Is It Really 'A Wonderful Life'?

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Guests:

Murray Horwitz, film expert
Jeanine Basinger, chairs the film studies program at Wesleyan University, curator of the Capra archives; author of The It's A Wonderful Life Book
Wendell Jamieson, wrote "Wonderful? Sorry, George, It's a Pitiful, Dreadful Life," which appeared in The New York Times in Dec. 2008

Frank Capra's movie It's A Wonderful Life has become a holiday classic, and in 2009, Americans saw a lot of what George Bailey saw: a country at war, mounting debt and failing banks. Talk of the Nation's favorite film buffs take a look at Christmas through the lens of Capra's 1946 classic.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Christmas movies occupy a special place in our hearts. Sometimes as sickeningly sweet place, you know, sugar plums and all that - but well, "It's a Wonderful Life?" Well, there's sweetness to be sure but there's also war, poverty, shattered dreams, alcoholism, and let's not forget the threat of�

(Soundbite of Movie, "It's a Wonderful Life")

Mr. JAMES STEWART (Actor): (as George Bailey) Bankruptcy and scandal and prison.

CONAN: So today a trip to Bedford Falls to look at just how George Bailey became the richest man in town on Christmas Eve 1945. Just how wonderful a life is it? Murray Horwitz joins us in just a moment. Later on as the recession swells the ranks of those in need, a parish priest in England reconsiders thou shall not steal, but first what lesson from "It's a Wonderful Life," resonates with you most? This Christmas, give us a call 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Murray Horwitz joins us here in Studio 3A as he does most Christmases. Well Christmas Eve this year. He's TALK OF THE NATION's favorite film buff. Nice to have you back, Murray.

MURRAY HORWITZ: Good to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And we all know the ending of this movie but we forget this is a terrifying film.

HORWITZ: It really is. It's, I mean, any great, you know, I guess ultimately you'd have to say it's a comedy. And any great comedy, as you learn in drama 101, implies at least a bleak side of life, a dangerous side, a tough side, and unkind side of life. And every time I see this movie - and how can one avoid it?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: Or you just see scene, you forget, you think of it as kind of Christmas treacle but it's not, not at all.

CONAN: Listen to how the Scrooge of the film - and that's Mr. Potter who owns the big bank in town. Listen to how Mr. Scrooge of the film sums of the life of George Bailey quite accurately.

(Soundbite of Movie, "It's a Wonderful Life")

Mr. LIONEL BARRYMORE (Actor): (as Mr. Potter) George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He is an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man, who hates his job, who hates the building and loan, almost as much as I do. A young man who's been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man - the smartest one of the crowd, mind you - a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he's trapped. Yes sir, trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic eaters. Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?

CONAN: Oh, Lionel Barrymore.

HORWITZ: And he doesn't exaggerate at all. It's interesting George Bailey does not answer him directly, I mean, because he knows he's told the truth.

CONAN: Well, that moment he is at his wit's end.

HORWITZ: Yeah. That's true. Oh by the way, it is one of the great Scrooges. It's one of the ironies of the film because that's Lionel Barrymore and he did one of the great characterizations of Ebenezer Scrooge in a famous radio adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Everywhere you - I mean, it's established very early on in this film that the world is filled with idiots, you know, the druggist, Mr. Gower, and Uncle Billy, with death. You know, there's the telegram about Gower's son dying his - George's brother almost dies.

CONAN: First scene yeah, it's George's brother almost dies and he goes deaf.

HORWITZ: That's right, exactly so.

CONAN: In one ear.

HORWITZ: And there's superstition, you know, he has that little lighter - he goes like, you know, I wish I had million dollars, hotdog, you know. It's - without going too far, one of the things that makes this an American classic is, it's a really kind of de Tocquevillian synthesis of Hobbes and Locke: Our life is short brutish and nasty but there's this kind of social contract by which everything kind of gets negotiated in a cheerful way. And ultimately it's an optimistic film.

CONAN: Well, after teaching us the lesson that if you fall in love with a beautiful girl in town�

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: �your father will die.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: George Bailey then is on his way out of town and goes to the meeting where Mr. Potter tries to dissolve the building and loan and of course George then does answer Mr. Potter directly.

(Soundbite of movie, "It's A Wonderful Life")

Mr. STEWART (Actor): (as George Bailey) Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay, and live and die in a couple of decent rooms, and a bath? Anyway my father didn't think so.

CONAN: Anyway my father didn't think so.

HORWITZ: Well, and it's a very significant plot moment because Frank Capra the director and co-author of the script and the producer of the film - it's an independent production in 1946 - has said that this is his favorite film and he said in many ways it's because it was the distillation of all of his films. It's about the importance of the individual. And in that scene just by making that short speech in which he says he's gone on too long. He changes everybody's mind and Mr. Potter is voted down.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. In what way does "It's a Wonderful Life" - our nation at war, panics at the banks, you can't get the home repairs done, how does it echo in your life these days?

HORWITZ: Sounds familiar.

CONAN: 800-989-8255, e-mail us talk@npr.org. Rob(ph) is on the line from Murfreesboro in Tennessee.

ROB (Caller): Ah, yes. We did our annual watching of "It's A Wonderful Life" this past week. And as someone that is - just recently hit 50, a part that struck me now that didn't have a past was how it's okay not to have met your dreams because we are not alone in that. And you have to take joy in what's around you.

CONAN: Your dreams, of course, George Bailey's dream is also to get out of this - get out of this town.

HORWITZ: He never gets there. And, Rob, you said, we: does that include young people that you�

ROB: Ah, yeah, it's cautionary to young because I have got a freshman in college, and he just knows that he is going to go out and whip the world.

CONAN: We could play him, in fact, this very speech from George Bailey.

(Soundbite of movie, "It's A Wonderful Life")

Mr. STEWART: (as George Bailey) Mary, I know what I'm going do tomorrow, and the next day, and next year, and the year after that. I'm shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm going see the world: Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then, I'm coming back here and go to college and see what they know. And then I'm going build things.

CONAN: Build great things. And well, Rob, of course, he doesn't get do that. He gets to build the building and loan.

ROB: Yeah, that's it. He just - always it's the nice guy having to do the right thing at the sacrifice of what he knew in his heart his was really meant to do.

HORWITZ: And how did your son react to the lesson?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROB: Well, he just pooh-poohs and doesn't want to watch it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: He maybe very fond of it 20 years from now.

ROB: We can only hope.

CONAN: Thanks - thanks very much for the call, Rob, and merry Christmas to you.

ROB: You too, bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And while we're always glad to have Murray's encyclopedic movie mind, we also have invited the person who literally wrote the book on this movie. Jeanine Basinger is the curator of the Capra archives and the author of "The It's A Wonderful Life Book," and she joined us by phone now from her home in South Dakota. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. JEANINE BASINGER (Author, "The It's A Wonderful Life Book"): Thank you. I'm happy to be here, very interested in the conversation, of course.

CONAN: And do you think of this as a Christmas movie?

Ms. BASINGER: No, I think of this as the downer of the universe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BASINGER: Every time I see it I bang my head on the wall. I - no, you know, I don't think of it as a Christmas movie. But, you know, interestingly it wasn't intended to be a Christmas movie. It was shoved into the Christmas release of 1946 because RKO's big escape movie, their Technicolor production of "Sinbad The Sailor," wasn't ready for the release. And so, it didn't do very good business over Christmas in its first release which has sort of given rise to the idea that it was a financial failure which it actually wasn't. It wasn't the big success financially that Capra's films usually were.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BASINGER: It didn't lose money. But it's a sad movie and in many ways, and when - I always say that it became a Christmas movie through television.

CONAN: Yeah, that's where I first saw it as an oddity: I was the only one in my house not allowed to go out that year on New Year's Eve and caught this movie in the best possible way, knowing nothing about it on a black-and-white TV, sitting alone, feeling terribly sorry for myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And I - just absolutely entranced.

Ms. BASINGER: You see that's the whole thing. I mean, what people are - despite our insane attempts to pretend we were riotously happy during the holidays, I mean, most people - it's a time, the end of the year. You're examining your life, you're thinking about what you've done. You return to home to your family. There's - many good things are happening for people, and yet it is a time when most people do what the caller said.

You know, you think about, well, how old am I now? What have I done? Did I get ever get out of town? Have my dreams come true?

CONAN: I guess I'll never play second base for the Yankees.

Ms. BASINGER: Exactly. And I'll never be point guard for the Boston Celtics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BASINGER: And that's been tough, let me tell you.

CONAN: Me, too.

Mr. HORWITZ: I have to say, because even though you used the word encyclopedic, you've got to take at least one second, Neal, to say that we're on the phone with Jeanine Basinger, who is one of the great teachers of film, scholars of film, in the United States. And so I'm humbled before you, Jeanine.

Ms. BASINGER: Oh, that's so sweet.

Mr. HORWITZ: I do have a question, though, about the script because there are rumors that I found online and stories about how when Capra got the project, there were a couple of scripts already attached to it, and names were thrown around like Dorothy Parker and Clifford Odets and Dalton Trumbo. Did these people actually have any kind of hand in the writing of it?

Ms. BASINGER: When Capra bought the project, there were three scripts that had already been done. Initially, it was purchased by RKO as a possible project for Carey Grant, but they couldn't ever get a script that worked.

I mean, it does present - you know, talking angels and stuff, you know. I mean, it does present some issues. And what they had actually purchased was just a little, tiny story that had been on a Christmas card.

But there were original scripts done, and one was Clifford Odets, one was Dalton Trumbo and Marc Connelly - not Dorothy Parker, but...

CONAN: But those are three pretty - those are heavyweights.

Ms. BASINGER: Yeah, no, absolutely. And they couldn't crack it. I mean, they just couldn't get it right. And it went through a lot of transitions and a lot of writing and rewriting until they finally came up with this, and Capra purchased it for only $10,000. And he, of course, immediately thought of it as being for Jimmy Stewart. He never considered anyone but Stewart.

Mr. HORWITZ: He was right.

CONAN: Ten thousand dollars. That's double the price of a home in Bedford Falls.

Mr. HORWITZ: In Bedford Falls. The other thing is the people who are credited with him are Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, a husband-and-wife writing team who were writers of extraordinary technical, as well emotional and intellectual, range.

I mean, they not only did Westerns and musicals and sort of film noire, but they did - but great ones. I mean, they did "The Diary of Anne Frank," and they wrote "The Thin Man," and they wrote "Easter Parade," and they wrote "The Virginian." They were amazing.

CONAN: Well, after reading the book "The Thin Man," I could've written the script for "The Thin Man." Come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: If you'd had William Powell and Myrna Loy...

CONAN: Well, yeah, that's all I needed. But anyway...

Ms. BASINGER: Asta makes it.

CONAN: Asta makes the whole movie.

Ms. BASINGER: Asta, better known as Skippy. Skippy was actually - Skippy played Asta. Let's not forget Skippy.

CONAN: All right, well - and got al the good dialogue, anyway. But Jeanine Basinger, hold on. We're going to have to take a short break. We'll be back with Murray Horwitz. We're talking about "It's A Wonderful Life," which taught us any number of things.

(Soundbite of movie, "It's a Wonderful Life")

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. HENRY TRAVERS (Actor): (As Clarence) Every time you hear a bell rings, it means that some angel's just got his wings.

CONAN: I never knew that before. What a lesson from "It's a Wonderful Life." What lesson from the film resonates with you most this Christmas? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tonight, it's Christmas Eve, no better time to look back at the movie that immortalized one man's very difficult December 24th, George Bailey. We're talking with Murray Horwitz. He's TALK OF THE NATION's favorite film buff - as well as with Jeanine Basinger, who wrote "The It's a Wonderful Life Book" and curates the Capra Archives.

CONAN: What's the lesson from "It's a Wonderful Life" that resonates most with you this Christmas? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go next to Dave, and Dave's with us from Rochester in New York.

DAVE (Caller): Hey, gentlemen, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

Mr. HORWITZ: Great. Merry Christmas.

DAVE: Merry Christmas. Thanks for taking my call. Well, here in Rochester, we're really lucky. We have a place called the George Eastman House, and they have a huge film archive. And just last night, they screened "It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen.

And the thing was, I went there, and they had to turn people away. There were hundreds and hundreds of people. And the great part was it was just an audience of some little kids, from little five, six-year-old kids all the way to octogenarians. We were all sitting together watching this movie in a packed movie house, and it just felt so good that everybody was there together enjoying it. At the end of the movie, you know, everyone's, you know - people are wiping tears and smiling and talking to each other. And...

CONAN: But Dave, what lesson did you take away from this...

DAVE: I will tell you, the lesson that I took from the film - not only that, you know, it is, in fact, a wonderful life, but I did learn that if, in fact, you do not, as a woman, get married and have children and a husband, you turn into a spinster librarian, apparently.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right, a fate worse than death.

DAVE: And that was the one thing that put him over the top. It was - you know, you're not going to like this, George. You're not going to like this.

CONAN: You're not going to like this. Donna Reed's not going to like you.

DAVE: Exactly, and she was - you know, you turn frumpy. It's sad.

CONAN: It is. Donna Reed played a very convincing frumpy. She was also really very, very pretty.

Mr. HORWITZ: Gorgeous.

DAVE: Yeah. Well, it was a wonderful film, and, you know, I watch it every year, and every year I cry, and it's part of the tradition.

CONAN: Well, you not only have the wonderful Eastman Institute there, but a great radio station, WXXI.

DAVE: Absolutely, thank you gentlemen, have a wonderful holiday.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thank you, too.

CONAN: Bye-bye. I wonder, Jeanine, what did Capra think of this movie?

Ms. BASINGER: Well, he was very proud of it. First of all, he liked it in the first place and felt it was his magnum opus, as Murray had said, or one of you said earlier. But what he said to me and he often said to my students was it had a strange original afterlife, that although it was nominated for Oscars, it didn't win any, but he started getting an unusually high number of letters about it. And he said, I sat down to write an answer to a letter in 1947, and when I got up, it was 1967.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BASINGER: So for 20 years, people just wrote me and wrote me and wrote me. And he said, I finally realized that this film, as much or more than any other film I made, touched people. They might hate it, they might love it, but they couldn't let it alone.

And one of the things I notice in the archive, that I always say, it's the silly season. We take bets. Is it going to be October 25th? Is it going to be November 3rd? When is the first request for an interview going to come?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BASINGER: And also, when are we going to get the first angry letter, telling us we're idiots because we like it or - you know, I mean, it's amazing. It continues to live. I mean, it has a vibrant life, as the caller described so beautifully, that big, full audience in that wonderful theater at Eastman House. It's amazing, really.

CONAN: Let's get Charlie on the line, Charlie with us from Wichita.

CHARLIE (Caller): Yes, on that very subject, I have a two-page little bread-and-butter response from Frank Capra because I wrote to him in 1975, and like you, I sat and watched it all by myself on a little black-and-white TV, and I was so taken with it. I have no idea where I got his mailing address, because it was before the Internet.

So that, I have no clue. But he starts off in the letter apologizing for taking so long to reply, but he's been out on the circuit, on the college circuit, and he tells me, in this little letter, just how blown away he is by this newest generation's love of his movie.

And I might point out that apparently, Jim Henson, it's one of his favorite movies, too.

CONAN: Ah, I did not know that.

CHARLIE: When you consider Bert and Ernie.

CONAN: Sure, yeah, absolutely. The cop and the cab driver.

Mr. HORWITZ: The cop and the taxi driver are Bert and Ernie, right.

CONAN: Not the cab driver and the conventioneer, that was something completely different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Charlie, thanks very much for the call.

CHARLIE: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Jeanine Basinger, thank you so much for your time today.

Ms. BASINGER: It was my pleasure, and wonderful to hear. I guarantee you that Charlie's letter is in our archive, because Frank saved every one of those letters. They meant a great deal. Thanks for having me on, and Murray, lots of love to you and your family.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thank you, and Merry Christmas, Jeanine.

Ms. BASINGER: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Jeanine Basinger wrote "The It's a Wonderful Life Book." She's chair of the film studies program at Wesleyan University and joined us today from her home in South Dakota.

And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Glen(ph), Glen with us from Stoughton in Wisconsin.

GLEN (Caller): Yes. I had to call in when I heard - found out you were talking about this movie. I've got - I've seen it in the hundreds of times, I believe, and it was actually the theme for my wedding.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. HORWITZ: Oh, my gosh.

CONAN: Did you have a basketball floor that opened up with a pool underneath?

Mr. HORWITZ: Did they play "Buffalo Gals"?

GLEN: I believe we did play "Buffalo Gals," yes. We asked if everyone could dress in black and white. We had the little Liberty Bell that - for the liberty films at the beginning of the movie that people needed to ring when they wanted us to kiss.

One other thing, during a very depressed period of my life, I received a letter anonymously, which quoted the quote that Clarence writes in "Tom Sawyer" in the book about no man is a failure who has friends, and I never did find out who send that to me.

But one other thing, I'd read a book by Danny Piery(ph) about cult films, and he points out that the moments in this movie where most people cry are actually happy moments. The things that precede them are so dark that it's explosively cathartic when Mr. Gower hugs young George Bailey, or...

Mr. HORWITZ: Yes, that's an important point, Glen, because this is something that my filmmaker son points out. He says that the - you earn - that Capra earns the happy ending.

So many of the treacley Christmas films that, you know, that are churned out every season, it seems, don't last and don't have this kind of life of their own, as Jeanine Basinger pointed out. What happens is that they flourish in a day and die in a day. But this one, there's so much of the bleak side of life in it that when happy things, good things, do happen, it's redemptive, and we recognize them, I think. And we cry with recognition. It's - I'll stop there.

CONAN: All right. Glen, thanks - did anybody get their wings at your wedding, by the way?

GLEN: I guess my wife and I did.

CONAN: Well, congratulations. Thanks very much for the call.

Last year, Wendell Jamieson wrote an essay in the New York Times looking back at the tougher parts of this film. It's called "Wonderful? Sorry, George, It's a Pitiful, Dreadful Life." In it, he writes that when he was 15, he was struck by the sequence where George sees what Bedford Falls would've become if he'd never been born. It has become Pottersville.

(Soundbite of movie, "It's a Wonderful Life")

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Pottersville is packed with nightclubs, burlesque halls, gambling dens and, well, when George comes to the old Building and Loan site, it's now dime-a-dance. Violet Bick is being dragged out of it. She's a dime dancer now, and well, maybe something worse.

Mr. HORWITZ: We know what that means.

CONAN: Wendell Jamieson is deputy metropolitan editor at the New York Times. He joins us today from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. WENDELL JAMIESON (Deputy Metropolitan Editor, New York Times): Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And yet, in your article, you say Pottersville seems like a lot of fun.

Mr. JAMIESON: It seems like so much more fun than Bedford Falls to me, now and when I was 15. The - what is it? The Indian Room, and the various - Bamboo Cocktail Lounge. It's terrific. It's packed with people. It's vibrant, and it's an exciting town. I'd go there now, if I had the chance.

CONAN: The women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night.

Mr. JAMIESON: Absolutely. And another thing that's interesting, I think, though, more seriously, if you look at the history of manufacturing in Upstate New York since World War II, you know, George helped build the various factories in Bedford Falls. They've all gone down the tubes. But an entertainment Mecca upstate, something like Saratoga, is still thriving. So the truth of the matter is, Pottersville or Bedford Falls may have been better off without George Bailey in the long run, economically.

CONAN: I could only say, well, in defense of Bedford Falls, that Pottersville would have probably been driven out of business by an Indian casino next door.

Mr. HORWITZ: I mean, there were Pottersvilles, I guess. I mean, you know, like East St. Louis, Illinois, did not do particularly well in the 1950s and '60s and '70s.

CONAN: Your article also mentions a thing that everybody can relate to: A lot of this story is about the money pit of a house that...

Mr. JAMIESON: Absolutely. You know, when I was 15, you know, I maybe focused a little bit more on the concept of Donna Reed being naked behind a bush, but now that I'm in my 40s and own a condo, I think my God, how is he ever going to fix up that house? Could you imagine the cost overruns and the contractors and the subcontractors and the leaks and the electricians? Oh, my God. It's terrible.

CONAN: This is how he confronts the situation when, at the beginning of the movie, he's realizing that, well, he's just got a million things to fix.

(Soundbite of movie, "It's a Wonderful Life")

Mr. JAMES STEWART (Actor): (As George Bailey) Of course, it's this old house. I don't know why we don't all have pneumonia, drafty old barn of a place. Might as well be living in a refrigerator. Why do we have to live here in the first place and stay around this measly, crummy old town?

Ms. DONNA REED (Actor): (As Mary Hatch) George, what's wrong?

Mr. STEWART: (As George Bailey) Wrong everything. Well, you call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?

Ms. COOMBS: (As Janie Bailey) Dad, how do you spell frankincense?

Mr. STEWART: (As George Bailey) I don't know. Why, ask you mother.

CONAN: Why do we have to have all these kids?

Mr. HORWITZ: He hadn't figured it out.

CONAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It is the house that is a character. Of course, earlier on in the film they have to throw rocks through the windows�

Mr. HORWITZ: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: �for good luck and wishes.

Mr. HORWITZ: One of the things I like about the film is that there's a kind of - I think, everything that you say, Wendell, of course, is correct. But it acknowledges that life is a negotiation. And that what we achieve at best is a kind of negotiated happiness between - you know, it reminds me, maybe this is why it's such an American document, "It's a Wonderful Life." The great jazz scholar Albert Murray has said, the thing about the blues is, the blues are ultimately optimistic. And the blues, the blues, you sing the blues to get rid of the blues. That life is a lowdown, dirty, rotten, shame, shouldn't happen to a dog, so you can either sit and stew about that or you can shine your shoes and get ready to stop at the Savoy at 9 o'clock.

CONAN: Well, and I have to ask you, Wendell Jamieson, though, George Bailey, we admire George Bailey. He's got tremendous qualities, but he is also tremendously flawed. In fact, he tries to kill himself.

Mr. JAMIESON: He's flawed and he's very angry. He is filled with rage.

Mr. HORWITZ: He can be very nasty.

Mr. JAMIESON: This is a guy, very nasty. He's nasty to the Mary character from the minute you meet them in the drugstore. What she ever saw in him is beyond me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMIESON: He's in a rage throughout the whole film. And even at the end -we talk about the happy ending. Well, let's take a step back a minute, okay? So everybody in the town raises $8,000 so he doesn't have to go to jail. And the next day - he may have to go to jail anyway, by the way. I'm not sure that restitution would have necessarily gotten him out of that jam. But let's just say he does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMIESON: The next day, he has to go back to work, doesn't he? Back to the building and loan. And $8,000 that he maybe could have used to take a trip or do something great with his life, he had to use just to - because of dumb Uncle Billy losing that money. I mean, it's a very temporary Band-aid happy ending his miserable life, I'm afraid. I almost think that the title "It's a Wonderful Life" is almost sarcastic. His life, it's not going to be that great the next day. It's back to the building and loan, man - the building and loan, man.

CONAN: You mentioned that he loses his temper with Uncle Billy, understandably.

(Soundbite of movie, "It's a Wonderful Life")

Mr. THOMAS MITCHELL: (As Uncle Billy) I can't think anymore, George. I can't think anymore, it hurts.

Mr. STEWART: (As George Bailey) Where is that money, you silly, stupid old fool? Where is that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison. That's what it means. One of us is going to jail. Well, it's not going to be me.

CONAN: Yeah. Well, this reminds you of the scene in "The Maltese Falcon": One of us is going over, that's not me. But, it is Uncle Billy. Well, he did lose the money. Well, Mr. Potter stole it. But it is�

Mr. JAMIESON: Mr. Potter was accidentally given it. He kind of kept it. I'm not sure if he quite stole it.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, I think you'd have a hard time to prove that to the judge, too.

CONAN: Well, yeah. But he (unintelligible).

Mr. JAMIESON: I don't think he committed a crime. I don't think Potter committed a crime.

CONAN: You don't think, really?

Mr. JAMIESON: Well, Uncle Billy handed it to him. He didn't take it. He didn't pull it out of his pocket or anything. There's no crime there. There's no - you know, it's not illegal to be a dishonest citizen, is it?

CONAN: No.

Mr. HORWITZ: I'm not putting my stocking up in your living room. I got news for you. We both�

CONAN: Yet you also say, Wendell Jamieson, this is one of your favorite movies.

Mr. JAMIESON: I love this movie. I think it's a great movie. I think it's a scary horror movie. A lot of people love horror movies. And I think having seen it many dozens of times - including just this last weekend in preparation for this interview. It's such a well-made movie there's so many layers in it. There's so many little tiny weird things that you only notice on the 10th or the 20th of the 30th viewing.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, it's very true.

CONAN: Murray and I have been going back and forth about all the character actors in that (unintelligible).

Mr. HORWITZ: And one of the things I noticed we're seeing this morning, Wendell, in preparation for this is the - at the scene where he destroys the model bridge and he's almost ready to out and kill himself, you look over his shoulder and Jimmy Stewart has behind in a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. And then in the next scene or a couple of scenes later, he goes to meet with Mr. Potter and Potter has a bust of Napoleon.

Mr. JAMIESON: Yes. I saw that - I saw that this weekend for the same time too. And also behind him near his bridge, he has portraits, photographs of Uncle Billy, his mom, everyone he sees every day.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah.

Mr. JAMIESON: No wonder he's out of his mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMIESON: He can't get away from these people. Another cool thing I noticed in that scene you very first used this afternoon when Mr. Potter is talking about what a smart guy George is. They shoot from over Lionel Barrymore's shoulder and you see George. And right on the desk is this little, tiny, like shrunken head screaming monkey skull.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yes, it's a skull.

Mr. JAMIESON: It's bizarre. My wife noticed it. It's just bizarre and creepy on so many levels. And I love it.

CONAN: Wendell Jamieson, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. JAMIESON: Thank you.

CONAN: Wendell Jamieson wrote an essay in the New York Times last year titled, "Wonderful? Sorry, George. It's a pitiful, dreadful life" in which he argued it's a horror movie. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we get one last caller in. And let's go quickly to Pat(ph). Pat with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

PAT (Caller): Hi. Thank you for answering my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PAT: Well, I am in Wilmington, North Carolina, and it's home of Screen Gem Studio, Frank Capra Jr.'s movie industry here. And we have been fortunate over the past few years. He's been showing this on the big screen here at the university, at UNCW.

CONAN: And I don't mean to hurry you, but what lesson do you draw from the film this year?

PAT: Well, it's just been wonderful that and you guys need to get over it. You have no idea what kind of lives you touch, how many people are influenced by your life. And the very fact that we're talking about this movie however many years later just indicates to me that we all have an opportunity to make a difference and to influence people in a positive way.

CONAN: And Pat, that's a wonderful lesson. Thank you very much for the call.

PAT: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'll end with this e-mail from Barbara. "It's a Wonderful Life" was my former spouse's favorite movie. He died five years ago after succumbing to alcoholism and prescription drug addiction. I spent the last five years raising our son, knowing what the world is like now that my former spouse is no longer part of it. If only he'd followed George Bailey's example. And by the way it is "A Wonderful Life," and of course, Murray�

Mr. HORWITZ: That's great.

CONAN: �at the end, George is still the envy of us all.

(Soundbite of movie, "It's a Wonderful Life")

Mr. TODD KARNS (Actor): (As Harry Bailey) To my big brother, George, the richest man in town.

(Soundbite of song, "Auld Lang Syne")

Unidentified Group: �be forgot, and never brought to mind �

CONAN: Murray, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thank you so much, Neal. It's the lesson of the film to me is always good which is never be discouraged.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz, TALK OF THE NATION's favorite film buff. He joined us here in Studio 3A.

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