It takes George Bailey a Long Time to Learn that when a Door Closes a Window Opens.
Produced by one of Seattle’s best kept secrets, West Seattle’s Twelfth Night Productions, a live radio play version of the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life has just opened up at Kenyon Hall. Unlike many Christmas shows of the sentimental variety, which have implausible happy endings and are devoid of serious content, It’s a Wonderful Life has always intrigued me because of its layers of cultural and historical nuances as well as its entertaining wisdom.
Most of us know the story of the Bedford Falls, N.Y. Savings and Loan officer, George Bailey, who contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve, when it looks like he may lose the family business. Up in heaven, Clarence, a junior level angel in heaven is appointed to save him. But first, a senior level supervising angel explains how George, through a series of accidental twists of fates, has had all his youthful ambitions thwarted, and has never accepted that he has had a much fuller life than his youthful self ever expected.
Clarence takes George back in time and shows him what would have happened had he never been born, thereby demonstrating that George actually did realize a lot of his youthful ambitions and touched many people’s lives positively. More importantly, he successfully stood up for justice, decency and his fellow man in some very challenging situations. When George realizes that he has had an incredible life, he becomes happier than he ever was before, decides to live, and Clarence gets a promotion in heaven
Originally a short story by Phillip Van Doren Stern called The Greatest Gift, adapted as a movie by legendary director Frank Capra for RKO studio, starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and a Scrooge-like Lionel Barrymore, the date when it was first shown is historically significant.
It opened December 20, 1946, in New York City, that is to say one and a half years after the end of World War II, when a lot of veterans were adjusting to mundane civilian lives. No longer Great Heroes, they had to stop expecting and depending on the adrenaline rushes of combat and accept routine and humdrum lives. Just as George Bailey had to do his whole life; in his opinion, he had never been the hero of his own novel.
Concurrently, the U.S. was dealing with the hangover, after the euphoria of the World War II victory; namely the take-over by the Soviet Union of Eastern Europe and the imposition of undemocratic governments and communist economic structures.
In order to sell the ensuing cold war, a robust propaganda effort tried to convince people in the U.S. that EVERYBODY in the U.S. that was better off under Capitalism, and that Individualism rather than Collectivism would give the little guy a chance in life.
This much revered American cultural value is presented in the David and Goliath struggle of George Bailey vs. Mr. Potter, the bullying town banker. George, the symbol of petit bourgeois individualism wins against the more powerful forces of Capitalism as represented by Mr. Potter. The message is clear, the little guy can get a fair deal in the U.S. and will realize that Socialism offers him nothing.
However, the FBI who seemed to see a red under every bed, saw it differently. On May 26, 1947, the FBI issued a memo stating:
” With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, …the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists. …this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”
But this story is more than Communist or Capitalist propaganda because it deals with themes of morality, fate, the pursuit of happiness, and of course George Bailey’s own character development.
The strength of the production was the music provided by Lou Magor at the genuine Wurlitzer Organ and the sound effects by Rex Walters, which were stunning. As George Bailey, Nate Maddox put in a believable performance as a man with a lot of internal conflicts, yet guided by a strong moral compass. The weakness was the interruption by two original radio commercials. By themselves, they were witty and the songs within the commercials, sung to the tunes of Christmas jingles, were highly creative; however, It’s a Wonderful Life would have been better played straight through. Fake commercials are fine in a live radio variety show, but a full-length radio play can stand on its own.
Preceding It’s a Wonderful Life, was a 20 minute episode of Twelfth Night Radio Mystery Playhouse’s Dick Doubleheart in the Case of the Missing Snowman, a sort of live “radio noir” short. Although it had all the right ingredients: some jokes, a sultry-voiced femme fatal, New Yorkese accents etc, it fell flat because the acting was caricatured, played for laughs, with low energy and slow pacing. However, some people liked it.
But, it is really worthwhile to see It’s a Wonderful Life. It works extremely well as a radio play as the dialogue carries the plot. It is not just another syrupy Christmas play, it addresses serious concerns about the human condition, in an entertaining uplifting manner.
It’s a Wonderful Life A live Radio Play, Twelfth Night Productions Kenyon Hall, 7904-35th Ave SW, 98126. West Seattle. Dec. 8, 9, 15, 16 at 7:30. Sun 10, 17 3 pm. Tickets: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3163862. Plenty of street parking . Two Bar/Cafés right next door. Directions: https://www.mapquest.com/us/wa/seattle-282039223?zoom=5