Saturday, December 11, 2021

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE BLOGATHON - A 75TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION: Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as Bert the cop and Ernie the taxi driver

 

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.



WARD BOND
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.



FRANK FAYLEN
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.


Of note:

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














38 comments:

  1. Really cool to see some appreciation for these characters! Every part in this film was just played to perfection!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. It is so true what you say about It's a Wonderful Life it is filled with so much detail with the smallest of strokes. Each viewing brings something new to appreciate.

      Delete
  2. Love your post, Paddy. Bert and Ernie are the best - who wouldn't want them as friends? When they are playing butler, serenading, and decorating the honeymoon suite for Mary and George I just can't help the hugest smile ever from appearing on my face.

    I didn't realize Bond and Faylen crossed passed so many times on screen! I will be on the lookout for those. It makes me wonder if they were friends off screen as they looked so natural together.

    Capra's world feels habitable due in large part to character actors like Bond and Faylen who established a feeling of reality and familiarity (while making a lot of us wish we could move to Bedford Falls). :)

    Thank you very much for joining my blogathon and for honoring these characters and the actors who brought them to life through your marvelous post! Merry Christmas!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't thank you enough for hosting this blogathon. It's a Wonderful Life is so familiar to so many of us that it does us good and enriches our viewing to step back and appreciate all of the components that make a true classic.

      Delete
  3. So I’m guessing Jim Henson watched this and got inspired by the cop and the taxi driver…

    Believe it or not, I have never seen LIFE from beginning to end. (I know, I know, one of these days…) I have read about it, of course, seen snippets. My understanding is Bedford Falls was created with a meticulous attention to detail.

    Gloria Grahame is in this? Interesting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The role of Violet is a real showcase for Gloria. She still had a way to go before leads and that Oscar win came her way, but she really gave her all to Violet and it put her on the map. I think you'd be impressed with her, and with the casting and directing of the movie overall. See if you can't squeeze it in this year.

      Delete
  4. How wonderful to do a deep dive on (the original) Bert and Ernie! A lovely post, as they are, in their own "background way" such a pivotal part of the story of George Bailey.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. It was a pleasure revisiting the movie through these essential characters.

      Delete
  5. It's a Wonderful Life is one of those films that requires multiple viewings to appreciate all its characters and themes. I quite enjoyed your focus on two of the lesser characters. Most of all, though, it was delightful to learn about Frank Faylen, a familiar face on film and TV for many years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks.

      These guys are look old pals. We have so many references to characters played by Frank Faylen and Ward Bond. Even when we think we've seen everything with them, there is something "new" or something that needs its memory dusted clean.

      Delete
  6. While I know a little about Ward Bond, I did not know anything about Frank! Thanks for the info!!! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My pleasure. We always learn so much from each other.

      Delete
  7. Bert and Ernie are my favourite characters in It's a Wonderful Life, precisely because they seem like some very good guys. Even in the alternate reality where George isn't born, it seems as if the darkness of Pottersville hasn't tainted them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nothing and no one in this movie is "thrown away" and the importance of Bert and Ernie cannot be overstated.

      Delete
  8. Ahhh, this post is delightful! I knew Ward Bond from all his John Wayne movies before I first saw IAWL, so seeing him pop up in it was a treat for my teen self. Many years later, it was super disturbing to realize that the creepy Whitey in Whispering Smith was the guy who played Ernie in this! He's been easier to recognize ever since that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ward Bond as Honey Bragg in Canyon Passage and Frank Faylen as Whitey in Whispering Smith are two of the nastiest characters in any westerns, yet they also gave us the admirable Sergeant O'Rourke in Fort Apache and Cass in Hangman's Knot. These are the the guys that please and flummox the casting directors - they can do anything, so where do we put them?

      Delete
    2. I still haven't watched Canyon Passage, even though I love Dana Andrews and have a copy, because I like Ward Bond so much and hear he's really horrid in it :-o But I probably will watch it eventually.

      That's a great point about their versatility making them both easy and hard to cast, hee!

      Delete
    3. I hear you. When my daughter was younger she was getting a little tired of me "making her watch so many movies." She thought she found a loophole when she said only to show her movies with Ward Bond. I said "Ha! He's in everything!"

      Delete
    4. Oh, that is priceless! I love it :-D

      Delete
  9. Love those guys and love your post. They were like a welcoming Greek chorus. Familiar faces in the strangest places.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you.

      Yes, Bert and Ernie are like a rock you can hang onto.

      Delete
  10. A really interesting view on these characters and Ward Bond and Frank Faylen! I also didn't realized they appeared together in so many movies. I knew a little bit more about Ward but it was so nice to read about Frank from his upbringing in Vaudeville to his double act with his wife.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. These actors led fascinating lives. It is fun to get to know more about them, isn't it?

      Delete
  11. My Faylen connection - my name is Carol Hughes!
    (Vienna)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow! What a charming connection!

      Merry Christmas, Carol!

      Delete
  12. Merry Xmas and a guid New Year to you. I love the idea that my namesake joined Flash Gordon on his trip to Mars!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Speaking of the name CAROL if there were twins born around CHRISTMAS I think CAROL and HOLLY would be good names. CLASSIC TV FAN

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those would be charming names. My cousin Carol was born on Christmas.

      Delete
  14. What a lovely post about this great film, I just loved reading it! And the background info on Ward Bond and Frank Faylen was fascinating. Faylen and Bond always stood out in whatever role they performed, but they had a special chemistry as Bert & Ernie in It's a Wonderful Life. You could almost have made a movie or tv series about the further adventures of these two characters...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the grand compliment.

      I don't think audiences would have balked at all at seeing the further adventures of the guys. I guess the only problem would be pinning these busy actors down.

      Delete
  15. Great Post. I wasn't aware these two were so intertwined. And i'm glad that Frank got to live to a ripe old age of 80. This reminds me of Jack Webb and Harry Morgan who poppped up in a suprising number of films together until they co-starred in Dragnet. You could write a book about all the great actors who were in "Its a wonderful life". It even had Sheldon Leonard in a small part!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The unmistakable Sheldon Leonard! Capra's movies are casting gold.

      Delete
  16. Hi Patricia, thank you so much for spotlighting this beloved film, one I never miss watching on Christmas Eve. I love every actor in it...with special affection for Bond and Faylen (their priceless I Love You Truly duet!) and for darling Beulah Bondi.
    Just a few more days and I too will enjoy this magical movie once again.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours, dear Paddy!
    -Chris

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a Wonderful Life carries its own magic and is just what we need at this time of year. We are carried forward on its wonderful combination of fantasy and reality.

      Cheers!

      Delete
  17. Paddy Lee, what a wonderful write-up of two outstanding character actors in my favorite movie of all-time. I tried to write a comment the other day, but I couldn't finish, because I got choked up, which I'm trying not to do, right now. I first viewed IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE(1946) on KAIT Channel 8 Jonesboro in 1971. This was three years before the movie went into public domain and was shown thereafter, on what seemed every tv channel, everywhere. I really liked the movie fifty years ago, but it hit home personally in 1995. One person can make a positive difference in so many lives and not realize it until years later. This is part of what life is all about. The tears of memory are starting, I can't see my lap-top screen. Paddy Lee, MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Walter, I can't thank you enough for persevering and sharing how much It's a Wonderful Life means to you.

      Mr. Bond and Mr. Faylen are two of those "old friends" we look forward to seeing in so many movies, be they good guys or bad. However, when Frank Capra cast them as Bert and Ernie he made them eternal good guys for many of us.

      A happy a blessed Christmas and New Year to you and those you hold dear.

      Delete
  18. Wonderful post! Bert and Ernie are definitely unsung--they know George better than almost anyone, and Ward Bond and Frank Faylen were always treats to see.

    ReplyDelete

PERRY MASON: THE CASE OF THE SAUSALITO SUNRISE

Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon . The popular blogathon is runn...