Behind the Scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Behind the Scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life
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“It’s a Wonderful Life” trailer (Paramount Pictures/YouTube)

Body aches, chills, fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath: for the third time since the COVID pandemic began, I’ve either got the damn thing or some other malady with very similar symptoms. It’s unpleasant, it’s uncomfortable, and, above all, it’s a big, big bore, if only because it makes it a lot harder to get writing done and, even worse, may put the kibosh on our usual family Christmas. Lingering in bed these last couple of days, I’ve shuffled back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness, and at one point I found myself trapped in that tiresome no man’s land between the two, where one’s mind churns out an exhausting series of bizarre and disjointed thoughts — although “thoughts” isn’t exactly the right word for them — that make no sense whatsoever. In other words, pretty much the sort of stuff that Joy and Whoopi say on The View every day when they’re supposedly wide awake. 

So yes, being ill is, in many ways, a drag. But this truly minor bout can, truth be told, also feel almost like a blessing. Most mornings, in ordinary times, I wake up raring to go — ready to plunk myself down at the laptop with a cup of coffee, catch up on email and news, and take in a podcast or two while starting to write. But in my present condition, my mind is in revolt against this routine and hungers for lighter fare. By way of background to what follows, a quick flashback: a few months ago, I wrote here about a bunch of young YouTubers who’d made videos about their reactions to Casablanca. Admittedly, the idea of watching a series of videos in which other people watch a movie — and not just any movie, but the same movie, over and over again — seems, on the face of it, utterly idiotic. But these videos lifted my spirits. They provided glimpses into the tastes and sensibilities of a cross section of young people who, in contradiction to all the social and cultural conditioning to which their generation has been subjected, were just plain crazy about Casablanca, responding with enthusiasm to what today’s woke brigade would consider its old-fashioned bourgeois values. 

Well, during my present indisposition, in an attempt to feel better in soul if not in body, I’ve been watching YouTube videos in which young people react to (what else?) It’s a Wonderful Life — which, as it happens, I wrote about in my recent piece on Christmas movies. Yes, some of these YouTube reactions have made me feel pretty ancient. Two girls, before diving in to the movie, noted that it was very, very, very old indeed, and when they mentioned the year of its release, 1946, they both actually laughed at the thought of just how impossibly long ago that was. But no matter. They loved it. All of them loved it. All of them got it. Meanwhile, taking in certain bits of It’s a Wonderful Life over and over in these YouTube videos made me notice a couple of details for the first time. For example, for what it’s worth, there’s the falling-into-water motif: there’s Harry Bailey breaking through the ice at age nine while sledding; George and Mary falling backward into the swimming pool while dancing at the high school; George suggesting to Violet that they hike up to Mount Bedford and go swimming in the lake; and, of course, Clarence diving into the river to save George, just as George dived into the ice to save Harry. What’s that all about? An allusion to baptism, perhaps? Also, I’ve become aware of several of the characters’ comments in the film about one another’s stupidity. Here are just three of many: in the opening sequence, one of the heavenly angels tells another one that Clarence, their subordinate angel, has “got the IQ of a rabbit”; in the drugstore, young George addresses young Mary as “brainless”; and Mr. Potter, speaking to Peter Bailey, refers to “that idiot brother of yours.” 

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Nor have I just been watching those YouTube videos. While working on that piece about Christmas movies, I ran across a reference to a book titled The Essential “It’s a Wonderful Life”: A Scene-by-Scene Guide to the Classic Film, written by Michael Willian and first published in 2004. It looked interesting, so I ordered it, and it arrived in the mail just in time for me to poke through while convalescing. What a totally neat book — and ideal reading for anyone in a sickbed. This isn’t just some quickly slapped-together, wide-margined collection of oversized film stills plus basic information of the kind that you could’ve found on Wikipedia; it’s a brilliant work of annotation, as meticulous and scholarly as it is entertaining — and, indeed, often quite funny. In addition to telling the story of the film’s production, providing a map of the Bedford Falls set at RKO’s Encino Ranch, listing every song heard over the course of the film, and identifying background actors, Willian goes through the picture almost shot by shot, pointing out easily overlooked but illuminating particulars, singling out minor gaffes and continuity problems, and making smart critical observations. 

Along the way, we learn all kinds of fascinating stuff. The decision by director Frank Capra to omit some of the music cues by composer Dmitri Tiomkin destroyed their longtime friendship. The high school dance scene was filmed at Beverly Hills High School, where the retractable pool is still in use today. The loving cup that George and Mary win at the dance appears briefly and very marginally in one of the scenes set at the Bailey Building & Loan — and a year or so later the same exact cup, believe it or not, was dragged out of the RKO prop shop and awarded to the Cary Grant character at the school picnic in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. (As the sharp-eyed Willian notes, if you look at it carefully you can see, for a split second, the engraving on Grant’s trophy: Charleston Contest — 1928 — Bedford Falls High School.) Willen’s book is jam-packed with such fun tidbits. No, it’s hardly the literary equivalent of a breakthrough in nuclear fusion — but it’s a perfect companion when you’re sitting in bed, lightheaded and coughing. And if this book weren’t enough, it turns out that — guess what? — Willian also wrote a similar volume on Casablanca. Which I think I’ll order and save for the next time COVID takes me down for a couple of days. In the meantime, Merry Christmas!  

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