THROUGH THE COVID LENS: It’s a Wonderful Life
Reassessing “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the Age of Coronavirus
“Nobody knows anything…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.”-William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade
William Goldman’s famous words apply to practically every project in Hollywood history, but they are especially true of the Frank Capra Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Released seventy-four years ago this week, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not financially successful during its initial theatrical run and received only lukewarm reviews at the time. It was not until it became a television staple of the holiday season in the late 1970s that it finally got a much-needed reappraisal. It has remained a must-watch Christmas film ever since.
Based on a self-published Christmas short-story-pamphlet “The Greatest Gift” which author Philip Van Doren Stern mailed to family and friends in 1943, “It’s a Wonderful Life” stars Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore in a story that needs no summary. It has become such a cultural staple that, even if you have never seen it, you know the plot and can recognize classic quotes from it.
By 1990, the film’s reputation had grown to the point that the Library of Congress deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant;” selecting it for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is now rightly considered one of the best movies every made. It sits at No. 20 on The American Film Institutes list of The 100 Greatest American Movies Ever Made. From flop to indispensible classic, this film illustrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Goldman was right…”No one knows anything.”
This is a film chock-a-block with scenes that have worked their way into the firmament of American culture. From the bloody ear to falling in the pool, lassoing the moon, the run on the banks, and “Merry Christmas you old, wonderful Building and Loan,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” is quite simply unforgettable. But, arguably, its most unforgettable scene is its tear-jerking, heart-warming final scene.
(Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for a 74-year-old movie! Seriously, if you haven’t seen it, go watch it right now. We’ll wait!)
In this article, we will take a closer look at that amazing final scene with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into four categories:
- Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
- Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
- Small tweaks that increase safety
- Major changes that maximize safety
This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected one of the most famous scenes in film history. Let’s look at “It’s a Wonderful Life’s” joyous finale and see, first, what elements are already COVID-19 ready.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe
When director Frank Capra and company were filming this scene in the early summer of 1946, no one had to think about pandemic safety on set. And yet, there are several aspects of the scene that follow good COVID-19 safety procedures. Here we want to highlight two areas:
- Location Control
Much of “It’s a Wonderful Life” was filmed on the RKO Radio Picture’s 89-acre movie ranch in Encino, CA. The Bedford Falls set itself took up more than 4-acres and included a 300-yard-long main street with seventy-five stores and buildings, a tree-lined center parkway, a residential neighborhood, and a working bank set. Capra went so far as to bring in pigeons, cats, and dogs and allowed them to roam free around the entire set to make it feel like a real, lived-in town.
When your production can afford to build a giant, working town, you can truly maintain location control. As we have mentioned before in our articles on set organization, location scouting, and “Good Fellas,” location control is vital in the COVID-19 era. In order to comply with The Safe Way Forward guidelines we must build a multi-layered bubble around our sets. We must test and track everything (and everyone) that enters each location.
In addition to time, money, and resources, these safety procedures require extra space. When you are not shooting on a real location but, instead, on a studio lot in a production-built, production-controlled set, you have the space to spread out. Keeping your set safe becomes easier. You don’t have to worry about residents of the town where you are filming wandering onto the set. Everyone in your “town” is part of the production.
With this in mind, we can see that quite a lot of “It’s a Wonderful Life” was shot in a way that makes it pretty safe to shoot during a pandemic.
Understandably, many of us cannot afford to shoot our films this way. Studio space is in short supply and high demand right now. But for those who can afford it, this is one of the safest ways to go. When we maximize location control, we maximize safety.
Shooting indoors is not advisable during a pandemic (see below). If you must shoot indoors, consider positioning your cast the way the leads are positioned in this scene.
In this final scene, George Bailey (Stewart) is the other side of a table from the crowd of people happily storming into his house to give him money. This ensures the star of the movie does not interact with the crowd.
After a while, his wife Mary (Reed) joins him on that side of the table. Once they are both on the same side, in the same shot, they remain there for the rest of the scene. This creates a good (though not great) level of separation between the townspeople and the two leads of the picture.
Blocking your actors to create separation is a good way to increase the safety of a scene. Overall, however, this scene is not very COVID-19 safe. In fact, some of it is downright dangerous.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
Crowds are one of the leading causes of outbreaks in this pandemic. Indoor crowds that sing and cheer, are quite simply too risky to film.
While this scene does have blocking that separates the main cast from the community, the distance between them is not large enough to ensure their safety. Furthermore, Donna Reed begins the scene in the crowd and then moves to the safer side of the table later in the scene.
This is not something we would ever advise doing during this pandemic. Granted, because Capra had such a monumental level of location control, he could have tested and quarantined the townsfolk. That step would make this scene much safer than it looks. But this is still not a scene we would advise shooting right now.
The indoor setting coupled with the amount of people in such a tight space— further compounded by the joyful singing and cheering—makes this scene too dangerous to shoot as is. We can make this scene much safer with a few small, simple steps.
Small Tweaks That Increase Safety
Minor adjustments to the set, in conjunction with a few modifications to the crowd, will dramatically affect the scene’s safety and have little effect on its power.
These small adjustments can help make this scene safer to film during a pandemic:
- Because this set is a built on a sound stage, we can construct a room with more space for the happy ending. By moving some walls and increasing the size of the space, we could still fill the room on-camera without filling the room in real life. This would allow for better distancing and reduce the likelihood of transmission.
- The scene is mainly comprised of four shots: over George’s shoulder, over the crowd’s shoulders, clean on the crowd, and clean on George (and family). Eliminating the over the shoulder shots would ensure that our leads are never in the same room with the crowd. This dramatically increases the safety for our stars.
- If we must get an over the shoulder shot of George, we would suggest tightening the framing so we can’t see George’s face. This would allow us to use a stand-in and outfit the stand-in with a mask and face shield.
- Ensure proper ventilation systems are in place in the sound stage. Proper ventilation is imperative when filming anything indoors right now.
- Schedule this scene as late in your shooting schedule as possible to minimize the potential of an outbreak.
Without drastically changing the scene, we can still increase set safety. Customizing the set for optimal distancing, eliminating the need for our lead actors to be on set with the crowd, allowing for maximum PPE usage, checking the ventilation, and moving the scene to the end of the schedule are all possible solutions.
Major Changes That Maximize Safety
Changing this scene in any significant way is a ridiculous suggestion. It is one of the greatest films ever made. It is Jimmy Stewart’s most famous role and Frank Capra’s favorite of his films. We’re just brainstorming ways to make it safer if we had to film it during this pandemic.
As always, we must consider the worst-case scenarios when assessing risk on a production. With COVID-19, that worst case is death. What if Hollywood-icon Jimmy Steward got COVID-19 during this scene and died? Or the legendary Lionel Barrymore? Or the irreplaceable Donna Reed?
The major safety issues with the scene are the crowd and the cramped indoor location. To preserve the scene’s impact, we need to maintain the large number of people. This scene needs the never-ending procession of people George has helped over the course of his life coming back to help him in his time of need. Without that, there is no point in shooting the scene.
If we were filming “It’s a Wonderful Life” today—with an eye toward COVID-19 safety—we would highlight this scene during pre-production and make sure the creative team is aware of just how dangerous it could be. Then, together, we could find the safest way to shoot it.
To maximize safety, we must either eliminate the crowd or the location. We have already agreed that the crowd must stay. So, looking through the COVID lens, can we find a way to maintain this scene’s beautiful parade of familiar faces without having our main actors and crowd in the same confined space?
Scene Analysis for Safety
One way to approach the issue of a vital but dangerously staged scene is to examine the meaning and impact of the setting itself. Then see if that opens up new possibilities.
For example, the Baileys’ living room is not a setting that has much importance or impact in this film’s story. Few of the movie’s iconic scenes prior to the ending take place in this room. The exterior of the house, however, is a different story.
The façade of The Bailey Home is where George promises to “lasso the moon” for Mary. It is also integral to the touching comedy of the honeymoon scene. In fact, the exterior of the house is used throughout the film as a symbol of the state of things in Bedford Falls and in George’s life. Could we possibly bring that meaning and impact to bear on this ending? Could that increase the significance of the finale?
Suppose this scene was re-staged on the porch of the Bailey house. This would continue the thematic connection and importance of the exterior by linking it directly to the most powerful scene in the film. The recurring visuals of this house would have a cumulative effect on the audience, just as all the returning faces compound on each other to make the ending so touching.
On a practical level, restaging this scene on the front porch gives our set much better air flow and social distancing. This would dramatically increase the safety of the set.
Could we take things even farther in the direction of safety by gathering the crowd on the other side of the Bailey’s waist-high iron fence? In this alternative set-up the townspeople could come one (or a few) at a time through the gate to deliver the money. This would increase distancing for our actors, and also potentially make each community member’s kindness more impactful.
Building on this idea, an exterior-set version of this scene would allow the scene to grow even grander than it already is. We could have snow falling and the golden hues from lights spilling onto the snow-covered ground. Outside we could have more townsfolks. That’s right, with the safety of outdoors on our side, we could safely make the crowd even larger, with perhaps a line of people forming to come and help George Bailey.
Furthermore, the movie begins outside; with the camera floating through the town as we hear the prayers of all the residents asking for some help for George Bailey. By setting this final scene outside, we could bring the film full circle; possibly even showing people coming out of the very same homes from the opening.
Finally, by moving things outside could we possibly have George look up at the night sky when he thanks Clarence? Perhaps we could crane up to show the entire town coming to help The Bailey’s. Then, maybe, we could tilt up toward the sky and see a star wink down at George before we fade to black.
The limitations put on our productions by the mandates of pandemic safety do not need to limit our creativity. In fact, they can and should inspire us to new levels of creativity that might just improve the story. With the right team on board, it is possible to do just that. We highly recommend on-boarding COVID-19 risk managers during the pre-production process to allow for brainstorming your way out of dangerous, but essential, scenes.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” has an ending that will continue to warm the hearts of audiences for another seventy-four years. Beyond that, though, this movie is a perfect companion piece for this time of the year and this time in history.
At the beginning of the movie, Mr. Gower, the pharmacist, is distraught because his son has died. Pause the movie on the telegram and read it carefully. The letter is dated May 3, 1919 and states that Mr. Gower’s son died of influenza. He died during The Spanish Flu Epidemic, which lasted from 1918 until 1920.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” was also the first film that both Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra made after serving in WWII. In fact, Jimmy Stewart originally balked at taking the role because he was not sure he was emotionally ready to act again after the war.
This is a movie made in the immediate aftermath of one of the deadliest wars in history and set in the aftermath of a devastating pandemic, the last time the world and humanity were brought to their knees by a virus. So, think of that when you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” this holiday Season: something so beautiful and optimistic came from two so very dark things.
Let that be our story too. May we all transform the darkness of this pandemic into light, and joy, and meaning for so many. From everyone here at Epitome: Have a wonderful, safe holiday season and a happy New Year! Join us again in February when we will look through the COVID lens at a classic rom-com: “When Harry Met Sally…“
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.