Capra in Charlottesville: It really was a Wonderful Life


The spoils of peace:  the author poses with posters for two landmark local film events.

The recent showing of It's a Wonderful Life at the Paramount Theater– the third annual– is just the latest chapter in Charlottesville's prescient history with what has become a classic. Through the years, UVA, director Frank Capra, a local cable company, and even star Jimmy Stewart have presented the film for local viewing. And as a Charlottesville native, I got to witness it all.

 Premiering five days before Christmas in 1946 and moving into wide release the following year, Wonderful Life enjoyed reasonable reviews. But after failing to win an Oscar or turn a profit, the movie just faded away. The only opportunities to view it were occasional showings on TV and 16mm rentals.

One such copy ended up at UVA, which turned out to be ahead of the curve in the rediscovery. Annual sold-out showings of It's a Wonderful Life took place around the time of December Finals, and legend has it that the tradition began in the late 1950s. UVA students, worried about their exams, could escape into the sentimental world of Bedford Falls.

It's been said that when word got back to Frank Capra that his picture had become so popular here he agreed to bring his tour of college campuses to Charlottesville.

The Frank Capra Film Festival was held in Wilson Hall over five nights in January 1974. Nine of his best films were shown, including the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night and You Can't Take It With You.

On the final night, he walked into the packed auditorium to a standing ovation and thunderous applause. Once we, an appreciative audience of 200-plus, let him speak, he explained how he left Hollywood for military service and returned "wondering whether I still had it."

He said RKO Films had bought a short story sent out as a Christmas card called The Greatest Gift. (According to The It's a Wonderful Life Book by Jeanine Basinger, actor Cary Grant instigated the purchase in hopes of playing George Bailey.) Capra, however, envisioned Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey when he bought the rights for his new venture, Liberty Films.

Capra discussed how the town of Bedford Falls was actually just several blocks of false store fronts built on an RKO Studio lot. He also noted a new type of fake snow, unveiled for the Wonderful Life shoot, which took place during the the summer of 1946.

The director admitted he had been criticized for the high school dance scene, with many viewers doubting there could be a swimming pool under a gym floor. Capra explained that when he realized Hollywood High School actually did have such a pool, he wrote the dance contest around it. (One of my co-workers at Sears in 1990– who visited a cousin on the set– further confirmed the pool.)

The director had long been criticized for alleged hyper-sentimentality and an over-optimistic view of America, so one question may have been no surprise.

"Mr. Capra," went the questioner, "who coined the term ‘Capra Corn'?" Without missing a beat, Capra replied, "I don't know who the sonuvabitch was!"

The timing of the director's appearance at UVA was interesting. Wonderful Life was then 28 years old, just enough time under existing law for copyrights to expire. For the want of a $25 filing fee, according to venerable radio commentator Paul Harvey, copyright slipped into public domain. Why?

Until recently, film rights weren't considered valuable enough to worry about. Moreover, two years after the release of the modestly successful Wonderful Life, Liberty Films would be sold to Paramount Studios, creating a possible break in attention to rights.

Whatever the cause, falling into public domain meant that a near-forgotten "Christmas Film" had suddenly become fair game for local TV stations to show at no cost.

The oversight eventually resulted in the nearly ubiquitous 24/7 showings during the cable television explosion in the early 1980s. This exposed new audiences, making it a instant holiday tradition. It also spawned cheap VHS copies and allowed TV magnate Ted Turner to colorize it.

Jefferson Cable Company was Charlottesville's sole cable TV provider in the 1960's and ‘70's. Channel 10, its community service channel, was turned into a movie channel for a while, and that's how I first fell in love with Wonderful Life one July afternoon in the 1970s.

I didn't see it as a cheery, sentimental Christmas movie. I saw the despair of a man's dashed dreams nearly driving him to suicide.

Fifteen years after Capra came to UVA, actor James Stewart was a guest at the second Virginia Festival of American Film. He introduced Wonderful Life at an afternoon showing to an audience of about 500  enthusiastic fans at what was then the University Theater in 1989.

Just as did Frank Capra did a decade and a half earlier, Stewart claimed it as his favorite work and explained to us that after returning from WWII he too was afraid he had lost his skills as an actor– when a telephone call invited him to the director's home.

Capra tried to tell him about George Bailey's life in Bedford Falls and how a guardian angel would save it. Apparently the telling got convoluted to the point that Stewart– who once played a role opposite a giant invisible rabbit– stopped the director and said, "Frank, if you want me to make a story about a man saved by an angel named Clarence, I'll do it."

When George is about to end it all, Clarence steps in and shows him life in the former Currier and Ives-type town as if he had never been born. For 45 minutes or so, George runs around the miserable "Pottersville" to see the gaping holes left by his absence.

Stewart was too humble to explain that this performance was but a hint of the dark characters he could play— as in The Naked Spur and Hitchcock's Vertigo. Stewart also mentioned the scene in Martini's bar when George's despair prompted him to pray, asking for God's help.

As the scene was filmed in a medium shot, Stewart spontaneously wept. An astounded Capra asked him to repeat the tears for a close-up. "Frank, I didn't mean to cry the first time," the actor protested. "That's it!" (Not to lose such a moment, the director simply ordered the film cropped to capture the raw emotion.)

In the ‘90's, Wonderful Life seemed to be playing constantly on television, and cheapo VHS tapes abounded. And Republic Pictures realized that it owned the copyrights to the soundtrack music. This changed everything.

This once-forgotten movie now makes the all-time favorites lists of many film critics, as well as several American Film Institute Top 100 lists. But don't let those accolades scare you away from enjoying It's a Wonderful Life at the Paramount next year, as it may be more relevant than ever before.

It's about America at war, a banking crisis, and people losing their homes to foreclosure. And it's considered a Christmas film... 


Local film buff Carroll Trainum, considers shaking hands with both Frank Capra in 1974 and Jimmy Stewart in 1989 (along with his love for the Red Sox) part of what makes him, as George Bailey's little brother might have said, the richest man in Charlottesville.


[During the editing process, the editor accidentally deleted the word "know" in the key Capra quotation, "I don't know who the sonuvabitch was!" For your reading pleasure, the word has been added above in this online archived edition.–editor.]

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