Nether Regions 12.21.10: It Happened One Christmas
Posted by Chad Webb on 12.21.2010
Last week was the spin-off, but now we have the 1977 gender-reversal remake of It's a Wonderful Life. Orson Welles is Mr. Potter, and if that isn't enough reason to click and enjoy the holidays reading about this lost piece, I don't know what is...
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
IT HAPPENED ONE CHRISTMAS
Starring: Marlo Thomas, Orson Welles, and Christopher Guest Directed By: Donald Wrye Written By: Lionel Chetwynd (based on the short story by Philip Van Doren Stern and the 1946 screenplay) Running Time: 109 minutes Release Date: December 11, 1977 (TV airing) Missing Since: 1977 Existing Formats: Bootlegs are available if you can track them down. Santa might not approve. Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
It Happened One Christmas is a 1977 made-for-TV gender-reversal remake of the 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life. The title is a take off It Happened One Night, which along with It's a Wonderful Life, were both directed by Frank Capra. The plot, including most of the dialogue, is largely the same as the original, but a few expansions and adjustments can be detected. Although it contains some colorfully enjoyable supporting performances, it is ultimately the problems with its star that make this version weak. For any fans of this story, it is worth a look only as a curiosity.
There are reasons for the existence of this rarely seen "gem." When this movie was initially broadcast on television, It's a Wonderful Life was hardly ever seen like it is today. It was actually 3 years previous (in 1974) that the clerical error occurred which resulted in the copyright for It's a Wonderful Life not being renewed properly, so by the 1980's the original was being aired on multiple stations as public domain. The masses began to love it more and more, and consequently this remake faded into obscurity. However, before the 1980's, the ratings for It Happened One Christmas were so good that it was re-broadcast twice in 1978 and 1979, but by then the original had been resurrected.
Marlo Thomas in 1977.
You all know the basics of the plot, but just in case, let's go over the important points:
- The town is Bedford Falls. Everyone is nice, hardworking, and honest except for one guy.
- That guy is H.F. Potter. He owns everything except Bailey Savings & Loan. Potter is a giant prick.
- Bailey Savings & Loan is run by the patriarch Peter. He has a wife and 2 kids named Mary and Harry.
- Mary Bailey is the main character. She is a swell gal that wants to go to college and travel everywhere.
- She saves Harry from drowning, stops the pharmacist from poisoning a kid, and can do a mean Charleston.
- Before Peter Bailey dies, he guilts Mary into running the business. Harry gets college money instead of her.
- Mary is in love with dashing mediocre oil tycoon George Hatch. They eventually wed and she pops out 3 kids.
- During a bank crisis, Mary uses their honeymoon money to help out the struggling residents.
- Potter is still a prick. He wants to own the Bailey business so he can control everything.
- Harry is supposed to take over the business after college. He marries and works for his father-in-law instead.
- When Uncle Willie loses crucial funds, the Baileys are $8k short and Potter reports it to a bank examiner.
- Mary is about to commit suicide, but her guardian angel Clara Oddbody shows up to help her. She needs it.
What's odd is that this version attempts to expand upon certain characters even though it clocks in at 109 minutes and the original is 130 minutes. Most of them are relatively minor enlargements, and that could have been agreeable, but it comes off like aggrandizing and elaborating just for the sake of doing it. There is nothing more to people like Uncle Willie (named Billy in the original) or Mr. Gower (Dick O'Neill) who runs the drug store. Another named Ernie Baker (Archie Hahn) can be seen in a few more scenes, but that's it, he's just there. Plus, by spreading the wealth with a shorter running time, it shaves off crucial moments with our heroine, whom we absolutely need to adore for the conclusion to be effective on an emotional level. One of the added sequences has Mary's husband George (Wayne Rogers) and many of the Bedford Falls men going off to war. Then letters are read via voice over because apparently Mary has received letters from numerous young men, causing one to wonder how she became so popular. It's a nice and congenial sequence, but ultimately is just excess. Once George returns there is an extremely brief scene of him adjusting back to life in the suburbs.
Because of the color and updated set designs, plot points like Bailey Park, the housing project the family builds for neighborhood residents, become better realized. John J. Lloyd and Hal Gausman landed Emmy nominations for their art direction and set decoration. The Great Depression is mentioned, but it is conveyed as a passing slump rather than national tragedy. The townsfolk are dirty and need money one day, but soon enough all is well again. Director Donald Wrye basically strives to emulate the warmness of the original, going as far as copying camera shots in some segments. He does so in a manner that is not intrusive or lazy, but actually suitable. He follows the cast with care and does not just sit back, point, and shoot as most made-for-TV movies can look. He does aim for some semi-flashy shots, such as Mary watching George from a distance at the train station with the light casting a shadow. Overall his approach is simple and straightforward, but the direction seems attentive, which is at least one positive. Wrye stuck with television film for 99% of his career, and I can't say as I've seen anything else from him, but he does have a few projects on his resume that caught my eye like Amerika, a fantasy mini-series where the Soviet Union takes over the US, and Divorce Wars: A Love Story starring Tom Selleck, which is available through Warner Archives.
Orson Welles as he would have looked playing Mr. Potter.
One can toss faint praise at the direction, but what this particular story boils down to is the lead. Jimmy Stewart was so affable, funny, and honest that when he felt down and out, preparing to end his misery, the viewer truly wanted him to be saved. With Marlo Thomas, the connection is absent. She exaggerates just about every scene, occasionally to laughable hysterics. Thomas became popular in the 50's and 60's because of some successful roles on a number of shows. Subtlety has never been a strength of hers. At times the look in her eyes can be confused with someone who is psychotic rather than generous and loving. Stewart's take on the character was of a man who may not have been thrilled with the hand he was dealt, but he accepted it and did his very best. Thomas' Mary exhibits an undeniable bitterness with her life that never seems to wear off; hence it is difficult to fully sympathize with her. Meanwhile, whoever handled Thomas' costume and makeup certainly shortchanged the rest of the cast, who all at least look like normal peeps from a poor town in the 30's and 40's. I think Mary Bailey Hatch robbed the cosmetics department at Gower's drug store regularly. You can now spot Marlo Thomas as the face for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, whose commercials air in many theaters.
Orson Welles, working for pennies at this stage in his career, supplies his talents as the crotchety H.F. Potter, who appears to have the ability to avoid aging. When Mary is a young whippersnapper he is carted around in a wheelchair with a black suit and killer beard. When Mary is in her 40's with 3 kids, he looks exactly the same, only now he can be spotted smoking a cigar or two. Welles signed on for projects like this so he could fund the ones he wanted to direct. In the early 70's it was F for Fake and then the unfinished The Other Side of the World. Around this time he would complete his documentary about his own Othello. Welles is a brilliant actor, but he is barely putting forth an effort and it is evident, yet his is easily the best portrayal in the movie. That says a lot. His Potter is a callous, conniving serpent. Wayne Rogers is Mary's soul mate George Hatch, and chemistry in this movie is displayed through endless shots of the couple gazing into each other's eyes. Rogers is adequate as a husband who definitely does not wear the pants in his household, but if he's fine with it so am I.
Cloris Leachman picked up the second Emmy nom puzzlingly as Clara Oddbody, the angel who lived in the time of author Charles Dickens. Her high-pitched squeal is supremely annoying, which means after Leachman and David Carradine in Clarence, Henry Travers is still #1 for his depiction of an Oddbody. One of the entertaining tangents has Clara showing Mary what it would have been like if she had never been born. She is transported to Pottersville, a cesspool of crime, prostitution, speakeasies, and gambling. All of a sudden I knew that Pottersville had to be the inspiration for Biff's alternate 1985 in Back to the Future Part II. The similarities are uncanny. And of course it's during Clara's lecturing to Mary that the title of the original is dropped into the dialogue. Thanks. We needed that reminder. Other supporting parts are provided by Doris Roberts as Mrs. Bailey, Richard Dysart as Peter Bailey, Barney Martin as the innocent and dumb Uncle Willie, and Christopher Guest as war hero Harry Bailey. Guest unloads the famous line at the end as follows: "To--my--big sister--Mary--the richest--woman--in town."
The reviews for It Happened One Christmas were mixed. The intentions here are good-natured and earnest, but Wrye and company went out of their way to replicate the original and once the original came to the forefront of people's minds, the observation is instantly made of which is superior. It's too close to the masterpiece to attain its own identity and the cast can't hold a candle to the one Capra assembled. Years down the road, movies similar to It's a Wonderful Life would hit theaters regularly. They took the plot outline, but changed the setting and the characters, which proved to be wise, critically and financially. One of my favorite is The Family Man with Nicolas Cage, but we've also had Click, Mr. Destiny, and Sliding Doors just to name a few. Of course it should also be mentioned that the short story It's a Wonderful Life and It Happened One Christmas are based on, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, possesses obvious likenesses to A Christmas Carol.
You'll have trouble finding this one unless you know where to look for bootleg copies. It can be seen legitimately at the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio) in New York City, but one would have to be a die-hard fan to seek it out there. Oh well, go for it if you have a thing for Marlo Thomas, or are just an Orson Welles completist. I'm sure Peter Bogdanovich has been there. I can't see ABC/Disney releasing this anytime soon. They are so busy re-releasing the original on DVD every single year in a new edition. Regardless of some interesting bright spots, It Happened One Christmas is a feeble attempt to recreate a classic.
- I'm slowly starting to catch up with the newer film releases now. I made it to see a bunch of them this past week. I will say I hope I never have to take another trip to Narnia anytime soon.
- I've been slacking a bit with my Christmas shopping this year, but it looks as if I'll finish up within the next few days. The malls are just insane and I've been steering clear of those completely. One thing I wish I had more of this year is chill time, but sadly it's run, run, run. Such is life. What can you do?
- I finished watching Boardwalk Empire and it was really fantastic. Can't wait for that series to start up again. I'll probably move on to Breaking Bad next as that's the show I borrowed from my friend. I also picked up some Adult Swim DVDs at an f.y.e. that is going out of business in the area. Two seasons of Robot Chicken and two volumes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I refused to buy a Taylor Lautner cardboard stand-up despite how cheap it was.
- Look for a couple new editions of my sporadic "Editor's Note" column which will feature the top 10 Pet Peeves of 2010 and eventually my Best/Worst Films, Albums, Posters of 2010 to follow. Next week's Nether Regions is up in the air. I hope to have time for an article, but I might have to skip it in order to finish some other things. Keep an eye out.