Tag Archives: William Holden

It’s Still a Wonderful Life!

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the most cherished Christmas movie of all time – It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s life-affirming fable of a suicidal everyman whose guardian angel shows him that the world would have been a poorer place without him is now regarded as the most uplifting of all feel-good films. For its legions of fans, it is as essential a part of the festive season as carols, cards and carving the turkey. These days, most people have heard of the film, even if they haven’t seen it, and many cinemas and TV channels screen the movie year-in, year-out as a Christmas tradition. Yet, at one point, this classic was in serious danger of sinking into obscurity.

When It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in New York on December 21, 1946, it was a major event heralded by big spreads in newspapers and magazines. The movie was the first film made by both its director, Frank Capra, and its charismatic star, James Stewart, since they had returned from serving in the Second World War, and many of the reviews were glowing. One reviewer wrote that it “melted the barnacles off my heart and left me feeling young and full of ideals again.”

Capra, who had felt that the story was a gem from the outset, was entitled to be disappointed, then, when the film failed to live up to expectations at the box office. Although movie lore has it that It’s a Wonderful Life was a flop when it first came out, it actually performed quite respectably – just not as well as anyone had hoped. Telegrams flooded in to Capra congratulating him on the film. Joan Crawford wrote: “Just saw It’s a Wonderful Life. It was magnificent. Bless you.” And William Holden’s said: “Thanks for making us stop to think that it is wonderful.” Nevertheless, at the box office the takings were unspectacular and its failure to win any of the Oscars for which it was nominated stuck in Capra’s craw.

Perhaps audiences just weren’t ready for the film. Released just two months after the end of the Nuremberg trials and with the horrors of the war still fresh in most minds, It’s a Wonderful Life – for all that it is often dismissed as sentimental “Capra-corn” – was, in its darkest moments, considerably darker than the usual Hollywood fare. James Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is literally on the brink of suicide (he’s poised to jump into the river) because he feels he has let his family and friends down. In 1946, movies didn’t entertain the notion of suicide, let alone show the hero attempting it, on Christmas Eve of all days.

Just as shocking, from the 1946 point of view, was the scene in which Bailey gets drunk and, sobbing into his double bourbon, begs God for help. Movie-goers had seen James Stewart playing a champagne-burping drunk in The Philadelphia Story, but here he was playing a man driven to drink by gut-wrenching, raw despair.

In the run-up to the film’s release, Capra said: “People are numb after the catastrophic events of the past ten to 15 years. I would not attempt to reach them mentally through a picture, only emotionally.” And he certainly put his audience on an emotional rollercoaster with this one: the plunges into the pits of despair are more than balanced out (if not, like the horrors of childbirth, blotted out) by the ecstatic climax of the film – the wild jubilation of the hero as he realises the value of his life, the overwhelming outpouring of support and love, and the final message of “No man is a failure who has friends”.

The story behind the film echoes the “second chances” theme of the movie itself. Ironically, it was television which, in the early 1950s was blamed for wiping out cinemas audiences, which gradually came to be the film’s guardian angel. TV kept the film in circulation and introduced successive generations to its delights. It developed a cult following, and, by the late 1970s, converts in America – where it was shown much more often than here – were holding It’s a Wonderful Life parties. Watching it became an event; it was one to watch in company and preferably during the festive season.

The film’s second life was also the result of the copyright lapsing in 1973. It was such a neglected movie, and had been passed around among so many different companies, that it was allowed to slip into the public domain. This meant that not only could TV stations show it for nothing, but that clips from it could be pinched by filmmakers and used in their movies by way of homage – or to boost the feel-good factor of their own films. These tantalising snippets helped to pique the interest of viewers who were starting to hear about this quirky festive film. It was only in the mid-1980s, as the video took off that It’s a Wonderful Life took its place as a mainstream classic.

Of course, the main reasons for the film’s longevity and popularity are there for all to see in the two hours of screen time. It’s an inspired and daring blend of comedy, fantasy and tragedy. It appeals to children and adults alike. It boasts a tour-de-force performance by James Stewart and a supporting cast of such unforgettable, beautifully nailed, characters as his hapless guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), his loving wife, Mary (Donna Reed), his hapless uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), his Scrooge-like nemesis, Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore), and the kind old pharmacist, Mr Gower (HB Warner). It offers hope and it restores or reinforces our faith in our fellow man. Now in its eighth decade, and better loved than ever, It’s a Wonderful Life is proof positive that second chances are always worth taking. Attaboy Capra!

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Style on Film: Sabrina

This stunning yet simple black cocktail dress which Audrey Hepburn wore in the 1954 romantic comedy Sabrina is – believe it or not – one of the most controversial frocks in cinema history. It helped to make Sabrina one of the most stylish films of the 1950s – and to establish its young star’s famous chic gamine look. It also marked her first collaboration with Hubert de Givenchy, the French couturier, with whom her style would be inextricably linked for the rest of her life. Being a Cinderella-style love story, Sabrina opens with its heroine dressed in rather dowdier attire, however …

Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe in Sabrina was originally to be designed by Paramount Studios’ costume supremo, Edith Head. In the film, Sabrina, the chauffeur’s lovesick daughter, goes to Paris as an awkward adolescent and returns transformed into an elegant young lady. Edith Head was put out to learn that, after their first meeting, Audrey had asked director Billy Wilder if she could wear “a real Paris dress” in the film. Mrs Wilder suggested Audrey go to Balenciaga but when the young star turned up, the couturier was too busy see her and sent her to his young friend, Hubert de Givenchy.

Givenchy later recalled: “When the door of my studio opened, there stood a young woman, very slim, very tall, with doe eyes and short hair and wearing a pair of narrow pants, a little T-shirt, slippers and a gondolier’s hat with red ribbon that read ‘Venezia’. I told her: ‘Mademoiselle, I would love to help you, but I have very few sewers. I am in the middle of a collection – I can’t make you clothes.’ ¬†Audrey asked to see the collection – and ended up choosing all of Sabrina’s post-Paris capsule wardrobe from it, starting with the super-elegant ensemble with which she wows her childhood crush when she arrives back on Long Island from France.


For Sabrina’s first-ever date with David Larabee (the dashing William Holden), the playboy with whom she has been besotted all her life, Audrey (for it really was her choice) selected from Givenchy an exquisite strapless evening gown with a boned bodice and flowing, full, ankle-length skirt. She asked the designer to alter it to that it would hide the hollows behind her collarbone. He later said: “What I invented for her eventually became a style so popular that I named it ‘decollete Sabrina’.”

Needless to say, Sabrina is the belle of the ball in her black and white Paris dress. It certainly opens the otherwise-engaged David’s eyes, prompting him to say: “Oh Sabrina, if I’d only known…”. But the “if I’d only known” dress isn’t my favourite from the film; I love the cocktail dress and cute catwoman-like hat that our fickle heroine wears when she’s being romanced by David’s brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart). What made this cocktail dress so controversial? Well, here’s a clue:

You would assume that this sketch, by Edith Head, is evidence that she designed the dress which sums up Sabrina’s seductive blend of playfulness and elegance. But that isn’t actually the case – though Head herself allowed the misconception to go uncorrected for the rest of her life. The truth – as explained in Jay Jorgensen’s superb book, Edith Head – The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press) – is that Head’s department was supposed to make this dress, with its distinctive bows on the shoulder and boat neck, from a sketch by Givenchy. Jorgensen explains: “Confusion about the designs in the film began as sketches were done in the wardrobe department to execute all the clothing needed. Edith began sending the sketches out to publicize the film, leading to the assumption that all the clothes were her designs.” Here’s Sabrina wearing it on her pre-theatre dinner date at The Colony with Linus.

The boat neck of what became known as “The Sabrina Dress” – the design of which was translated into a best-selling dressmaking pattern when the film was released – became a hallmark of the Hepburn look. As did the black legging-like trousers and pumps which she wore, along with a slash-necked top, for a casual visit to Linus’s office.

It’s only when Sabrina removes her coat – a collarless number which anticipates the Givenchy coats she sports in their classic 1960s collaboration Charade – and turns around that we see the sly sexiness of the ensemble:

There aren’t that many different outfits in Sabrina – just enough to immediately establish it as a must-see for style lovers. Which must help explain why Edith Head presumably kept quiet about the extent of Givenchy’s involvement in the film and the fact that, with Audrey, he created Sabrina’s Parisian-inspired look, the look that dominates the movie. Not only did Givenchy’s name appear nowhere in the credits, but Head accepted an Oscar for Sabrina and didn’t even acknowledge the French designer’s contribution to the film.

According to Jorgensen’s book, Head even had the gall to parade the original dress down the runaways of her fashion shows. It was only after Head’s 1980 death, that Givenchy, a true gentleman, finally confirmed that the dress had been his design but had been made under Head’s supervision at Paramount…

 

 

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