Frank Capra stands as one the greatest directors of all time. He has won the Academy Award for best direction 3 times for the films It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and You Can’t Take it With You (1938). Two of these classic films star one of the biggest movie stars on the 1930s, James Stewart. The actor and director worked together numerous times and one of their most memorable collaborations was the post-war Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. The film was one of only two films produced by fledging independent studio Liberty Films that itself had been founded by Capra, Billy Wilder and George Stevens. It was a box office disappointment, taking only $3.3m off a budget of $3.18m. Since its release it has become one of the most recognisable and highly regarded films or all time. Even Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street are named after characters in the film.
It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey (Stewart) is a man on the edge. Having spent the majority of his life looking out for others and repeatedly putting his dreams on hold for the sake of everyone around him, he is wrongly accused of committing bank fraud and a warrant is put out for his arrest. On the run, he crashes his car into a tree and flees to a bridge where he plans to commit suicide so that his family can cash in on his $15,000 life insurance. While on the bridge, a man called Clarence (Henry Travers) appears and reveals himself as George’s guardian angel and goes about showing him that his life is worth living.
Capra and Stewart, the double-header driving this now perennial Christmas favourite were both in somewhat dire situations after the close of World War II. Capra, a distinguished director in the 1930s found himself out of favour and Stewart, haunted by his role as a bomber during the war was on the verge of quitting acting. They came together in this ˜last roll of the dice’ like scenario in order to rekindle their faultering careers and lives. It half worked. Stewart’s Bailey is one of the most convincing characters in film history, being a selfless soul who is taken advantage of and slips into the pits of depression only to make a startling return to the family that love him. Sadly for Capra, the film was a commercial flop at the time and signalled the end of the great mans position as director of note. He made other films after, but nothing of any historical note.
The influence that the war and waning influence and respect are apparent in the style and direction with some truly horrible moments of despair and melancholy mixed with incredible swings of sentiment and joy. It’s bipolar and luckily Capra’s steady hand guides the contrasting elements into a truly wonderful viewing experience. While ignored upon release, the constant TV screenings in the 1970s and 80s have made it as synonomous with Christmas as mince pies and Father Christmas.