The climax of Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE may be the most reliably tear-inducing sequence in American film. But at a Christmas Eve screening at New York City’s IFC Center with special guest Mary Owen, daughter of Donna Reed, eyes were misty before the movie even began.
“I watch it every year, and I didn’t think I was going to get to see it this year, but my daughter surprised us,” a woman visiting from California weepily proclaimed during a pre-show Q&A with Owen. “Your mom means a lot to us; I just loved her so much.”
“You’re going to make me cry!” Owen replied, trying to keep a handle on her emotion. “It means a lot to me, too.”
For generations of viewers, the Dickensian love story of George and Mary Bailey has been a seasonal touchstone. A money loser in its 1947 release (by RKO), Capra’s independently produced drama is recognized today for both its unadorned sentimentality – some call it Capra Corn – and its bleak, but ultimately uplifting portrayal of small town life from the Great Depression through World War II.
For Owen, the time in which IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was made plays a role in its enduring resonance. She said the “sadness of the War” informs the first film Capra and star Jimmy Stewart made after five years of military service, in which the actor served as a bomber pilot and the director helmed the Why We Fight documentary series.
“(Capra) was privy to all the World War II atrocity footage – everything that was coming out of the Pacific, Europe and the concentration camps,” Owen said. “I think it was too soon after the war; audiences just weren’t ready for it. But I think it’s a blessing, really. The fact that (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) didn’t do well is related to the fact that someone forgot to renew the copyright, which is how television was able to resurrect it and why we’re all here now.”
The television resurrection began in the mid-1970s, when the film fell into the public domain and became inexpensive TV programming fodder during the Holiday season. (I have very clear memories of it airing on five different New York stations simultaneously on Christmas Eve in 1987.) In 1993, Republic Pictures reclaimed the rights to Philip Van Doren Stern’s The Greatest Gift, the 1943 short story upon which the WONDERFUL LIFE screenplay (credited to Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling) was based, and the film eventually fell under the control of Viacom’s Paramount Pictures, which now licenses it to NBC for two Christmastime broadcasts. But two decades of nearly round-the-clock airings engrained George Bailey and family irrevocably in the public consciousness.
“If the movie had been successful I’m not sure it would have had the same trajectory,” Owen added.
For modern audiences, particularly those having children and losing aging parents, the themes of regret, redemption and faith loom large in the film’s appeal. And nobody is immune to the valedictory catharsis of the brilliant closing scene, in which Capra heaps tearjerker upon tearjerker until even the most hardened viewer is forced to throw cynicism into the basket and sing along with the citizenry of Bedford Falls.
“Watching it at this time of year gets you to reflect on your own life, and how this year has been,” Owen said. “And seeing it on the big screen, all those feelings are even bigger.”
Owen asked the multi-generational audience how many were watching the film in a theater for the first time. Most in attendance raised their hands, and at least a dozen indicated it was their first-ever viewing.
“It’s almost like seeing a different movie (on the big screen),” Owen said. “I think there’s a lot to be said for the fact that you’re willing to come out here, and not just sit on the couch and watch it.”
IFC has presented IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE theatrically, with Owen in attendance, for more than five years, and I’ve been in attendance every year since 2007. This year, the downtown art house screened the film in 35mm five times per day for a two-week run, with a portion of the proceeds going to benefit the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts, based in the actress’s hometown of Denison, Iowa.
“She was completely unprepared for Hollywood,” Owen said of her mother, who made her movie debut in 1941 at age 20, and went on to appear in more than 40 films. “She was lucky enough to have a mentor, an acting coach, who worked with her tirelessly, and that’s what we try to do with the Foundation. We try to prepare kids who want to come to New York for musical theater, or go to Hollywood.”
Before she left the IFC stage I asked Owen to weigh in on recent reports of a planned sequel, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (THE REST OF THE STORY), featuring George and Mary Bailey’s grandson George, and his angelic Aunt Zuzu (to be played by surviving cast member Karolyn Grimes).
“I was just at the Seneca Falls thing (the film’s 67th Anniversary celebration in Seneca Falls, New York) last weekend and I met the guy who’s written the treatment. I don’t know. He’s very serious,” Owen said. “Thank God they’re smart enough to set it way in the future where George and Mary Bailey are gone, so nobody has to try and fill those shoes.”
“I wish them luck,” Mary Owen added, which sounds a lot like something Donna Reed might have said.