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'Wonderful Life' a welcome seasonal treat

'Wonderful Life' a welcome seasonal treat

It will be shown Friday night at the Palace Theatre
'Wonderful Life' a welcome seasonal treat
All the town is talking about George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame).

Seems like everyone who celebrates Christmas and the holiday season knows these lines of movie dialogue:

-- Mary Hatch: “Is this the ear you can’t hear on? George Bailey, I’ll love you till the day I die.”

-- Nick the Bartender: “Hey, look mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast. And we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere. Is that clear? Or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?”

-- Henry Potter: “You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees begging for help ... Why George, you’re worth more dead than alive. Why don’t you go to the riff-raff you love so much and ask them to let you have $8,000?”

-- Clarence the Angel: “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry. You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it all away?”

-- George Bailey: “Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan!”

The movie is Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a movie that received new life during the 1970s and the cable television boom of the 1980s and has now found a seasonal home on NBC television. The network has already shown the film once, on Dec. 3, and will repeat the movie on Saturday — Christmas Eve — at 8 p.m.

For people who want the big screen experience, “It’s a Wonderful Life” will be shown Friday at 7 p.m. at the Palace Theatre in Albany. They’ll be able to see Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers and all the rest in glorious black-and-white. Admission is $5.

The story has become well known. George Bailey, who has spent years working at his family’s small town building and loan business and has never realized his dreams of world travel, finds himself in a financial jam on Christmas Eve. His plans to commit suicide are thwarted by a bumbling guardian angel who grants George a wish — he sees what the world would be like if he had never been born. In George’s absence, the town of Bedford Falls becomes a different place and friends and relatives become dark versions of the people George once knew.

When the movie had its limited release in December 1946, it was a big deal. Life magazine gave it a six-page photo spread; Newsweek put the film on its cover. But the movie did not catch on with the public and lost money for its producers.

In 1974, according to published articles on the movie, nobody renewed the film’s copyright. The 28-year-old film went into public domain, which meant television stations could show the movie for free. People discovered the movie every Christmas season, and when dozens of television stations joined cable lineups during the 1980s, people could turn on their television sets at virtually any time of day and watch George’s trials, tribulations and ultimate salvation.

People who know movies and history know why the film continues to resonate with audiences.

“Americans continue to love ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ because, like the paintings of Norman Rockwell, it projects our preferred self-image back at us,” said Jerald Podair, a professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, in an email. “In it, we — as represented by the quintessentially ‘American’ actor Jimmy Stewart — are kind, generous, and community-minded. We are rich, not in dollars-and-cents, but in spirit and in friendship.”

Podair added that while Americans may be among the most capitalistic and individualistic people in the world, they are not completely comfortable with a money-driven culture. “George Bailey, who is ‘the richest man in town’ not for the material riches he has amassed but for the lives he has touched, remains the epitome of the optimistic, giving American spirit,” Podair said.

He added that the darker side of the American spirit is represented in another celebrated movie — “The Godfather.” But while there are scenes set around Christmas in the 1972 gangster epic, Don Corleone, Santino, Clemenza, Tom Hagen and Enzo the Baker probably will not be making TV appearances this weekend.

“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ provides a message to audiences that, despite the involvement of George’s guardian angel, Clarence, it is our willingness to help others that can have a redemptive impact on us even in our darkest hours,” said Christopher Irving, a professor of English Literature and Rhetoric at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, in an email. “Indeed, because of George’s selflessness, he finds that the entire town of Bedford Falls is willing to come to his aid.  What the appeal to this moment suggests is that audiences are fully aware that they are not perfect and that, perhaps, there are moments when they could have acted less selfishly.”

Irving, who also holds a degree in film and multimedia studies, believes that because the final act is set at Christmas, on the brink of a New Year, there is an effect that reinforces the promise for new chances and new opportunities, a promise linked to New Year’s Eve.

“It’s no coincidence that the film ends with the entire town singing ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ ” Irving said.

According to reference books on the movie, here are some facts on the film:

-- The movie began its 90-day shooting schedule on April 8, 1946. The budget would become $2,300,000.

-- One “actor” was not credited in the production. “Jimmy the Raven,” who had appeared in many Capra films, became a resident of the Bailey Building and Loan. Capra even wrote an extended scene for the raven, in which the bird pecks villain Mr. Potter. The scene was never shot.

-- The Bedford Falls set was built at the RKO Studio’s Encino Ranch in California, and was at the time one of the longest sets ever made for an American movie. The main street was three city blocks long (300 yards) and included a tree-lined city parkway and 75 stores and buildings.

-- While films of the time used white-coated corn flakes to simulate snow, Capra mixed a foamy chemical used for fire extinguishers with soap and water and blew the mix through wind machines for his snow scenes.

-- When the snowstorm scene was shot — people see George driving through the storm before his visit to the “alternate” Bedford Falls and dashing through the town streets once his life has been “returned” to him — temperatures were very warm.

-- The RKO radio department was concerned that the phrase “garlic eaters” could offend some people. The phrase stayed in the picture.

-- At the time, the Motion Picture Association of America’s Production Code stipulated that criminals must be punished for their crimes. Mr. Potter, who received the Building and Loan’s $8,000 through a mistake by George’s Uncle Billy, gets away with the theft.

* The film wrapped on July 27, 1946. On Aug. 4, Stewart and Capra chipped in $899 each for a cast and crew picnic held at a ranch outside Los Angeles.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.

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