It Happened One Night. You Can’t Take It With You. Mr Smith Goes To Washington. By all accounts the ’30s were a pretty decent decade for Frank Capra.
By the next decade, however, the man was making government-financed propaganda films.
Whilst they were considered the best of their type, Capra itched to return to his populist roots.
So, as World War Two drew to its close and he was sent The Greatest Gift – a 1943 story by Civil War historian Philip Van Doren Stern – Capra leapt at the chance.
According to the director, this 4,000-word fantasy, which the author had had printed on 200 Christmas cards after being unable to find a publisher, was “the story I had been looking for all my life.”
“My father sparked to [it] immediately,” reveals Capra’s son, Frank Jr.
“He said it was such a strong, powerful notion for a movie. And he ended up putting his heart and soul into it.”
“In a sense it epitomised everything I had been trying to say in my other films,” recalled the director shortly before his 1991 demise.
“It said so much about the importance of the individual and how no man is a failure.”
Erm, apart from Michael Wilson, Dalton Trumbo and Clifford Odets, that is: each being hired by RKO to have a crack at the screenplay, only to see their work unceremoniously passed on to Capra along with the rights.
Given Odets’ Leftie sympathies and Trumbo and Wilson’s subsequent blacklisting, it’s tempting to interpret venal banker Henry F Potter (Lionel Barrymore) as their swipe at the evils of capitalism.
Not so, says Capra Jr. “The Trumbo and Odets scripts were never used,” he tells totalfilm.com.
“My father did most of the writing himself.” Not without reason, one of Odets’ dubious innovations being a Superman 3-style scrap between the ‘good’ George Bailey and his ‘bad’ doppelgänger. [page-break]
Having hired husband-and-wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett to brush up the dialogue, Capra turned his attention to casting.
Top of his wishlist was James Stewart; an actor who’d spent his last four years in the air force and was reluctant to return to thesping so quickly.
“Jimmy needed a little persuading,” says Capra Jr. “On set he would say he didn’t want to be an actor any more and that he might go help his dad run his hardware store.
But I have seen my father’s notes and there was only one name for George. And when my dad started to tell him the story, Jimmy said,‘I’m your boy.’”
Shot in the middle of a heatwave in summer 1946 on a built-from-scratch Bedford Falls set spanning four acres of the RKO backlot, the film was a costly investment for Capra’s nascent Liberty Films outfit.
Alas, It’s A Wonderful Life had a relatively short one in cinemas, doing respectable but far from spectacular business before vanishing into the ether.
In fact, the film’s subsequent popularity has more to do with a legal oversight – some berk forgot to renew the copyright – that saw it fall into the public domain in the ’70s.
Repeated ad nauseam on US television, it swiftly became a holiday staple.
“People would ask my father if he was unhappy about not owning it,” says the director’s son. “He would say, ‘Not at all.’ He loved to see it shown and played and enjoyed by audiences old and new.”
The film’s lacklustre performance, however, had one unfortunate side-effect: the enforced sale of Liberty Films to Paramount in 1949.
“For the first time, the ‘one man, one film’ apostle became an employed contract director taking orders,” rued Capra in his autobiography The Name Above The Title.
“It was the beginning of my end as a social force in films...”