Karolyn Grimes today

Clay Eals is the author of "Every Time a Bell Rings: The Wonderful Life of Karolyn Grimes," published in December 1996


Essays: Sharing from Friends


S earching for Connections, Insights Makes for a Truly 'Wonderful' Quest

by Clay Eals

Like any classic tale, It's a Wonderful Life allows the true fan to delve into endless minutiae that reveal insights into why the film is so appealing and affecting.

In researching my biography of Karolyn, I had the good fortune to glimpse many such materials that aren't readily available to the general public, including several original It's a Wonderful Life script drafts and a videotape of ABC-TV's not-so-wonderful gender-reversal 1977 remake called It Happened One Christmas.

Since I finished the book, I've been fortunate to dip even further into the treasure trove, hearing a two-hour Wonderful Life voice-over narration by the Frank Capra Archives' Jeanine Basinger and joining an It's a Wonderful Life e-mail chat group.

Much of the It's a Wonderful Life magic germinated in Frank Capra's earlier films.

These experiences can build upon each other in a most wonderful way. Check this example:

All of us had the opportunity to see today's top performers re-enact the one-hour 1947 radio version of It's a Wonderful Life when it was broadcast Christmas Day 1997 on PBS television stations nationwide. What a treat to ponder what had been omitted to allow the radio version to fit into an hour's time - for instance, there was no Violet Bick character, and no Zuzu's petals bedroom scene. The petals were replaced by "Zuzu's Christmas bell."

As fascinating as the TV re-enactment was, I yearned to hear the original radio show from 50 years earlier, in part because it used the film's leads, James Stewart and Donna Reed. That opportunity came, fittingly, via the It's a Wonderful Life chat group, run by Karen Pecnik, who maintains arguably the most interesting and comprehensive Wonderful Life site on the web.

Someone in the chat group mentioned that the 1947 radio show was for sale on a web site of old radio shows maintained by a collector named Jerry Haendiges. I quickly e-mailed Jerry, ordered the cassette tape and was playing it at home within a week.

(Want to join the chat group? Send e-mail to majordomo@effex.net and put the message "subscribe iawl" in the body of the message. Want to buy the 1947 radio show tape - total cost of $15.50? Send e-mail to Jhaendiges@aol.com or go to the web site at http://members.aol.com/jhaendiges/christmas.html.)

The Internet is filled with information about It's a Wonderful Life and tens of thousands of other movies, as well. If you have access to the web at home or work, you've probably already gleaned this. If you're not connected, it's worth a visit to the local library to give it a try. A good place to start is right here on Karolyn's web site. Not only will you be able to see information and visuals about Karolyn, but you also can go to her Links page to discover other Wonderful Life-related sites.

Be prepared when you do this, however. If you're any kind of It's a Wonderful Life fan, you most likely will get hooked. Allow yourself a couple of hours.

The only trouble with checking out the It's a Wonderful Life stuff on the web is that you end up spending a lot of time staring at a computer screen. Of course, there is a much more gratifying (and appropriate) way to feed your It's a Wonderful Life interest, and that's by spending time with another kind of screen - either your own TV (and VCR) or a local movie house that runs old movies.

I'm lucky to live in Seattle, one of the best places for a film fan. We have an array of great video-rental stores (topped by the mind-boggling selection of Scarecrow Video), and several venues that regularly show classic films.

James Stewart in a Publicity shot from the late 1930s, when he was honing his George Bailey persona in a variety of top-notch movies

Recently, the Varsity Theater in Seattle's University District ran a 10-week Frank Capra film series. It included many of his well-known masterpieces and several rare gems, including Flight, Dirigible and The Bitter Tea of General Yen. I was in heaven every Saturday at noon.

What could be better? Try the recent 10-week Seattle Art Museum series, "Yours Truly, Jimmy Stewart," showcasing the beloved actor in the anti-Nazi The Mortal Storm and the Broadway-based farce No Time for Comedy, (neither available on video), as well as the wartime musical (!) Born to Dance and the gentle holiday tale The Shop Around the Corner (both of which are on video).

These films and countless others are filled with clues, hints and bits of foreshadowing that allow a film fan to piece together what made It's a Wonderful Life so much greater than a sum of its parts. Here are some examples:

  • How startling to hear Jimmy Stewart croak a surprised "Holy mackerel!" in a Central Park courtship scene with Rosalind Russell in No Time for Comedy, six years before uttering the same astonished phrase in It's a Wonderful Life. It's equally rewarding to see throughout the 1940 romp Pot o' Gold the precursors of the goofy earnestness Stewart displayed in Wonderful Life's rock-throwing scene. Pot o' Gold, which is available on video, was reportedly Stewart's least favorite of his films, but it's much more fun than his dismissal suggests.

  • Early films prove that Donna Reed didn't just turn up in It's a Wonderful Life out of nowhere. She derived Mary Hatch/Bailey from equal parts seriousness (in the World War II military story They Were Expendable) and warmth (in the sentimental home front drama The Human Comedy). Both are available on video.

  • Much of the It's a Wonderful Life magic germinated in Capra's earlier films. George Bailey's idealism and angst, for instance, stem directly from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. (All four are available on video.) The same is true for lesser themes and characterizations. The Depression-era bank run serves as an effective backdrop in Capra's 1932 morality play American Madness. And in The Miracle Woman, Barbara Stanwyck stunningly embodies the bad girl/good girl personality of Wonderful Life's Violet Bick. (Madness and Woman were released on video recently.)

  • Capra's It's a Wonderful Life cast included regulars from several previous films. Because of the popularity of Mr. Smith, most people remember Thomas Mitchell as Diz the reporter, as well as Wonderful Life's Uncle Billy. But how many recall H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower in Wonderful Life) as the grim but ultimately joyful judge presiding over the sanity hearing in Mr. Deeds 10 years earlier? And then there's Roscoe Karns, who played Oscar Shapely, the spineless wiseacre of Capra's 1934 Oscar grand-slam It Happened One Night - his real-life son Todd was Harry Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life!

These examples are just a scraping of the surface. The list can go on most entertainingly. And you can join in, no matter where you live.

The big screen is the best place to start, but if you aren't close to a revival theater or a well-stocked video store, try renting by mail. The best such place I've found is Eddie Brant's Saturday Matinee, 6310 Colfax Ave., North Hollywood, CA 91606. Write or call (818-506-7722) for a catalogue. They're open 1-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

If you wish to reach me for more information on this delightful pastime, e-mail me at: ceals@comcast.net. You might call it a wonderful quest!

by Clay Eals

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