Ari, The Classic Movie Muse is hosting the It's a Wonderful Life Blogathon, A 75th Anniversary Celebration. Click HERE to access the tributes to Capra's Classic. Assuming you have lost count of the number of times you have watched the movie, spoilers abound.
It's a Wonderful Life is a story of dreams, expectations, and reality, specifically, the expectations and reality of George Bailey played by James Stewart. The rich screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett fills George Bailey's world with nuanced characters we come to know and love. Their time on screen may be limited but their impact is great thanks to the impeccable casting and the cinematic storytelling talent of director Frank Capra.
Ward Bond as Bert and Frank Faylen as Ernie
What do we know about the man persistently referred to as "Bert the cop" and his and George's pal "Ernie the taxi driver" as we observe them in Bedford Falls and its dark alter-ego Pottersville? What can we learn from their actions and words, and how others react to them?
It is Christmas Eve, 1945. Heavenly observers note that it is George Bailey's "crucial night." George's family and his friends are praying with all their hearts and souls. You get the feeling that, like George, his friends Bert and Ernie are not used to the supplication, but get right to the point. They understand their friend.
Bert: "He never thinks about himself, God. That's why he's in trouble."
Ernie: "George is a good guy. Give him a break, God."
George Bailey's business problems are extraordinary and complicated. The Bailey Bros. Building and Loan is short $8,000 due to his partner Uncle Billy's forgetfulness and the greedy Mr. Potter who has found and is keeping the money.
In an effort to increase his power over the town of Bedford Falls, Potter played by Lionel Barrymore reminds George that he is worth more ($500 equity in his insurance) dead than alive. The desperate George is at the end of his rope and sees suicide as the only escape from scandal and prison. The AS2 (Angel, second class) Clarence Oddbody assigned to help George must learn the man's history.
We first see Bert and Ernie in conversation with George on the street years before the crisis. The appearance of town flirt Violet Bicks leads to a "men of the world" exchange before they go their separate ways. Bert appears a little older than his pals and has the confidence of a man in his position. Ernie is friendly and humorous --- he puts on his cap for the carriage trade.
George's first date with Mary Hatch played by Donna Reed ends up with an unexpected swim and change of clothes. When George jokingly says he is not sure if he should return her borrowed robe, Mary says "I'll call the police." George responds that "They're way downtown. They'll be on my side too." Guys!
Ernie becomes a matter of contention in another of Potter's bids to close down the Building and Loan. He mentions how Ernie was turned down for a bank loan but was able to get a mortgage through the Building and Loan because he shoots pool with one of the employees. George vouches for Ernie's character which leads to an impassioned plea to treat the working class with respect.
It is the marriage of George to Mary Hatch when we next see Ernie. George and Mary stop kissing long enough for George to notice, "Oh look, there's somebody driving this cab."
Ernie: Referring to a bottle of champagne, "Bert the cop (Bert must be a popular name in Bedford Falls.) sent this over. He said to float away to Happy Land on the bubbles." George responds: "Oh look at this. Old Bert. Champagne, huh?
Ernie is driving the couple to the train to begin their honeymoon on this rainy day when a run on the bank, and machinations from Potter force George and Mary to use their own honeymoon savings to stave off the closure of the Building and Loan. Ernie escorts and stays near Mary, perhaps ready to help if needed.
Mary has set up an old abandoned house which means a lot to her as their honeymoon suite. When George asks how she managed it, he gets a kiss as an answer. We can assume that family and friends had something to do with it, especially friends like Bert and Ernie. Bert has finagled posters from some company or other to block the windows on what turned out to be an even rainier night. "What we want is beautiful places, romantic places, places George wants to go." These guys know and understand each other.
Ernie acts as a butler to the honeymooners and then joins Bert in serenading the couple with I Love You Truly
. Ernie kisses Bert on the forehead at the song's conclusion and Bert smashes Ernie's hat before they go their separate ways. The friendships are long standing and filled with ease.
We next see George fighting WW2 on the homefront. Bert the cop was wounded in North Africa and got the Silver Star. Ernie the taxi driver parachuted into France. George's kid brother Harry Bailey played by Todd Karns is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Ernie jokes with George about missing that headline in the local paper to remark on the weather report.
It is the Christmas Eve of George's crisis and his guardian angel Clarence arranges for George to see what the world would be like if he had never been born. Bedford Falls is now Pottersville, a wide-open town.
Ernie doesn't know George despite George's belief that they are still pals and he has been to Ernie's house a hundred times. George mentions Ernie's wife and kid to solidify the truth of what he is saying only to hear Ernie say that his wife left two years ago and took the kid with her.
Worried about the manic stranger he has picked up, Ernie signals to Bert who follows to the abandoned house George still thinks of as home. George is a stranger to Bert who tries to calm him with "Be a good kid" before pulling a gun to strike him. Clarence engineers George's escape and unseen forces help Clarence to disappear at the moment Bert tries to cuff him.
George accosts the unmarried, lonely, and frightened Mary Hatch shouting about their family and their love. The loss of Mary is too much for George. He begins to run as far and as fast as he can from the nightmare that is Pottersville. This time Bert draws his gun to shoot at the crazed George. When he reaches the bridge where he first met Clarence, George prays the prayer of the sincere that he get back to his wife and kids no matter what happens.
Bert has been looking for George, finds his abandoned car and tracks him to the bridge. Afraid it is still the Pottersville Bert, George threatens to hit the cop. "What in the Sam Hill are you yelling about, George?" When Bert recognizes him, George knows his prayer has been answered and he is back in his world.
At home, there is the bank examiner, reporters, and a man from the district attorney's office with an arrest warrant. There is also Mary who discovered what was happening from Uncle Billy and asked friends for help.
Help came in the form of friends contributing anything they could to help George. Ernie reads a telegram from Sam Wainwright, the richest of their circle of friends, who authorizes his office to give George up to $25,000. Bert has escorted medal winner Harry from the airport. Harry had left an official banquet and flew through a blizzard to be with his brother George, "the richest man in town."
The happy crowd sings Auld Lange Syne
with Bert on the accordion. Oh, and Clarence is no longer an Angel 2nd Class.
We learn a lot about Bert and Ernie through their actions with George and we learn a lot about George through how he is with his friends. The friendship is deep and they are there for each other. It's a Wonderful Life is a movie of rich and layered characters.
April 9, 1903 - November 5, 1960
Nebraska-born Bond was attending the University of Southern California when he and fellow footballer John Wayne found work at Fox Studios as prop men and extras in the John Ford picture Salute, 1929. Unexpectedly, his life's path was set on a show business career with 262 film roles, big and small following and in each and every one, Bond was never less than believable.
Bond's 1930s output includes the bus driver in It Happened One Night, the doorman in Dead End, a Union officer in Gone with the Wind, "Jack Cass" in Young Mr. Lincoln, and boisterous Adam in Drums Along the Mohawk.
The 1940s would find Bond in fine form as John L. Sullivan in the biopic Gentleman Jim, a Nazi in The Mortal Storm, the penitent "Yank" in The Long Voyage Home, peacekeeper Tom Polhaus in The Maltese Falcon, Moose Molloy in The Falcon Takes Over, sympathetic Al in A Guy Named Joe, duplicitous Judge Garvey in Tall in the Saddle, the murderer Honey Bragg in Canyon Passage, Morgan Earp in My Darling Clementine, brave and confident Sgt. Major O'Rourke in Fort Apache. The finest of these roles are for director John Ford who frequently used the actor as a favourite "whipping boy." Bond was thick-skinned enough to take it and prove his mettle as a screen actor.
The 1950s would bring Bond the opportunity to play/spoof Ford as director "John Dodge" in The Wings of Eagles. He played the title character in Wagon Master, the trustworthy Rev. Clayton in The Searchers, Buck in 3 Godfathers, and the amusing Father Lonergan in The Quiet Man - all for Ford. Other outstanding rules include the reactionary John McIvers in Johnny Guitar and the grieving Walter Brent in On Dangerous Ground - both for Nicholas Ray. Note: Ida Lupino also directed portions of On Dangerous Ground.
Ward Bond would become more than a "that guy" character actor with the role of Major Seth Adams in the television classic Wagon Train in 1957. To this day, that character and program is an important and sometimes first association for many fans. Ward Bond's last film role was, perhaps fittingly, as John Wayne's friend in Rio Bravo, 1959.
Ward Bond was married twice and divorced once. A park was named in the actor's honour in his hometown of Benkleman, Nebraska. He was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 2001. A Star on the Walk of Fame at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard was established in 1960.
December 8, 1905 - August 2, 1985
Frank Faylen's show business fate was preordained as he was born in a trunk and joined his Vaudevillian parents on stage. A clown and song-and-dance man, Frank settled into steady work as a character actor in Hollywood.
Frank hopscotched through the studios often in uncredited bits as cops, cabbies, reporters, etc. plus some welcome larger supporting roles, and he always left an impression on audiences. Watching your favourite 1930s movies, look for Frank in Marked Woman, San Quentin, They Won't Forget, Idiot's Delight, Five Came Back, Invisible Stripes, and It's a Wonderful World. Personally, I would have liked Warner Brothers to have cast Frank as Paul Drake if they had taken the Perry Mason series to heart as Perry Mason instead of trying to turn him into a Nick Charles lite.
The 1940s would still see Frank in the uncredited category, but observant movie fans (my late dad) would be putting the name with the face in They Drive by Night, No Time for Comedy, City for Conquest, Margie, The Reluctant Dragon, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Wake Island, etc.
Frank would leave the uncredited bits behind in the latter part of the 1940s. Check out Two Years Before the Mast, Road to Rio, Blood on the Moon, the psychotic Whitey in Whispering Smith, and his nasty turn as "Bim" Nolan in The Lost Weekend.
The 1950s would prove a golden time for Frank as a movie character actor in a variety of films including Francis
, Detective Story
, The Sniper
, and top-notch westerns Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
and as the brave Cass in Hangman's Knot
. Versatile Frank was also featured in the comedy-musical western spoof Red Garters
Dwayne Hickman, Bob Denver, Steve Franken
Sheila James Kuehl, Florida Friebus, Frank Faylen
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
Television would make Frank Faylen even more familiar to audiences as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
hit the home screen in 1959 and ran until 1963. Frank and Florida Friebus played Herb and Winifred, the parents of Dwayne Hickman's girl-crazy Dobie. The antics of the teen characters, his own son in particular would drive grocer Herb to shout to the Heavens, "I gotta kill that boy!"
Check out "Dobie" on YouTube or DVD if you haven't yet seen the program. It is a gem.
Frank's last film role was in Funny Girl, 1968 but you can still spot him pre-retirement on Classic TV in That Girl as Ted Bessell's dad and the 1977 reunion program, Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis?
Carol and Frank at a theatre opening in 1952
Frank and actress Carol Hughes of Three Men on a Horse, Under Western Stars, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, etc. married in 1928. The couple appeared as a double act on stage as well as raising two daughters, Carol and Kay in a marriage that lasted until Frank's passing in 1985.
Beyond It's a Wonderful Life, revered character actors Ward Bond and Frank Faylen crossed paths in Gone with the Wind, Sergeant York, The Grapes of Wrath, A Guy Named Joe, City for Conquest, Slightly Dangerous, and Waterfront.