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Capra classics inspire film preservationists

December 29, 2018

CULPEPER, Va. (AP) — Who doesn’t enjoy director Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” especially at this time of year?

The film classic has been a TV holiday staple for decades. ...

Capra’s film is the best-known work of one of Hollywood’s best-known filmmakers, the winner of three Academy Awards for best director, second only to director John Ford.

But few people may know that an obscure, orphaned short story by a Civil War historian led Capra to what The Wall Street Journal now calls “a holiday icon as ubiquitous as ‘Jingle Bells.’ ”

Fewer still may be aware that Capra’s cinematic career helped inspire one of the greatest breakthroughs for film preservation in world history.

Lucky people learned of these intertwined stories from two experts during a free, public screening in Culpeper County of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Packard Campus of the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

“It’s one of the reasons I’m working here in this building,” nitrate-film specialist Larry Smith told 206 people in the packed theater, referring to the movie Capra considered his masterpiece.

Smith was joined in introducing “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Elizabeth Brown, a reference librarian at the library’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., who has recently studied how author Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 self-published short story became a much-beloved movie classic.

Capra is Smith’s favorite director, and Jimmy Stewart his favorite actor.

Capra, creator of populist parables “that help people become better people,” Smith said, is also the favorite director of David Woodley Packard, son of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense during the Nixon administration. The Packard Campus is named for him, with good reason.

The philanthropist’s Packard Humanities Institute provided $160 million to build the 415,000-square-foot facility by retrofitting what had been the Federal Reserve’s Cold War cash-hoard bunker, with Congress chipping in another $82 million.

In 2007, after 10 years of intensive effort, the institute donated the complex to the Library of Congress. It was the largest-ever private gift to the nation’s legislative branch, and the second largest to the federal government as a whole (after the Smithsonian Institution).

With more than 90 miles of shelving beneath Mount Pony’s bucolic fields and woodland, the library’s Packard Campus houses millions of moving images, sound recordings and related items such as manuscripts, posters and screenplays. Its 124 vaults safely store highly combustible nitrate films.

The late Dr. James Billington, the former Librarian of Congress, called this world-class grouping “America’s creative patrimony”-its collective memory in moving pictures.

But to some citizens, especially area residents, the Packard Campus is most appreciated for its beautiful Art Deco theater, where the library screens films from its collections, free to the public, two or three evenings a week. The venue is one of a handful in the United States capable of showing the nitrate films on which so many Hollywood classics were shot.

Packard helped design the comfortable and stylish theater, right down to the chandeliers, the color of the seats, and the custom-weave carpeting, Smith said.

Packard is a classical scholar, an expert on early civilizations. But after a chance exposure via a friend’s invitation in the 1970s to see “The Wizard of Oz,” a movie that at that time was not easily available to the average viewer, he also became a fan of classic cinema.

Finding a common thread in those two interests, Packard realized that his country was losing its cinematic history.

Because of fires, greed, and poor preservation methods, half the movies made before World War II and some 85 percent of all silent films are gone, Smith said.

″(Packard) recognized that much of American culture that he thought was important was going the same way as early Greek and Roman cultures,” former Packard Campus head Patrick Loughney said in an interview years ago. “It was thrown away and lost.”

Over the ensuing decades, Packard has become the most important private supporter of film preservation on the planet.

In addition to the Library of Congress facility in Culpeper, he has generously supported the film archive of the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and enabled the University of California-Los Angeles to build its state-of-the-art Film and Television Archive in Santa Clarita.

Packard has paid to restore dozens of classic and silent films over the years, including recent work on Capra’s 1937 Shangri-La drama-fantasy “Lost Horizon.”

The Library of Congress, entrusted with keeping copyright works, holds original prints of 17 of Capra’s movies. That fact is what led Packard to the library some while ago.

In the 1980s, Packard sought higher-quality prints of Capra’s classics to screen at the Stanford Theater, a Depression-era movie palace in Palo Alto, Calif., he had restored specifically to show such treasures, said Culpeper resident Mike Mashon, head of the library’s Moving Image Section.

“David contacted my former chief and asked, ‘Do you think you guys could make new 35mm prints of Capra’s original films that we could show at the Stanford?’ ” Mashon said in an interview. “He would pay for the restoration and creation of those prints. We agreed to do that.”

As conservation of Capra’s work continued, Packard talked with the library’s moving-pictures chief David Francis about how the library needed to consolidate all of its then-scattered film, video and audio holdings in one place, to facilitate their preservation and study.

“That was the seed that blossomed into the Packard Campus,” Mashon said. “That’s how it started.”

Frank Capra’s masterpiece, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” began in a similarly modest way.

The kernel of what became “It’s a Wonderful Life” lies in “The Greatest Gift,” a 1943 short story by writer and editor Philip Van Doren Stern, a Rutgers University graduate who later oversaw Editions for the Armed Services, the U.S. government’s publication of 122 million pocket-sized paperbacks of popular books for GIs during World War II.

In Stern’s story, a strange little fellow saves despairing family man George Pratt from a Christmas Eve suicide attempt, restoring his joy of living by helping him realize his value to those around him.

Stern wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that the idea came to him “complete from start to finish” while he was shaving on the morning of Feb. 12, 1938. He wrote what he called a “pretty terrible” first draft, kept revising it, then showed it to his literary agent in April 1943.

“The agent liked it, but told him that she thought a fantasy story would be hard to sell to magazines,” Brown said. “She was right, it didn’t sell.”

Even so, he liked the story, and privately printed 200 copies as a booklet, sending them to his friends as Christmas cards in 1943, and mailed two copies to the Library of Congress with a copyright registration form. His agent sent a copy to Hollywood, as a courtesy.

In March 1944, Stern got a call at home from a Western Union operator. With World War II raging, he feared the worst news. To his astonishment, the operator read a telegram from his agent saying RKO had bought his story’s rights for $10,000 (more than $125,000 in today’s dollars) to turn it into a movie for actor Cary Grant, Brown said.

Soon, a publisher printed the little book. (“The Greatest Gift” has been re-published since, including as a 2014 edition with an afterword by the author’s daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson.)

An exhibit about the literary underpinning for “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with movie artifacts, Stern’s booklet and the film’s original script, will be on display until Jan. 15 on the second floor of the Great Hall in the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C.

In Tinseltown, RKO couldn’t make its movie project work, and sold the book’s film rights in 1945 to Frank Capra’s new production company, Liberty Films. Capra tasked screenwriters with spinning it into a full-blown script with additional characters, more details, and a back story. He sent a copy to longtime collaborator Jimmy Stewart, star of his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Enthusiastically, Stewart agreed to play the lead character, Brown said.

It would be the first film for Capra after his wartime work for the U.S. Office of War Information, and the first role in five years for Stewart after he crewed and piloted bombers on raids into Nazi Germany for the Army Air Corps.

Stewart, an Army Air Corps colonel, had kept many of his sorties secret, and is now recognized as having suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his combat actions and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

Capra received the armed services’ Legion of Merit and Distinguished Service Medal for his work making the seven-episode “Why We Fight” documentary series during World War II.

Both men saw something in Stern’s short story.

Capra, as a jobless youth after World War I, had suffered from depression. The protagonist in Stern’s tale, the film character we know as George Bailey, contemplates suicide on an icy bridge.

In the movie, heaven sends the guardian angel Clarence to stop George from “throwing away God’s greatest gift” — his own life. He helps George realize his own value to those around him, and how the world would be sadly different had he never lived.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” premiered on Dec. 20, 1946, and met with critical praise. But it didn’t recoup its production costs at the box office, and was soon forgotten, unlike Capra’s “It Happened One Night” (1934), “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), “You Can’t Take It with You” (1938), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and “Meet John Doe” (1941).

But when “It’s a Wonderful Life” fell out of copyright decades later, probably due to a clerical error, television snapped up the cheap content, Brown and Smith said. The film aired on TV again and again at Christmastime, creating whole new generations of fans. Now, the American Film Institute ranks it among the 100 best American movies ever made — No. 11, to be exact.

The movie endures as one of Capra’s great gifts to mankind, and shares themes found in his earlier movies, film fans say.

“He was an Italian immigrant who ... told stories of little people just trying to get by, without pushing,” Smith said.

Smith shared with a Packard Campus audience how he corresponded in the 1980s, back and forth, with Capra and Stewart late in their lives, and showed the movie-goers their autographed photos, books and artwork. Both men were gracious, and thanked him for his enthusiasm about their films.

In the 21st century, Capra and Stewart’s holiday chestnut testifies to the magic of movies made between 1891 and 1950 — “or as I call them, the good ones,” Smith told Saturday’s audience in the Packard Campus theater.

The great American director died of a heart attack in 1991, at age 94.

“At a seminar with some film students in the 1970s, he was asked if there was still a way to make movies about the kind of values and ideals Capra found in his films,” Smith said. “And he said, ‘Well, if there isn’t, we might as well give up.’

“I say, don’t give up. Pull out these old, inspiring black-and-white, ‘message’ films and share them with your friends and family,” Smith concluded, just before starting a screening of a David Packard-restored print of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” ″And why not imagine it’s Christmas all year long?”

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Information from: Culpeper Star-Exponent, http://www.starexponent.com

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