WINTER HAVEN – The odd thing is, except for the opening and final scene, most of “It’s A Wonderful Life” doesn’t really have much to do with Christmas.
And yet for decades, the classic 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed has been a favorite around Christmas time, with repeat showing on television in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
“I think when you look at it, whoever wrote the original story was brilliant to do it that way,” said Norman Small. “It places a level there that wouldn’t be there if it was placed at Easter or the 16th of March. There’s something about the Christmas season that makes people love this movie.”
“It’s A Wonderful Life,” of course, is the story of George Bailey, who operates a small savings and loan bank in the town of Bedford Falls. George had much greater ambitions for his life, and as the movie opens, he’s deep in debt and, on Christmas Eve, wants to end his life by jumping off a bridge into the icy waters below.
It takes the angel Clarence to show George how much worse off the town would have been without him being there all those years. It’s the kind of tearjerker that leaves audiences crying at the end – crying for joy.
Small said he fully understands and appreciates the movie’s enduring appeal.
“It’s the story of Every Man, who gets a second chance — and every man wants to get a second chance,” Small said. “And if we get that second chance, we take it. That’s very gut level, that’s really from the heart.”
Not surprisingly, local television stations and some revival movie theaters are not alone in bringing “It’s A Wonderful Life” back to audiences every holiday season. Community theaters have also discovered that audiences enjoy seeing a live stage version of the story – which is where Small comes in. The executive director of Theatre Winter Haven, Small said “It’s A Wonderful Life” was chosen to be their holiday production next month. The show begins on Thursday, Dec. 1 and runs for 14 performances, through Dec. 18.
“It’s not uncommon for theaters to look for a Christmas-themed show around Christmas time,” Small said. “You want audiences to come see a show and you want to do a good production, and you want one that’s relevant to the time, so you choose things that work for you at that season.”
The first task, as it turns out, wasn’t selecting the play, but figuring out which play to settle on. After becoming a movie, the George Bailey story was later turned into a radio play and then a stage play – multiple times, as it turns out. There are so many different stage versions that Small said he read several scripts before recommending one to the show’s director, Mark Hartfield.
“I gave him three or four scripts and he made the choice of which one to put on stage here,” Small said. “We chose not to do the radio play because there were too many children involved.”
Why so many different versions? That can be blamed on the film’s legendary director, Frank Capra, who committed a classic error in this legal age we’re in.
“The reason why there were so many different versions of this is Frank Capra never applied for a copyright, and everyone grabbed it,” Small said. “It went out into the public domain, and there are several versions of it — even musical versions of the play, two of them. The version we chose is closer to the movie.”
“I read several versions, and it ended up being not all that difficult to pick one,” said the play’s director, Mark Hartfield. “A musical wasn’t really on the table. There’s a radio version, but I’m not very excited about that one.”
Although Theatre Winter Haven selected a version of the play with fewer children in it, the script still includes 27 different scenes – including the classic one at the Bedford Falls High School where George Bailey and his childhood sweetheart Mary fall into the gymnasium pool.
“Putting a swimming pool on stage – how do we do that?” Small laughed. “We just hope that the version we’re doing translates to audiences because the story is so cinematic.”
That can be a challenge for community theaters that perform “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Small acknowledged, because audiences who cherish the story naturally love seeing actors like Stewart, Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers in it – something Theatre Winter Haven obviously can’t deliver.
“You try to meet and then exceed the audiences’ expectations, and you have to meet them first,” he said. “It is a challenge, but I think we’ve met it very well in this case.”
Theatre Winter Haven cast young actor Derek Wyatt in the role of George Bailey, and Small said he’s confident that Wyatt will be a wonderfully sympathetic Every Man in the lead role.
“A couple of years ago, we did ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ at Theatre Winter Haven, and we had the same discussion at that time,” Hartfield said. “The way I approach it is in a live performance, there’s always something a little extra that adds a little more pizzazz to the story.”
The story of “It’s A Wonderful Life” actually dates back to the 1930s. Author Philip Van Doren Stern had a dream that served as the inspiration for a short story he drafted called “The Greatest Gift.” When he couldn’t find a publisher for it, Stern printed 200 copies of the tale as a 21-page booklet – and sent it to friends as Christmas presents in December 1943.
RKO Pictures discovered the story, purchased the rights to it in April 1944, then sold it a year later to Capra, who adapted it as “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, although it lost to “The Best Years of Our Lives.” In the decades that followed, the movie became a staple on television around the holidays.
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