HIDDEN TREASURES... "It's a Wonderful Life"

On the 20th of December 1946, with a half-hearted response from the public and the critics, it was released one of the monumental and most emblematic films of all time. Later turned into a Christmas classic, this movie is one of the best examples of Frank Capra's style and also an intense tale about existence and human's life experience in all its dimensions.

This production of the short-lived company Liberty Films, was developed outside the studio system and therefore it may be considered as Capra's most personal work, after his return to filming following the end of WWII. Fraught with details, references and the meticulous work of many professional who thoroughly mastered every dialogue, every frame and every sequence. Every time I watch it, it's a confirmation that this film was carefully crafted, with countless layers. I would like to highlight some features of this splendid work and a few interesting details that I loved discovering and now sharing.

A town called Bedford Falls

Few fictional spots are as popular and as fondly remembered as Bedford Falls. Located somewhere near the state of New York –as described on its original script–, this little town generally represents the epitome of an ideal American town. In tune with Grandview,  another small village depicted in "Magic Town" (1947, William A. Wellman), Bedford Falls is a paradigmatic and archetypical example of the city that captures every aspect of a perfect American society. Much like the role of houses in fairy tales or in Gothic literature, Bedford Falls is both a refuge and a prison. A place where our deepest longings and fears are revealed, just like our minds. The perfect imaginary spot in which we can externalize concern, aspiration and corruption.

You are now in Bedford Falls

These provinces expose the necessity to reinforce and preserve the importance of the home in American films. Perhaps those decades of immigration, the urgency to defend the territory or their foundational origins might be the explanation for a consistent fixation of Hollywood motion pictures. George Bailey's predicament, caught up between his hopes of fleeing his hometown and his obligation to stay, is one of the main aspects of the plot. Such as Dorothy in "The wizard of Oz" or Marty McFly in "Back to the Future", their view and appreciation of home translates into a mixture of paradise and hell. 

Constrained by an invisible insurmountable wall, George Bailey fails at every attempt to abandon Bedford Falls. Inextricably linked, this character and the town he is located in, are like two peas in a pod. The discovery of one's fate, the raison d'être in terms of one's home and family, is as genuine as another great American concern, teeth whitening. That search leads invariably to the place of origin, to the hometown.

James Stewart and Thomas Mitchell in Bedford Falls.
James Stewart and Thomas Mitchell in Bedford Falls.

Emile Kuri was responsible for the fantastic recreation of this town called Bedford Falls. A rather unfamiliar name, even for the great cinema aficionados, that holds unexpected surprises. Of Lebanese parentage, this Oscar-winning Mexican-born American set decorator contributed designs to Disneyland's first park in Anaheim, California, and to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

According to him, "A picture set is a challenge. [...] It's like framing a fine painting; the artist's work should be the focal point, not the frame".* He was always concerns for authenticity, because as he stated "the most difficult part was to make a set not to look like a set, but a home." With meticulous attention to detail, this creator was famous for his magnificent victorian recreations. His first important work was for Alfred Hitchcock in "Spellbound"(1945); followed by "The Paradine Case" (1947), also "Rope" (1948) and their last collaboration in "The Trouble with Harry(1955). 

During those years, Kuri earned an enormous reputation with his contributions to films such as "The Heiress" (1949, William Wyler) –for which he gained an Oscar–, "A Place in the Sun" (1951, George Stevens) or "Shane" (1953, George Stevens). In 1954 he started to work for Walt Disney, with his interior designs for the ship Nautilus in "20.000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954, Richard Fleischer). He obtained his second Oscar statuette and a long-lasting contribution to Disney universe. His most prominent work for Disney Studios can be enjoyed in "Mary Poppins" (1964, Robert Stevenson) or "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" (1971, Robert Stevenson).

Emile Kuri inside the ship of 20.000 Leagues under the Sea.
Emile Kuri inside the ship of 20.000 Leagues under the Sea.

The design of Bedford Falls, is believed to be inspired by Seneca Falls in New York although that was never confirmed by Capra. The major challenge was to mirror the passage of time on sets and depict weather changes such as those that typically take place on Christmas. Actually, new techniques were conceived to create the artificial snow for the film. It was customary for most productions to use white-painted cornflake to simulate snowflakes, which were a major problem for the sound department for they were rather loud. This new and less disruptive snow was a chemical mix of water, soap and a fire-fighting chemical called Phoamite. As a result of this innovation, the RKO Effects Department received a technical award from the Academy. 

Most of these sets were built at the RKO Ranch in Encino, California. The whole ensemble comprised 75 stores and buildings, a main street, an industrial and a residential area and suburbs. In an interview for the book It's a Wonderful Life: The 50th Anniversary Scrapbook by Jimmy Hawkins*,  Emile Kuri stated that "we even brought in dogs, cats, pigeons and other animals, months before principal photography began so they would feel at home. Capra didn’t miss a thing." 

An astounding creation that will forever exist in our own cinematographic atlas, right beside Innisfree in my case, probably. No matter how much George Bailey tries to escape from it, Bedford Falls defines him and gives him purpose. Only by acknowledging that, he will accept himself.

Snow falling over Martini's bar.
Snow falling over Martini's bar.

A crow called Jimmy the Raven

Even though we would review "It's a Wonderful Life"'s entire cast, we would probably miss the name of this winged little actor. His artistic name was Jimmy the Raven* or Jimmy the Crow. What is most peculiar about this unusual performer, is that he frequently worked for Frank Capra. It seemed to be his favorite species to pose as the perfect premonitory pet. This bird appeared in numerous productions and quite successfully until WWII. His owner was Curley Twiford, an animal trainer who rescued him and taught him a wide range of tricks such as lighting a cigar or opening letters.

Jimmy the Raven

In this film, as in "You Can't Take It with You" (1938), he plays the animal companion of a childish grown man, of Uncle Billy, played by Thomas Mitchell. In the tradition of tales and poems from Charles Dickens or Edgar Allan Poe, this animal often represents a messenger or announcer of not so auspicious news. Thus, he appears always on the counter of Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association, almost on every occasion in which George Bailey must face the awful truth and remain in Bedford Falls

Comparing two of the scenes with the two Jimmys of the film.

In addition to this film, he appeared in the aforementioned You Can't Take It with You and "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944), both for Capra. His contributions also included small parts in "The wizard of Oz" (1939, Victor Fleming) and "Son of Dracula" (1943, Robert Siodmak). 

An illustration titled George Lassos the Moon

My favorite scene from the movie is the one taking place under the moon. James Stewart recites to Donna Reed, one of the most beautiful lines in movie history:

George Bailey: What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Mary.

The moon is the magical connection between this scene and the next of this marvelous pair, George and Mary. The illustration drawn by Mary, George Lassos the Moon, plays a significant part in this other sequence. The drawing works as an element of continuity and redundancy of the idea of love and its ties. Almost every scene is packed with signs and pictures with several messages, hidden treasures that Frank Capra and his team placed meticulously and beautifully. This picture is by far, my favorite mainly because it relates to Mary, whose affection and serenity comfort George, all through his difficulties. It surely is a wonderful work.

And thus this post comes to an end, just like it started, with the moon shining on Bedford Falls.


* Emile Kuri's quotes
Extracts from Emile Kuri's interviews to Disney's news bulletins in 1965.
Compiled in  Jim Hill Media website dedicated to Emile Kuri.

*Jimmy Hawkins
(1941) This American actor plays the part of Tommy, son of Mary and George Bailey in the film. He wrote several books about It's a Wonderful Life, such as It’s a Wonderful Life: The 50th Anniversary Scrapbook. In Remisnisce magazine, give full account of the book.

*Jimmy the Raven
You can read more in A Shroud of Thoughts and in The Unsung Joe.

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