There I was at the IFC Center in New York, about to see a 35mm print of Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in a theater filled with excited fans. Even better, Donna Reed’s daughter was on hand to introduce her mother’s most famous film, on the 66th anniversary of its theatrical debut. It was a perfect prelude to Christmas for a classic movie buff. Or so I thought.
The screening kicked off with a 1958 episode of The Donna Reed Show, wherein Buster Keaton plays a hospital handyman who dresses up as Santa and gives presents to sick kids. Then Dr. Stone (Carl Betz) and Donna embrace and lead a sing-along of Silent Night. Like the climax of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, this scene teeters between sappy and sublime, and it was the perfect reminder to check our city cynicism at the door and surrender to the Capra corn to come.
“I feel like we need some IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE therapy,” Mary Owen said, as she took the stage to enthusiastic applause. “Thanks for treating yourself to see the movie on the big screen, and for taking a moment out of a rather upsetting end of the year to feel better.”
Owen talked about her mom, an Iowa farm girl who went on to win an Oscar for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) and then to become surrogate mother to a generation of baby boomers for eight seasons (1958-66) on ABC. But, to movie fans of all ages, Donna Reed will forever be Mary Hatch, an 18-year-old student at Bedford Falls High who grows up to be Mrs. George Bailey.
“It really was her first starring role in a big production,” Owen told the audience. “Capra said she was the only one he wanted for the role of Mary – a solid, sensible country girl in whose life there could be but one man.”
The floor was opened to questions and Mary – named for her great-grandmother, not for her mother’s beloved character – listened proudly as gushing audience members professed their love for the film. A young guy named Rudy even invited Owen to join his family for supper afterwards. She agreed without hesitation, demonstrating a level of grace not unsurprising from the offspring of one of film and television’s most iconic moms. The movie hadn’t even officially begun yet, but the evening already felt like a religious experience, with first-time attendees getting warm applause from their fellow audience members like baptismal candidates being welcomed into the faith.
And then I had to go and blow it.
“I think classic film fans feel that Jimmy Stewart and your mom had maybe the best natural chemistry of any on-screen couple, ever,” I said to Owen, without one iota of hyperbole. “How did they get along in real life?”
For the record: my question was meant to be a slow-pitch softball right over the proverbial plate. That it wasn’t going to turn out that way became obvious pretty quickly, as Owen looked down at her notes and fumbled for words.
“Well…well…here’s the problem: the movie was considered a flop when it came out,” she said, cautiously. “Jimmy Stewart actually blamed her. And that’s why you never see them in another movie together.”
The audience gasped, audibly. And then the room fell silent for what seemed like a very long time. I looked up, hoping that Clarence Oddbody would fall from the sky and turn back the clock, or change my question into something innocuous like, “What was your mom’s favorite scene?” But no such luck. I was on my own, with no guardian angel in sight to rescue me.
“I know, it’s kind of a buzz kill,” Owen added, stating the obvious. “I’m sorry, but you asked the question.”
Guess who Donna Reed’s daughter was looking at when she said you? If 200 people had just been disillusioned about a film they had loved for their entire lives, and if those 200 people would never look at that movie in quite the same way again, they now knew exactly who to blame. Me. I sunk down into my front-row, stadium-style seat, imagining the scenes at hundreds of Christmas dinners only a few days later:
“I went to the movies to see IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE,” audience members might tell their assembled families. “And guess what? Jimmy Stewart didn’t like Donna Reed. Yeah, some moron asked her daughter a question and ruined the movie for everybody. Merry Christmas, asshole.”
I think my face must have turned ghostly white. Or maybe I looked like I was going to be physically sick, because Owen finally broke the awkward silence with a welcome caveat.
“I know, it’s sad, because they had such great (chemistry),” she said, again looking right at me. “And they got along fine while they were working on the movie together.”
Phew! Slowly, the pall that had been cast began to lift. I stopped looking for the exit doors, no longer fearing that the audience was going to chase me across town to the Brooklyn Bridge, where I’d have to do a swan dive into the East River.
Owen shared additional behind-the-scenes details, which painted a more complete picture of the mindset of Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra (whom she referred to as “a famous couple”). After working together on YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), both of which won Oscars, Stewart and Capra took a hiatus from filmmaking to serve in World War II. Stewart became a decorated bomber pilot and Capra directed Why We Fight, a series of documentary films designed to improve the morale of the soldiers. Both were profoundly impacted by the war, especially Capra, who was privy to horrific footage of Nazi atrocities.
“There was a lot of tension on the set, and I think part of that has to do with World War II,” Owen said. “By the time the two of them came back, they’d been away from Hollywood for five years and they were different people. They were also not sure that they had what it took to make movies anymore – especially Jimmy Stewart. He was very insecure.”
Apparently that insecurity played out during production. According to Owen, Stewart delayed shooting the key sequence in which he and Reed talk on the phone to Sam Wainwright and George realizes he’s in love with Mary. After days of dickering, the scene was finally shot in one take, and Capra was so impressed with the performances he ignored the fact that his actors had skipped half a page of dialogue.
“And believe it or not, the censors considered it too racy!” Owen laughed. “There’s something that’s been extracted from that scene. So there’s some X-rated version of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE out there!”
The audience laughed at this, and seemed generally relieved. What all of us had seen so many times was real – so real, in fact, that the censors forced Capra to tone it down. That’s a tribute to the genuine connection Stewart and Reed demonstrated on-screen, one that still captivates audiences 66 years later. Even if a war-weary Stewart sought to place blame on Reed for the film’s failure, time eventually proved him wrong. After a clerical error sent the film into the public domain in the 1970s, frequent TV airings throughout the ‘80s (Owen remembers it being on “every five minutes”) revived interest in the film and gave WONDERFUL LIFE a second life.
“It was kind of a vindication for her, with the whole Jimmy Stewart thing, because of course it had nothing to do with her that it didn’t do well,” Owen said. I think it must have been too soon after the war… I think people weren’t ready to be thinking of that, because it was pretty dark.”
Owen concluded by reading a letter her mother wrote to a friend on March 11, 1946, a month before she began work on the film:
“Just finished FAITHFUL IN MY FASHION with Tom Drake and will go into IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE opposite James Stewart, his first since he’s back from the war, within a few weeks. This will be my big break, I think. And Tony (husband Tony Owen, who would go on to produce The Donna Reed Show) and I are ever so happy. So far, we as husband and wife have run into no complications with two movie careers and one family. He’s a wonderful guy and it is a wonderful life.”
Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE continues at IFC Center through Thursday, December 27. Mary Owen will introduce the 1 p.m. screening on December 24. I will not be there to ruin it.