Monday, February 29, 2016

The Fallacy of It's a Wonderful Life

Have you ever heard the phrase "if it's too good to be true it probably is"? It turns out that the same idea may be applied to It's a Wonderful Life. And it was done in the name of publicity.

Several nationwide newspaper articles recalling interesting stories about the making of It’s a Wonderful Life were published prior to the film’s release to spark interest in the public. One of these stories was about the party held at the Bailey house to celebrate Harry’s homecoming and wedding.

In the scene, an intoxicated Uncle Billy walks away from the party singing “My Wild Irish Rose” (The lyrics for the song can be found at the end of this section). From off-screen, we hear what sounds like Uncle Billy walking full-force into a number of trash cans and knocking them over. Uncle Billy yells, “I’m alright, I’m alright!” News accounts from the set claim that as the scene was being filmed, a dozing electrician accidentally knocked over a stack of props, which sounded like trash cans being knocked over. The electrician expected to be fired, but Capra was so happy with the accidental result that he gave the electrician a ten dollar bonus for “improving sound and characterization.” This story appeared the following day in newspapers around the country, including the July 19, 1946 issue of the Toledo, Ohio Blade (Basinger 31).

There is debate about whether this story is true:

“Whether this really happened or simply was the product of a publicist’s imagination, it helped to keep people thinking about Frank Capra’s new film” (Basinger 31).

In her book, Basinger also allows that readers may find contradictory information in other texts about the film: “Other archives, other files, may contain contradictory material; like all the great Hollywood films, It’s a Wonderful Life is surrounded by press agentry and planted stories as well as by legendary tales that embellish the facts” (Basinger x).

One of these contradictory stories concerns what may be the most famous scene in the film. The phone scene, in which George and Mary realize their love for each other, carries with it a legendary story that has manifested into the truth. Several sources indicate that the scene was filmed in one take. In an interview, Jimmy Stewart said, “we did that scene. . .in one great, unrehearsed take’’ (Basinger 84). Even the "Making of It’s a Wonderful Life" segment on the 50th anniversary release of the film indicates that it was shot in one take. According to Tom Bosley, who narrates the segment, when the scene was shot, Capra was very excited about the result. However, the script girl said that Stewart and Donna Reed, who played Mary (Hatch) Bailey, had missed a whole page of dialogue. To this, Capra reportedly replied, “With technique like that, who needs dialogue! Print it!”

Here it is in the movie trailer. The portion in question begins around 1:20, if you don't want to watch the entire trailer:

It should be noted, however, that this scene was, in fact not filmed in one take. In the film, George says, “I want to do what I want to do,” placing emphasis on the second “I.” However, the film’s trailer depicts the same scene, in which George states “I want to do what I want to do,” placing emphasis on the repeated word “do.” The stress on words is different, the words muttered before the statement are muttered differently, and the camera angle is completely different.

While the first take may have been used in the film, there is no documentation of that. However, the scene could not have been shot in one take as many sources, including Stewart himself, have claimed.

Even Capra’s claims about very early work on both Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, have come under scrutiny.

Journalist and author Jonathan Coe questions Capra’s report of his own actions upon reading the script for It’s a Wonderful Life, (still under the title The Greatest Gift at the time) which Capra described as “the story I had been looking for all my life.” Coe, who comes down hard on Capra throughout his book, comments parenthetically of Capra’s recollection, “(again, if his own account of events is to be believed)” (Coe 79).


Basinger, Jeanine (in Collaboration with the trustees of the Frank Capra Archives), Interviews by
              Leonard Maltin. The It’s a Wonderful Life Book. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1996.

Coe, Jonathan. Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1994.

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