he Story Behind the Music of It's A Wonderful Life
by George Harter
some years ago someone had whispered in my ear as I was watching for the 45th
time It's A Wonderful Life, that Zuzu, little Zuzu - every time a bell rings Zuzu
- would become a close personal friend of mine, I'd a thought, one doesn't make
friends with black and white film icons. Besides, look there on the screen, she's
a little girl, she's a lot younger than me.
after being introduced to her by my program director when I was looking for a
guest host for my weekly radio program, Karolyn came alive in living color and
we've shared many memorable moments both professionally and privately (and we're
pretty much the same age too). I am proud to count her among my friends and proud
of her ministry of providing in each person she meets, with each smile and handshake,
the message in miniature of George Bailey's revelation in It's a Wonderful
Life. The message that life is God's Greatest Gift; the original title
of the story on which the film is based.
a viewing of It's A Wonderful Life I happen to notice in the credits that
original music for the film was written by Dimitri Tiomkin (1899-1979). As the
producer of a radio program that deals with film music I am very familiar with
Tiomkin's full bodied scores for such films as Giant, The Thing From Another
World and Lost Horizon to the simple western themes for High Noon,
for which he wrote the popular title song in 1951, sung by Tex Ritter. Yet none
of the music in It's A Wonderful Life sounded anything like the treatment
Dimitri Tiomkin would have given the score. In fact, other than the recurring
reference to Buffalo Gals, an old Erie Canal drinking song bargemen would
sing about the prostitutes in Buffalo, New York they would enjoy at the end of
the line, and Clarence's theme, a variation on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,
there is little in the film to be noted as a musical score at all. Toward the
end of the film, as George is running down the main street of Bedford Falls shouting
"A Merry Christmas" to everyone, a grouping of Christmas carols can barely be
heard concluding with Beethoven's Ode To Joy. But none of these cues contain any
original notes of Dimitri Tiomkin. So why was he hired?
1946 Tiomkin had already proved himself as a versatile composer who could bring
atmosphere and life to a motion picture, setting any mood he wished. Born in the
Ukraine he was especially good at writing music depicting great expanses of land,
capturing the open spaces of Texas in his score for Giant or the icy, eerie
desolation of the Arctic in The Thing From Another World. It's A Wonderful
Life was ripe for a lush Americana musical score by one of Hollywood's leading
composers- but in the finished product, it isn't there. The reason, it turns out,
had nothing to do with Tiomkin, but with marketing and economics.
work began on It's A Wonderful Life on April 15,1946 Tiomkin had a clear
idea from reading the script and his meetings with director Frank Capra as to
exactly what the film was to be about. It was the sixth collaboration between
Tiomkin and Capra, so there was no misunderstanding; It's A Wonderful Life
was an American period piece - a drama that dealt with suicide and the disappointments
faced by every man. The Christmas scenes at the end were only a vehicle for gathering
everyone at the close and had little to do with the story at large. By fall 1946
Tiomkin had provided the film with a complex and rich musical score of surreal
Americana, romantic in places, that perfectly fit the films constantly changing
mood. He had worked in folk melodies such as Red River Valley for Peter
Bailey's theme, and Pop Goes The Weasel. He wrote a lush love theme for George
and Mary with several variations to be heard throughout the film. There was even
a pop version of the love theme with lyrics, recorded for radio air-play as the
song It's A Wonderful Life.
picture had originally been slated for release in spring of 1947. But studio heads
at RKO, the distributor for Capra's Liberty Films, apparently smelled trouble
and thought the film would do better if released before Christmas 1946, capitalizing
on its minor Christmas scenes, downplaying the drama, thereby turning it into
a holiday film release.
the film was already shot, the flavor of It's A Wonderful Life had to be
changed by altering its post production values. A film's music is the major factor
in setting tone and atmosphere, and Tiomkin's music was to somber and dark for
the film's new approach. His work was cut heavily, music was moved within the
film to places where Tiomkin did not intend it to be, and the work of other composers
was even inserted in places. The places where Tiomkin's music remained were mixed
so low they are nearly inaudible.
folk tunes and Christmas Carols were harmless enough so they all stayed. But here
is a list, by working title, of the major cues by Dimitri Tiomkin that were cut
from the final print of the film:
Run - for the scene (longer in the original cut) which introduces George Bailey
as a child and the ice-break accident. The music is boyhood America and sounds
a little like some of Bernard Hermann's music depicting a young Charles Foster
Kane in Citizen Kane (1941).
Telegram / Gower's Deliverance - Very somber music for the news of Gower's
son's death and for George's return to the drugstore and redemption. The scene's
now play with no music in the final film.
and Dad - A wonderful, soft bittersweet theme originally to be heard under
the dinner table conversation between George and his father.
Sequence - A full statement of Tiomkin's old fashion movie music love theme
for the film was to follow Mary's breaking of the Buffalo Gals record. The scene
plays without music now.
very dramatic Tiomkin passages designed for the Bank Crisis, Clarence's Arrival
and especially music to accompany George encountering the world without him were
only partially used and at very low volumes. A quote from the "Dies irae" that
Tiomkin employed remains in place as George prays to live again. But this too,
is not Tiomkin's music, he borrowed this common liturgical passage as a device
for the film.
Dimitri Tiomkin was not at all happy with the treatment of his music in the film,
even though it did not affect his fees. He tried to have his name removed from
the films credits but the studio owned the right to use his name and his reputation
was already established.
is no doubt the studio got what it wanted. The cut and paste job on the film score
worked to soften the dramatic elements and highlight the Christmas aspect of It's
A Wonderful Life. So it's difficult to say if the film would have been better
with all of Tiomkin's original music. The film is a work of art the way it is,
and with any great work of art- it cannot be imagined any other way.
original score for It's A Wonderful Life was recorded only once - in 1988
by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of David Newman. It is
available on the Telarc label, number CD 88801. The recording was made from the
composer's conductor scores, housed in the Cinema-Television Library and the Archives
of the Performing Arts at UCLA. There is also a set of acetate disks of the original
recording sessions before the musical changes were made.
sure to visit George's webhome...A Night
on the Town