, that people died because of this chemist, the drug store mix up, and also the chemist went to prison. It’s integrated in the story in a nice way. It’s such a great thesis that can move people
KL: To bring up what you were saying about the nature of religion in classic film. I’m not a hugely religious person, but I appreciate how studio era filmmaking could talk about religious topics. There is a whole genre of Bible epics and movies about God. One of my favorite Christmas movies, ironically to watch, is the Song of Bernadette, which is a movie that makes no ifs, ands, or buts about the nature of God existing and religion having some bearing in life. What this movie does, and a lot of the movies do but I think this one does it so skillfully, is that you can take it as a religious item or not. It’s what I was saying about free will and choice. Does George Bailey have a choice? Have these choices in his life Been the result of his own free will and autonomy or was God and Clarence and all of them making those choices for him? You can read the movie either way.
DC: I’m chiming in only because can you? To me, the idea that we can see two different versions tells me that it is free will. You can choose to do all sorts of things, but all of your choices will have a whole series of reactions to them. That’s funny, I just thought that the free will was cooked into it. I’ll have to think on that, Kristen.
KL: Maybe I’m wrong. That’s the thing, I feel like we need to have one of those theorists that talks about freewill versus preordained, or one of those people that thinks that life is a simulation to, like, explain how we’re completely wrong. Interesting that you can read the movie from a religious bent or not. This movie is one of the few films actually released in the month of December; it was released December 20th of 1946. That does not happen that you get a Christmas movie released in the month of December. You barely get Halloween movies released in October. Nowadays, a movie like this, in 2019, would probably be released in, what, March?
DC: It would come out right before Halloween.
SE: It’s funny that you mentioned that because even back then one of the most famous Christmas movies of all-time, Miracle on 34th Street, had a May release.
SE: It did, May 2nd, 1947.
DC: That’s just weird.
SE: It is. It makes no sense to me. I don’t agree with Kristen in the sense that now they’ve improved it a little bit. The one with Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding coming out….
DC: Last Christmas.
SE: Last Christmas is coming out in December. They’re getting a little better, you know.
KL: It came out in November.
SE: Okay, well, but it’s not May. Like at least Frozen 2 came out in November and not May.
KL: Give it time. Give it time. But no, you’re totally right and it brings the point that I was going to bring, which was I watched the trailer for this movie, the original trailer from 1946. This was not a commercial success upon release. It went into wide release January 7th of ’47 and it was number 26 in box office revenues for 1947, that was out of more 400 features, it was one ahead of Miracle on 34th Street. It was supposed to be released in January but they moved it up to December to make it eligible for the Academy Awards which probably was a bad move because, as we’ll talk about in a second, it got trounced by a lot of stiff competition in 1946. But this was a huge box office loss for RKO, which was a powerful studio because it had Howard Hughes but it was not a big studio that was safe from a box office loss. It lost $525,000 at the box office, and Capra was very disillusioned when it came out and failed because he had put a lot of himself into it.
The reviews were good, but they weren’t great. Bosley Crowther for the New York Times really didn’t like how it was very optimistic but bland. He thought that it was very theatrical for the attitudes that it was showing. And if you watch the trailer it is a totally weird hodgepodge of emotions. It plays up the actors more than anything. The scene where they fall in the swimming pool, it’s like, “you’ll want to dive in with these actors” and you’re just like, “Wait, what?” It’s a two-minute trailer and spends a minute telling you who’s in the movie, then it plays up the romance between Mary and George. And it doesn’t say it’s a Christmas movie and it doesn’t show the last 20 minutes, which is fine; you don’t need to show the last 20 minutes. But it does not sell itself as a Christmas movie. It sells itself as any other generic romantic drama. It doesn’t even tell you a time period. It is the most bad marketing campaign for a classic film.
SE: That brings up a really interesting point. I’m going to combine that information with what we were just discussing about Miracle on 34th Street being released in May. Did they really market Christmas movies back then like we do now? Was that even a genre to celebrate or advertise?
KL: I’ve seen the trailer and I think you can listen to it in the episode we did on Christmas in Connecticut. That movie plays up that it’s a Christmas movie.
KL: Up until, what is it, the last half hour of this film which takes place on Christmas it’s one of those age old question when we talk about like Meet Me in St. Louis has become a Christmas movie, even though the Christmas part takes place towards the end of the movie. The Sound of Music is a Christmas movie and it doesn’t even actually have anything to do with Christmas. There’s this weird thing with Christmas movies where we have these clear parameters of what defines them or not and, really, for over an hour and a half of this movie it doesn’t take place on Christmas. The question almost begs asking, what defines this as a Christmas movie? Is it purely the last half hour? And if so, is that what you would have based a marketing campaign on? I don’t know.
SE: I was having a conversation earlier today because I saw Meet Me in St. Louis. This one in particular, to paraphrase Jeremy Arnold who wrote the TCM book on Christmas movies, a lot of the Christmas criteria is how a movie makes you feel about families and relationships, and it’s more of an emotion than anything. And then in addition to that It’s a Wonderful Life has that as well as a lot of winter motifs, of course, the last 20 minutes, but it’s obvious that in the scene where he’s saving his brother that’s during winter, and then there’s the angel that comes in, a lot of people put angels on the top of their Christmas trees. Beginning to end, I get the Christmas spot vibe but to your point, maybe it’s because that’s been ingrained in our mind for 50 years since this was first played on TV.
DC: It also probably speaks to some of the studio’s confidence or lack thereof if you’re releasing this in May. It’s not like they had five films a weekend like we do now. That’s a whole thing, I’m sure someone could write a whole book as to this. But I do like the idea that this has a trailer that doesn’t even mention Christmas knowing what we know about this film now and how it’s been viewed.
KL: The only Christmas connection is they play “Auld Lang Syne.”
DC: That’s a New Year’s song, isn’t it?
[Sam and Kristen laugh]
KL: George Bailey goes through all this stuff. He has gone through the ringer of life and it all culminates with his uncle, Billy, played by Thomas Mitchell, Sam’s best friend.
SE: I was telling Drea before we started recording that I would be remiss if I did not mention Thomas Mitchell. I was waiting for that moment but continue.
KL: Uncle Billy ends up losing $80,000 of the bank’s money. It turns out that Mr. Potter, because he is evil with capital E, has stolen it. It ended up in a newspaper and he just didn’t let anybody know about it. George assumes that the bank is going to close, he’s going to be arrested, everything is going to go bad. It is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He has this huge breakdown with his family and ends up on that bridge prepped to jump, to make the wish that he was never born and proceeds to go through a litany of moments where he realizes what would have happened. We’ve talked about people outright dying and Mary becomes the town librarian. Gloria Grahame’s character, who we have not talked about, the lovely town cutie – that’s what we’re going to call her – Violet becomes a prostitute? Is that what we’re saying? Becomes a prostitute right?
SE: Very flirtatious, let’s just say that. She’s got her best dress on strutting down Main Street.
DE: [interjects] Yes, prostitute, yes.
KL: Yeah, we’re just gonna say she’s a prostitute. He comes to the grand realization that he does need to be alive. As somebody watching this now, you need that two hours of setup. You need to see George Bailey succeed and then fail, and then succeed and fail; the two steps, forward three steps back. What people watching this in 2019 would say that makes it probably feel hokey is that George Bailey’s never starving, but his failures would never necessarily result in him and his family being put out on the street. He thinks of the greater good, which is how it’s going to affect the town and how it’s going to affect people that aren’t him. Maybe that says more to our thinking nowadays than anything else. I do like that.
You have all of that setup so that you get that gut punch. It’s very similar to the reveal of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, almost. So you need this buildup in order to make all of that effective. The biggest gut punch is that Harry Bailey died because George wasn’t there to save him. He gets his hearing back but also his brother probably drowned. That’s the moment where it’s just like, oh, okay. You need Harry as that shining star, that hope for the future in order to make it all worthwhile.
DC: The Pottersville version of Bedford Falls, which is this dark, bleak place without George Bailey, there’s something at the end that Pottersville has been there all along and always will be. You can bring about positivity in your life and other people’s lives but also, and it ties back to Kristen’s original thought of this film with this white man as the central figure in a fulcrum of the story. he’s had the veil taken from his eyes. Him seeing this Pottersville version of it, when he gets his hope back and he saves him and he goes home and then all of these people come forward, that’s still there; he still knows that that darkness and those other lives were possible and will continue to be possible for these people. I’ve sort of gone in tangent because I really enjoy thinking of the darkness of Pottersville, but only because it keeps me from thinking about how my true villain of this piece is Uncle Billy, the idiot who can’t keep track of $10,000 cold cash. Samantha might have more on that though.
SE: [laughs] Before you said that, I was going to come in with this movie could actually be really construed in a political way. It’s really hard to talk about this movie without discussing politics because you have someone whose essentially corrupt and then you have the underdog, the everyman, the idealist, who is the David versus Goliath. He spent so much of his life basically trying to take down this one guy in one way or another and then without him he just wins. He realizes that that fight’s an important fight and, in a way, you could almost consider this a sequel to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington if you remove some parts because it’s the same mentality. That’s a theme that I think is concurrent in a lot of Capra films.
Now, on the topic of Thomas Mitchell, I have nothing to say. I see what you’re saying, I do think that one mistake on Uncle Billy’s part results in a lot of the reason why he wants to commit suicide. George, I mean. One thing that I want to point out, as far as this movie goes, I do want to start out by saying Thomas Mitchell is like the apple of my eye, I love him. He’s one of my favorite supporting actors of all time. But just before entering Hollywood, Thomas Mitchell, a life-long drinker became sober. That’s really powerful in comparison to a film like this; he played a lot of drunks in his career while sober. That’s just mind-blowing to think about, especially when a drunk man’s choices result in all of these things happening. I don’t know, I feel bad for entering that somber factoid but it’s crazy to think about, what Thomas Mitchell is going through when he’s playing characters under the influence.
DC: I can’t believe you’re making me sympathetic. I have been annoyed by Billy for so long, for decades. And yes, that’s beautiful. I didn’t know that.
SE: I know. I know. I’ve done a lot of research about him and when I saw that fact I was blown away and that doesn’t come up much. I don’t really think about it a whole lot but when we think about this particular character it strikes a chord with me.
KL: That Christmas Carol ending that Drea was saying, where he’s happy to be alive, Harry Bailey comes back, and the whole meaning of no one is a failure who has friends but Zuzu, Zuzu’s petals; the petals that she wanted him to stick back on the flower that he didn’t have when he was wishing he wasn’t alive because she was never born [and] her cute declaration that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. Zuzu seems to be the character that a lot of people who watch this movie always seem to have a problem with. The little girl who does play Zuzu, Karolyn Grimes, is still with us. People either love or hate Zuzu and her cute declaration at the end of this movie. She gets the last words. I get why you need the “out of the mouths of babes” ending. Is it a little too cutesy of a message to go out on?
DC: I can’t imagine watching this film and then having the energy and ill-will to think poorly of a child’s dialogue. Come on!
SE: This is probably an unnecessary take. I don’t really care. It’s a good movie overall and if it wasn’t there it would be fine. Now that it’s there, it’s fine. The perfect comparison to me is Tiny Tim say, “Merry Christmas, everyone” at the end of A Christmas Carol. It’s the same thing.
KL: We do not have time for me to talk about Tiny Tim, a character that I despise.
SE: I met Karolyn Grimes this year and she’s a sweetheart, and she rang the little bell for me. She had one at her booth, it was at a convention. She had one at her booth and she did the..it was adorable. I guess in that sense I’m biased, I can take it or leave it.
KL: Karolyn Grimes was pitching, it was the weirdest spate of time, I don’t know if anybody else remembers it, but there were issues with copyright with this movie. So, this was released by Liberty Films; it was purchased by Paramount until the mid-’50s. That included syndication, the nitrate, the music score, and the film rights to the story on which the film is based, which is a very brief short story called The Greatest Gift. But there was a clerical error that prevented the copyright from being renewed in ’74. Because of that, TV stations that aired it had to pay royalties, but the film, it was restricted but I guess the copyright to The Greatest Gift was still open. There are some weird copyRight Stuff that happened. Republic pictures in the early 90s, which is what was the successor to the studio, tried to enforce this claim to the copyright because it hadn’t been renewed. They still own the rights to The Greatest Gift. There was a lot of issues between them and Paramount.
Regardless, it led to this discussion five or six years ago of a sequel. They had been talking about doing a sequel in the early ’90s. There was a sequel in the 1990s, it was a made-for-TV film called Clarence that had Robert Carradine as the angel. But this was the first time it had been talked about, doing a remake. There had been remakes in the late ’70s as more TV movies. Karolyn Grimes came out and said that they were going to do a sequel, continuation called It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story. It had a script and it was going to follow George Bailey’s daughter, Zuzu, as she teaches, quote, “George Bailey’s evil grandson how different the world would have been if he had never been born.” And this was 2014-2015 and they were looking at directors; they were going to shoot this very small $25 to $35 million movie. Somebody told Karolyn Grimes “you don’t actually have the rights to do any of that.” It just disappeared into the ether. Paramount came out and said, “As far as we know, no one has the legal right to make any continuation of the story except for us.” I remember that being a huge deal when it happened. Does anybody else remember this?
SE: I don’t.
DC: I remember about it going into public domain at one point. Doing a remake to this would be as horrifying as Texasville, the remake to The Last Picture Show which was years later and had lost the complete tone and thread. Leave well enough alone, find a new story. Also, since the little synopsis you read is basically the summary line of this movie, no, find a new point.
SE: The rights issues with It’s a Wonderful Life are pretty much legendary. The first thing that you hear after hearing the title is ‘Oh, yeah, that’s been tied up in rights issues for decades, somehow was miraculously screened on TV and became a classic.’ And then now it’s tied up with NBC. The greatest tragedy of the whole situation is that it isn’t and will never be on TCM, that’s a bummer because I feel like TCM could really do this film justice with its intros, bring some people back to discuss it. They could do a lot with it, but they don’t have the chance, instead, it’s shown with commercials on NBC.
KL: This was, again, pulled forward into 1946 so that it qualified for the Oscars, which probably, again, was not a very good idea because it went up against some serious heavy hitters. It was nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture. Jimmy Stewart for Best Lead Actor, Frank Capra for Best Director, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing. Now, in case you were curious, Jimmy Stewart was in a group that included Laurence Olivier for Henry V; Larry Parks for The Jolson Story, again that nostalgia for the turn-of-the-century; Gregory Peck for The Yearling, Drea’s boo; and the winner was Fredric March for The Best Years of Our Lives. Yeah, I love The Best Years of Our Lives but hate Fredric March.
But Best Years of Our Lives ended up pretty much doing boffo business, not surprising because the war had just ended the year before. Best Picture that year was pretty similar: Henry V, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Yearling, Sam’s boo Tyrone Power in The Razor’s Edge…
SE: Heck, yeah! [laughs]
KL: The winner was The Best Years of Our Lives. 1946 was a stellar year for content You weren’t ever going to win over a big war story that talked about the boys coming home. That was pretty much a foregone conclusion, so whoever made that decision to put it in ’46 probably got fired.
SE: I wonder how it would have done in ’47? I don’t have a list in front of me. Also, talk about preachy movies, The Razor’s Edge. Just saying.
KL: If they had been nominated in 1948 Jimmy Stewart would have had to go up [with] William Powell in Life with Father, Michael Redgrave in Mourning Becomes Elektra, Drea’s boo Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement, and John Garfield was nominated that year for Body and Soul, I forgot about that. And the winner of that year was Ronald Coleman for A Double Life. Does anybody remember that movie?
SE: See, I’m not trying to kiss up to Drea here, but Gregory Peck should probably have won.
DC: Why, thank you, Sam! I agree!
KL: Best picture that year if It’s a Wonderful Life had been included. There were actually two previous Christmas movies that were nominated for Best Picture in 1948, that was Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop’s Wife. The other nominees were Great Expectations, Crossfire, and the winner was the movie the stars both Drea and my love’s, Gentlemen’s Agreement.
DC: I don’t know if releasing that movie a year later would have changed its Oscars stuff as much.
SE: Oh, definitely not, no. Maybe Jimmy would have had a shot at Best Actor but it definitely wouldn’t have won Best Picture because it was up against Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop’s Wife, that would have just been a Christmas extravaganza.
KL: I was gonna say, I don’t think they would have gone for three Christmas movies at that point, that would have just been too much. Overall thoughts on It’s a Wonderful Life; I’ve changed on it. It is a worthwhile film. It’s probably Capra at his most controlled, in terms of what he likes to talk about, and Jimmy Stewart’s really good. I don’t know what John Oliver’s talking about but this is one of his de facto roles.
SE: It’s a very relevant film. You have to be in a particular state of mind and a particular state of heart to watch it. It’s for a pretty specific crowd but it means that much more. So relevant, it discusses a lot of issues that we still face, a lot of the personalities are similar, and it’s that Capra idealism that I, personally, just love. It has all of those things going for it. But if anybody is going to come for Jimmy Stewart we’re going to have some problems, this movie included because he just gives a magnificent performance and shows that he was one of the greatest actors, not one of the worst actors.
DC: This movie is one that can bridge a lot of people into classic film. It does that every year in the way that, like everything we’ve talked about, what it’s doing underneath the depths, in terms of darkness and personal exploration, it’s a great film. It is a specific taste for a specific time. One of the reasons knowing it’s going to be playing at this time of year, or when nights are longer, when it’s a little colder, this is a film for me. I would not want to watch this film in May, when it was released, for this time of the year, absolutely.
KL: Send us your thoughts on Jimmy Stewart, Frank Capra. It’s a Wonderful Life, Christmas movies in general. You can email your thoughts to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll read them on the next episode. Once again, I’d like to thank my co-hosts Samantha Ellis and Drea Clark for joining me today, Sam, where can fans find you, get in touch with you online, read your writing.
SE: My blog is at musingsofaclassicfilmaddict.com, don’t have much going on with that right now but you should see some really great things in the coming year. I have my monthly column over at Classic Movie Hub. This month I whipped up Lucille Ball’s apple-john that I got from a vintage Christmas magazine, and I get to talk about her life and career. And you can follow me on twitter @classicfilmgeek.
KL: And Drea Clark, what about you?
DC: I talk about contemporary films on my podcast Who Shot Ya and I’m online at Twitter @theDreaClark.
KL: I’m on Twitter @journeys_film. You can also head over to my blog, JourneysinClassicFilm.com where I am doing a 25 Days of Christmas, lot of old content but I will be reviewing in the coming days Olive Films new Blu-ray of The Bells of St. Mary’s, as well as Kino’s release of The Holly and the Ivy on Blu-ray, so those will be up there. Of course, you should be following the podcast on twitter @ticklish_biz. We are doing four weeks of Christmas, three or four weeks, depends on how many prizes I have to give. We just gave away two different Blu-ray prize packs and we’re going to be giving out another prize. Those are going to be announced on Sundays between now and the end of December. The winners will be picked on the following Sunday. So if you missed out on the movie contest, head over to our Twitter and see what we’re giving away this week.
That’s going to close out this edition of Ticklish Business. You can listen to Ticklish Business a multitude of different ways, either directly at ticklishbusiness.podbean.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. Consider helping us out by leaving a rating and review on your site of choice. Do you want to hear about upcoming episodes or hear exclusive content before anyone else? Then consider supporting Ticklish Business via Patreon. We have a wealth of amazing perks, all your donations go right back into the show. Patrons right now can get special pins as well as access to my bonus supplementary shows that I do, and we are going to have a lot of interviews coming up over the holiday; I have at least four that are really awesome that will only be up there, maybe one will be released after the new year but a lot of stuff’s going to be exclusive. We do have pins and I’m still contemplating more stuff to add up there. So 2020 is going to be really awesome and you can get in on the ground floor by heading over to patreon.com/ticklishbiz.
This is our last new episode of the year. You will be able to listen to some exclusive Patreon content between now and the end of 2019 but we will be back January 15th to talk about the movies that we discovered in 2019 that we love. So we’d like to wish everybody a safe and happy holiday and we will see you all again in 2020.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.