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The message of 'It's A Wonderful Life' rings true 75 years later

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

George and Clarence, mean Mr. Potter, Zuzu and her petals - and never forget...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")

KAROLYN GRIMES: (As Zuzu Bailey) Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.

SIMON: Aw, how true.

Monday marks 75 years since the debut of "It's A Wonderful Life," Frank Capra's masterpiece that wasn't initially hailed as a masterpiece at all.

Michael Willian is the author of "The Essential It's A Wonderful Life" - joins us now from Chicago.

Michael, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL WILLIAN: Hi, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Rather than talk about the ways in which the film seemed to be dated, take us back, if you could, to December 20, 1946. How does this film reflect the experience of the Second World War and some of the particular poignance in scenes?

WILLIAN: Well, it was a very interesting time. I mean, everyone's coming out of the war experience. And this was first impression for all of the actors and director Frank Capra - trying to get their legs under them. There was a lot of self-doubt about, you know, whether this was what they really wanted to be doing - or even trying to remember how to recapture the magic of filmmaking and acting. So, I think, for the cast and crew, this was really a remarkable time. And the film's a fine balance between wanting to look forward past the war - but also, it's still immersed in the history of the war. And there's many references and even a war montage that walks through all of the things that the Bedford Falls people contributed to the war effort. So it's a really interesting mix.

SIMON: And, of course, the realization that every life has a value, even if we don't immediately see it right in front of us.

WILLIAN: Absolutely. And, I mean, there's so many really wonderful themes in the film around the importance of friends and family, and that we all have, you know, value in our place in life. And Clarence is the one that kind of puts the finger on it all.

SIMON: Clarence the Angel - this is NPR. We have to explain that for the three people who've never seen the film - yeah.

WILLIAN: Correct - Clarence the Angel - and he takes George through Pottersville, which is the unborn sequence. It gives George the ability to see what life would be like if he hadn't been born. And Clarence - he points out - he really gets to the heart of it. Each person's life touches so many others. And when we're not around, we leave an awful hole.

SIMON: What do you think explains the initial reception that it got from audiences and those gosh-darn critics?

WILLIAN: I think people were a little unsettled coming out of the war. They may not have known exactly what they were looking for, but they were certainly looking for an easier go, potentially, as moviegoers. And it's a roller-coaster ride - I mean, a dark scene followed by a light scene all the way through. And I think there was just a little bit of uncertainty about how to market it. It truly did get good reviews. It just underperformed at the box office.

SIMON: Let me ask you about what I consider the most telling scene, if I might.

WILLIAN: Sure.

SIMON: And that's when Clarence the Angel shows George the burial stone of his brother Harry and says...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")

HENRY TRAVERS: (As Clarence) Your brother Harry Bailey broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of 9.

JAMES STEWART: (As George Bailey) That's a lie. Harry Bailey went to war. He got the Congressional Medal of Honor. He saved the lives of every man on that transport.

TRAVERS: (As Clarence) Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn't there to save them because you weren't there to save Harry.

SIMON: Oh, my word. That's just chills the heart to hear that. And I guess...

WILLIAN: It does.

SIMON: ...That's the message of the film, isn't it?

WILLIAN: True enough - I mean, one scene after another in Pottersville is gut-wrenching on some level. But this is the greatest gift of that film - is that George gets to see what life would have been like without him. And it's not real, thankfully. And it gives him a second chance.

SIMON: Yeah. What do you hope maybe some younger viewers who are just getting introduced to the film might take from it seeing it 75 years later?

WILLIAN: The messages from the film - listen - they transcend generations. There's no question about that - about the value that we all have and the positive impact that we have on each other's lives. But I actually look at it generationally from a little bit different perspective. To me, it's about tradition - and family tradition, specifically - sharing in the delight of knowing this film together and growing up with it and passing it along to the next generation. It's really neat.

SIMON: Michael Willian is author of "The Essential It's A Wonderful Life - 75th Anniversary Edition: A-Scene-By-Scene Guide To The Classic Film." Thank you so much for - wait - I - I think I - oh - just heard a bell ring - angel got his wings.

WILLIAN: I heard it, too. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFFREY BIEGEL'S "AULD LANG SYNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.