Premiering 75 year ago, just before Christmas in 1946, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life still remains the gold standard for holiday movies. It has become a cherished custom for generations of families to watch it together at Christmastime. It provides a window into another time and in that respect, is an education in itself. It portrays a different world with different values, yet its timeless message of hope still beguiles audiences in our day.
This beloved film, starring the inimitable James Stewart (1908-1997), was crafted by Frank Capra (1897-1991), America’s preeminent filmmaker during the era of the Great Depression. His films were beloved by audiences across the country who were uplifted from their despair by his irrepressible optimism. In Capra films the good always triumphs, even when up against seeming insurmountable odds.
A young Francesco Capra celebrated his six birthday somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean in steerage aboard the Germania. He came to America with his father in 1903 in search for a better, more wonderful life. After settling in Los Angeles, the success Francesco would grow up to find was probably beyond anything his father could have imagined.
His 1934 hit It Happened One Night was the first film to sweep the five major Academy Award categories. His 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is considered by many critics to be among the best films ever made. After putting his career on hold by serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Capra was sold the rights to a script based on a short story titled “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, an American author, editor, and Civil War historian. The idea of the tale came to Van Doren Stern while shaving one morning. He failed to secure a deal with a publisher after many attempts and decided to mail the story as a Christmas card to two hundred friends rather than let it go to waste. Somehow, this Christmas card letter caught the attention of Hollywood executives and eventually came across Capra’s desk. The story was altered by several screenwriters with constant input from Capra and came to be the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
This would be Capra’s crowning achievement, his best known and loved film. Reflecting on his career after retirement, Capra had this to say about It’s a Wonderful Life in his 1971 autobiography: “I thought it was the greatest film I had ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”
Seventy-five years later, many agree. But this wasn’t always the case.
It’s a Wonderful Life actually lost money at the box office. Capra’s wholesome and hopeful messages were becoming less and less relevant to a prospering postwar America. His films began to be dismissed by critics as overly sentimental and hokey and were labeled as “Capra corn.”
Time has vindicated Capra’s high opinion of this film with the help of a bureaucratic oversight from Republic Pictures, the film’s original copyright holder. When It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946, U.S. copyright protection lasted 28 years. When this expired in 1974, Republic Pictures could have renewed it for a nominal fee, but decided not too and the film passed into the public domain. Without the burden of having to pay royalties, TV stations across the country aired the movie repeatedly during the holiday season and it began capturing the hearts and imaginations of countless Americans, becoming one of the world’s most popular and beloved films.
Earlier this month I attended the 75th anniversary celebration of It’s a Wonderful Life in Seneca Falls, New York. There were lectures, reenactments, and even a Christmas tree lighting with caroling. Franc Capra’s granddaughter was in attendance, as was child star Karolyn Grimes, who played little Zuzu Bailey when she was six years old, uttering the famous line, “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” There is a museum in the town devoted to the film with lots of interesting memorabilia.
But why Seneca Falls?
The people of this scenic town along the Finger Lakes refer to it as “The Real Bedford Falls.” While the movie itself was filmed entirely in Hollywood, Seneca Falls claims to be the inspiration for the film. Many similarities exist between Seneca Falls and the fictional “Bedford Falls.” There is the geographic location in upstate New York, the use of several place and personal names, the appearance of the town and the design of the truss bridge over the Cayuga-Seneca Canal that looks just like the one from the movie where George was contemplating suicide but then jumped instead to save the life of Clarence.
Capra had family living in the nearby town of Auburn and is said to have passed through Seneca Falls on his way to visit them in 1945 while the screenplay for the film was still being developed. A local barber named Tom Belissama remembers Capra stopping in for a cut. Belissama recalled that Capra inquired about the town and its people, as well as a plaque on the Bridge Street Bridge honoring a young man’s heroic sacrifice to save another.
In 1917, a woman named Ruth Dunham leapt from the Bridge Street Bridge in an attempt to take her own life. Despite not knowing how to swim, a young Italian immigrant named Antonio Varacalli jumped into the canal and successfully saved her life, but drowned doing so. The plaque on the bridge in Seneca Falls reads:
April 12, 1917
Gave His Life
To Save Another
He Honored the Community
The Community Honors Him.
Capra likely had great empathy for Antonio Varacalli as a fellow Italian immigrant. It’s a fair assumption that he would have been moved by this story which would explain the many similarities between Seneca Falls and the film’s “Bedford Falls.”
Like the character George Bailey or that real life woman Ruth Dunham from Seneca Falls, it is easy in difficult moments to look at our life in discouragement, and wonder if it really matters to anyone. It’s a Wonderful Life sends a clear message that each life matters. As Clarence the angel says: “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole…”
It’s a Wonderful Life is the perfect film for the season because each man’s worth is also at the heart of the Christmas story. Each of us certainly matters to God. We are created in His image and likeness. And God became one of us to save us; Jesus Christ, the Divine Child born in Bethlehem, is the Incarnate Word who through his life, death, and Resurrection offers us divine life so we can be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).
Capra had a long and sometimes difficult relationship with the Catholic Faith, eventually returning to the Church later in life after being a self-described “Christmas Catholic” for many years. He described himself as “a Catholic in spirit; one who firmly believes that the anti-moral, the intellectual bigots, and the Mafias of ill will may destroy religion, but they will never conquer the cross.”
In his autobiography he gave the reason for why he made the Christmas season’s most beautiful film:
It was…the motion picture I had wanted to make since I first peered into a movie camera’s eyepiece…
A film to tell the weary, the disheartened, and the disillusioned; the wino, the junkie, the prostitute; those behind prison walls and those behind Iron Curtains, that no man is a failure!
To show those born slow of foot or slow of mind, those oldest sisters condemned to spinsterhood, and those oldest sons condemned to unschooled toil, that each man’s life touches so many other lives. And that if he isn’t around it would leave an awful hole.
A film that said to the downtrodden, the pushed-around, the pauper, “Heads up fella. No man is poor who has one friend. Three friends and you’re filthy rich.”
A film that expressed its love for the homeless and the loveless; for her whose cross is heavy and him whose touch is ashes; for the Magdalenes stoned by hypocrites and the afflicted Lazaruses with only dogs to lick their sores.
I wanted it to shout to the abandoned grandfathers staring vacantly in nursing homes, to the always-interviews but seldom-adopted half-breed orphans, to the paupers who refuse to die while medical vultures wait to snatch their hearts and livers, and to those who take cobalt treatments and whistle—I wanted to shout, “You are the salt of the earth. And It’s a Wonderful Life is my memorial to you!”
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