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Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life': A Personal Remembrance (1991)

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Frank Capra Jr. ...
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Documentary | Short

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1991 (USA)  »

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This making-of/interview segment is featured on the Republic Pictures DVD release for It's a Wonderful Life (1946). See more »

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References American Madness (1932) See more »

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The film Frank Capra waited all his life to make
27 December 2016 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Frank Capra Jr. hosts and narrates this documentary short that focuses on his dad's making of the 1946 classic movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." This bonus feature was made in 1991 and is on many DVDs of the film sold since the early 1990s. It has a few interview clips with Frank Capra who died in 1991 at age 94, and a couple of short interview comments by James Stewart who then was 83.

This film differs from the usual formula of behind-the-scenes documentaries. It doesn't deal with the technical production or making of the film. It gives a little bit of history as to the "discovery" of the story, and then tells about the hurdles that the story had in getting refined into the movie we know today. It tells a little of the selection of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and the supporting cast.

But mostly, this is a son's reflection on his father's thoughts, and beliefs, and skill and talent, and desires about making "It's a Wonderful Life." So, we hear this man's remembrances of growing up with his dad, and we have Frank Capra himself in some interview clips talking about the film. This is a look into the heart of a man who saw something great in a story that he felt compelled to tell and show; and at his endeavors to put the story on film.

Capra junior says, "Of all my father's great films … 'It's a Wonderful Life' was his favorite. The idea was unique. A man finds out what the world would have been like if he had never been born. And, the theme that everyone's life touches so many other lives was one that moved my dad more deeply than any other idea." He says, "It's a Wonderful Life" is a sentimental film, yes! It's also an honest one. It explores the pain of normal life as well as the joy."

Capra junior says the film built on some "themes and scenes" his father had used in earlier films. He had a run on a bank in "American Madness" of 1932, and a desperate suicidal man "who was saved by those who believe in him" in "Meet John Doe" of 1941.

RKO Studios paid $10,000 for the film rights for the story, "The Greatest Gift," in 1944. Cary Grant read the story and wanted to play the leading role. The studio commissioned three separate adaptations for a film. Top writers of the day contributed screenplays, including Marc Connelly, Clifford Odets, and Dalton Trumbo. But no one story seemed right. When Frank Capra read the story in 1945, he bought the film rights from RKO for $10,000 and got the three scripts with the deal. He formed an independent company, Liberty Films, to make the movie.

"I remember how moved my father was by 'The Greatest Gift,'" Frank Junior says. "But he didn't feel that any of the scripts caught its special flavor. He had to use some of the pieces of the earlier scripts, but he knew that he would have to write the screenplay himself." And, to help him polish a final script, he hired two great writers – Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. The three contributed their own ideas. One major one was the addition of the villainous Mr. Potter, who wasn't in any of the first scripts.

Frank junior says that his father had one man in mind for the part of George Bailey. He and his "old" friend Jimmy Stewart had made two films previously. "You Can't Take it With You" of 1938 and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" of 1939 both had been big hits. Frank junior says, "Audiences everywhere loved Jimmy's down home charm. Dad knew Jimmy was also a great dramatic actor, capable of showing George Bailey's other, more bitter side."

Frank Capra himself explains on camera. "Jimmy Stewart got out of the Army about the same time I did, and his agent said to me, 'Jimmy wants to make a picture with you. And after a few days, I went to Jimmy. I said, 'Jimmy, I've got a great story. Would you like to do it? I didn't have to tell him. He said, 'You bet!' and he signed up right away. And that was it."

Capra went beyond RKO to another studio to fill the role of Mary. Donna Reed was at MGM and she was perfect for the part. He then stocked the film with some of the greatest character actors in Hollywood.

The short gives a rundown of the rise of "Wonderful Life" to classic status. Its 1946 Christmas season debut was just so-so. Record low temperatures on the East Coast had people staying home and listening to the radio. And, so close on the heels of World War II, many found the film too depressing for the holiday season. But the movie received five Oscar nominations in 1947. It grew in popularity over the years, and exploded in TV showings after the early 1970s when its copyright expired and it entered the public domain. By the late 20th century, the movie itself had become part of the Christmas holiday tradition.

Frank junior says, "This film was my father's personal vision from beginning to end. He put more of himself on screen in "Wonderful Life" than in any other film. In fact, I remember he once told me, 'It's the picture I waited all my life to make.'"

In a closing interview snippet, Frank Capra says, "There's more to the picture than I put in it. There's more to the picture than was written in it. There's more value in the picture than we knew we were playing with … and that we didn't expect. There's more to it than we thought we had."


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