Richard J. Leskosky: How to make a sequel of 'Wonderful Life?'
If it's Christmas time, then Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" must be on television. The 1947 film has become a holiday tradition and a perennial favorite.
On the American Film Institute's battery of lists (voted on by "1,500 leaders of the American movie community") the film boasts an impressive profile. It ranked 11th on AFI's 1998 list of top 100 movies (though it did drop to 20th on the list done 10 years later), third in top ten fantasy films, eighth on the list of 100 love stories and first among America's 100 most inspiring movies.
Its protagonist George Bailey places ninth on the list of 50 greatest heroes, while Mr. Potter, his nemesis, ranks sixth among the 50 worst villains.
Those rankings undoubtedly resulted in part from the years of repeated holiday screenings, and those in turn came about partly because of a mistake. As happens with many films, the rights to it have changed hands many times.
In 1974, the company holding the copyright on "It's a Wonderful Life" neglected to file the proper papers to renew it. (At that time, initial copyright was good for 28 years and could be renewed for an additional 28. Congress has extended copyright terms several times since then.)
That led many small companies to make their own copies of the film for sale to private collectors and educational institutions. It also began to show up everywhere on TV at Christmas.
But "It's a Wonderful Life" is not an "original" work. It was based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, "The Greatest Gift," which continued under copyright. And in 1993, the company that owned the film was able to regain copyright control because of the film's "derivative" status and the continued copyright on the story.
(And trust me, it's much more complicated than I've just described.)
Through more corporate acquisitions and twists and turns, Paramount now has distribution rights.
So after all that, now you can see "It's a Wonderful Life" just twice during the holidays on NBC. But it's still a beloved film and a cultural touchstone.
It has moved to the stage and even become a musical (or two), and you can probably still find recordings of the three radio versions with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Numerous movies and TV series reference it. And it has supplied a template for episodes in scores of series (even this year's "The Big Bang Theory" Christmas episode) as well as several films — such as "The Family Man" (2000) and even "Shrek Forever After" (2010).
And that's why so many people were upset this fall when independent producers Star Partners and Hummingbird Productions announced they were working on a sequel, "It's a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story."
As a matter of fact, there remain both room and reason for a sequel. Mr. Potter never gets a satisfying come-uppance. And the rallying of George's friends and neighbors may lessen his immediate savings and loan problem, but it's not a permanent solution.
But how could you make a valid sequel to such a classic without the original cast?
The proposed sequel actually presents something of a reversal of the original premise. George Bailey's grandson (also named George Bailey), a dislikable, troublesome jerk, is visited by an angel who shows him what things would have been like if he had never been born. The angel turns out to be the original George's daughter Zuzu (and so either this George's mother or aunt). The producers plan to cast the part with Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in Capra's film (and may well be the only living cast member from that production).
Paramount Pictures, however, says the producers have not obtained sequel rights from them and thus cannot proceed. Legal wrangling will certainly proceed.
But it's not as if there haven't already been sequels of sorts.
The 1977 TV movie "It Happened One Christmas" (which riffs on another famous Capra title, "It Happened One Night") has a depressed Mary Baily Hatch (Marlo Thomas) dissuaded from suicide by guardian angel Clara Oddbody (Cloris Leachman), who shows her what her town would have been like if she hadn't been born. (Mary Hatch is George's wife's name in the original film, and here Mary's husband is George Hatch.)
The 1990 TV movie "Clarence" gets nearer to being a sequel, though perhaps it's best thought of as a spin-off. Clarence Oddbody, the angel from the original, is once again called upon to save a desperate soul at Christmas. This time it's the widow of a computer software company owner who is fighting the takeover of her business.
Clarence, played by Robert Carradine, is noticeably younger-looking this time around. The script explains this with the revelation that angels get younger as they do more good. Presumably that means they wind up as putti, the rosy-cheeked winged toddlers seen in Renaissance paintings watching over the baby Jesus and various saints (and the occasional reclining nude).
That doesn't mesh with any religious cosmology I know of, but Hollywood never lets metaphysics interfere with a story work-around, even an obviously ridiculous one like this.
(Oh, by the way, the angels here do not display traditional feathery wings. Instead, they have winged medals that look like the pins airlines used to give kids who behaved well on flights.)
Clarence bungles the assignment, breaks a lot of rules, but (spoiler alert!) makes everything come out right in the end. Afterward, he gets driven back to heaven in a taxi by his boss, Joseph, who has de-aged to the appearance of a 12-year-old.
None of this compares, however, to "The Last Temptation of Clarence Odbody," a 2011 novel by John "Jughead" Pierson. (In 1986, Pierson co-founded the Chicago punk rock band Screeching Weasel and currently performs in the Neo-Fururists long-running production "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.")
The novel relates what happens to George's friends and family after Clarence's attempt to distract him from suicide on the bridge only succeeds in getting him drowned instead.
So if Mr. Pierson is ever visited by an angel, it will most likely be Capra, brandishing a couple of flaming Oscar statuettes while kicking him off the bridge.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.