Director: Frank Capra
Production: Liberty Films; black and white, 35mm; running time: 129 minutes. Released 1946 by RKO/Radio.
Producer: Frank Capra; screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Frank Capra with additional scenes by Jo Swerling, from the story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Doren Stern; photography: Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc; editor: William Hornbeck; sound: Richard Van Hessen, Clem Portman, and John Aalberg; art director: Jack Okey; music: Dmitri Tiomkin; special effects: Russell A. Cully; costume designer: Edward Stevenson.
Cast: James Stewart ( George Bailey ); Donna Reed ( Mary Hatch ); Lionel Barrymore ( Mr. Potter ); Thomas Mitchell ( Uncle Billy ); Henry Travers ( Clarence ); Beulah Bondi ( Mrs. Bailey ); Gloria Grahame ( Violet Bick ); H. B. Warner ( Mr. Gower ); Ward Bond ( Bert ); Frank Faylan ( Ernie ); Samuel S. Hinds ( Pa Bailey ); Mary Treen ( Cousin Tilly ); Frank Hagney ( Bodyguard ); Sheldon Leonard ( Nick ); Alfalfa Switzer ( Freddie ).
Goodrich, Frances, and others, in The "It's a Wonderful Life" Book , edited by Jeanine Basinger, New York, 1986.
Griffith, Richard, Frank Capra , London, 1951.
Jones, Ken, D., The Films of James Stewart , New York, 1970.
Capra, Frank, The Name above the Title , New York, 1971.
Silke, James, Frank Capra: One Man—One Film , Washington, D.C., 1971.
Willis, Donald, The Films of Frank Capra , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1974.
Thompson, Howard, James Stewart , New York, 1974.
Glatzer, Richard, and John Raeburn, editors, Frank Capra: The Man and His Films , Ann Arbor, 1975.
Poague, Leland, The Cinema of Frank Capra , New York, 1975.
Scherle, Victor, and William Levy, The Films of Frank Capra , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1975.
Malard, Charles J., American Visions: The Films of Chaplin, Ford, Capra, and Welles , New York, 1977.
Bohnenhamp, Dennis, and Sam Grogg, Frank Capra Study Guide , Washington, D.C., 1979.
Malard, Charles, Frank Capra , Boston, 1980.
Giannetti, Louis, Masters of the American Cinema , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1981.
Eyles, Allen, James Stewart , London, 1984.
Hunter, Allan, James Stewart , New York, 1985.
Robbins, Jhan, Everybody's Man: A Biography of Jimmy Stewart , New York, 1985.
Zagarrio, Vito, Frank Capra , Florence, 1985.
Ray, Robert B., A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema 1930–80 , Princeton, 1985.
Carney, Raymond, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra , Cambridge, 1986.
Wolfe, Charles, Frank Capra: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1987.
McBride, Joseph, American Madness: The Life of Frank Capra , New York, 1989.
Lourdeaux, Lee, Italian & Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra, Coppola & Scorsese , Springfield, 1993.
Gehring, Wes D., Populism and the Capra Legacy , Westport, Connecticut, 1995.
Hawkins, Jimmy, It's a Wonderful Life: The Anniversary Scrapbook , Philadelphia, 1996.
Hawkins, Jimmy, It's a Wonderful Life Trivia , New York, 1997. Thomas, Tony, A Wonderful Life: The Films and Career of James Stewart , Secaucus, 1997.
Girus, Sam B., Hollywood Renaissance: The Cinema of Democracy in the Era of Ford, Capra, and Kazan , Cambridge, 1998.
Sklar, Robert, editor, Frank Capra: Authorship and the Studio System , Philadelphia, 1998.
Quirk, Lawrence J., James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life , New York, 1999.
New York Times , 23 December 1946.
Variety (New York), 25 December 1946.
Parsons, L. Q., in Cosmopolitan (New York), January 1947.
Mannock, P. L., in Films and Filming (London), September 1956.
Price, James, "Capra and the American Dream," in London Magazine , January 1964.
Sweigart, William R., "James Stewart," in Films in Review (New York), December 1964.
"Capra Issue" of Positif (Paris), December 1971.
Handzo, Stephen, "A Decade of Good Deeds and Wonderful Lives: Under Capracorn," in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1972.
Richards, Jeffrey, "Frank Capra and the Cinema of Populism," in Cinema (London), February 1970.
Bergman, Mark, "The Telephone Company, the Nation, and Perhaps the World," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), Winter 1971–72.
Richards, Jeffrey, "Frank Capra: The Classic Populist," in Visions of Yesterday , London, 1973.
Sklar, Robert, "The Making of Cultural Myths: Walt Disney and Frank Capra," in Movie-Made American , New York, 1975.
Rose, B., "It's a Wonderful Life: The Stand of the Capra Hero," in Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), vol. 6, no. 2, 1977.
Wood, Robin, "Ideology, Genre, Auteur," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1977.
Quart, Leonard, "Frank Capra and the Popular Front," in Cineaste (New York), Summer 1977.
Phelps, G. A., "The 'Populist' Films of Frank Capra," in Journal of American Studies (London), no. 3, 1979.
Scheer, R., "Double Vision: TV Remakes Frank Capra," in Journal of Popular Film (Washington, D.C.), 1980.
Dickstein, M., "It's a Wonderful Life, But," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1980.
Silverman, K., in Framework (Norwich), Spring 1981.
"Capra Issue" of Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), Winter 1981.
"Capra Issue" of Positif (Paris), July-August 1982.
Rodrig, A., in Cinématographe (Paris), December 1983.
Ahrlich, Evelyn, "Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett," in American Screenwriters , edited by Robert E. Morsberger, Stephen O. Lesser, and Randall Clark, Detroit, 1984.
Weinberger, M., in Cinéma (Paris), January 1984.
Napoleon, D., "Wonderful Life: Broadway Bound," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1986.
Film Comment (New York), November-December 1986.
Raynes, Doug, " It's a Wonderful Life ," in Soundtrack! , vol. 8, no. 29, March 1989.
Rothman, William, "Hollywood and the Rise of Suburbia," in East-West Film Journal (Honolulu), vol. 3, no. 2, June 1989.
Lamm, R., "Can We Laugh at God? Apocalyptic Comedy in Film," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 19, no. 2, Summer 1991.
Gordon, A., "You'll Never Get Out of Bedford Falls! The Inescapable Family in American Science Fiction and Fantasy Films," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 20, no. 2, Summer 1992.
Diski, Jenny, "Curious Tears," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 2, no. 4, August 1992.
Gysin, C., "The Real George Bailey," in Premiere (Boulder), vol. 6, January 1993.
Magny, Joël, "La vie est belle : Frank Capra," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), Hors-série, 1993.
Clements, M., "My Technology's Turnaround," in Premiere (Boulder), vol. 8, November 1994.
Nicolaï, M., "Les anges du ciné," in Télérama (Paris), no. 2345, 21 December 1994.
Herwitz, D., "Expectations of Mastery," in Spectator (Los Angeles), vol. 16, no. 2, 1996.
Fallows, Randall, "George Bailey is the Vital Center: Postwar Liberal Politics and It's a Wonderful Life ," in Journal of Popular Film & Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 25, no. 2, Summer 1997.
Alter, J., "It's a Wonderful Legacy," in Newsweek , vol. 130, 14 July 1997.
Deneen, P.J., "George Bailey's Secret Life," in Commonweal , vol. 124, 19 December 1997.
* * *
When Frank Capra returned to Hollywood after coordinating the Why We Fight propaganda series during the war, he resumed the total artistic control over his films for which he had fought during the 1930s. It's a Wonderful Life was made for Liberty Films, the production company organized by Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler and Sam Briskin. The film exemplifies the concept of the independent producer-director, and Capra has called it his favorite film. In the year of its release its importance was overshadowed by Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (not made for Liberty Films), but it has since gone on to be one of the most frequently revived of Capra's works.
The impetus and structure of It's a Wonderful Life recall the familiar model of Capra's pre-war successes. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe . In each of these films, the hero represents a civic ideal and is opposed by the forces of corruption. His identity, at some point misperceived, is finally acclaimed by the community at large. The pattern receives perhaps its darkest treatment in It's a Wonderful Life . The film's conventions and dramatic conceits are misleading. An idyllic representation of small-town America, a guardian angel named Clarence and a Christmas Eve apotheosis seem to justify the film's perennial screenings during the holiday season. These are the signs of the ingenuous optimism for which Capra is so often reproached. Yet they function in the same way "happy endings" do in Moliere, where the artifice of perfect resolution is in ironic disproportion to the realities of human nature at the core of the plays.
George Bailey is presumably living the "wonderful life" of the title. Having abandoned his ambition to become an architect in order to run a building- and loan-association, and facing arrest for a discrepancy in the books, George is on the verge of suicide. His guardian angel offers him the chance to find out what would have happened had he not been born. George then sees the town as a nightmarish vision of corruption. No one knows him. Even his mother, a benevolent image through the rest of the film, appears hard-bitten and cruel, and refuses to recognize him in a scene that dramatizes a primal identity crisis. George does regain his identity and is euphorically acknowledged by everyone. But this joyous finale caps a film that so often represents pain and despair—from a slap that draws blood from young George's ear, to a marriage proposal expressed in utter frustration, to the images (both inside and outside the fantasy section of the film) of George in a rage, furious with himself and with those he loves. Here, as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , James Stewart embodies the hysterical energy of Capra's quintessential American hero, thereby conveying, along with the director, the ambiguities of the American dream along with its promises.