Ron Onesti:  A little “George Bailey” in all of us

“Wizard Of Oz”, “Casablanca”, “Citizen Kane”, “Gone With The Wind”, “The Godfather”, the exclusive list goes on with timeless classic films that have touched the hearts of generations of movie fans around the globe.  And as “It’s A Wonderful Life” turns seventy-four on January 7, I am looking back several years to an incredible lunch I had with Frank Capra, Jr., the son of the film’s famed director, Frank Capra, Sr.

I was in Washington, D.C. for a consortium on “Legacies of Legends”, featuring sons and daughters of some iconic Italian-American figures.  At the time, I was managing Lena Prima, daughter of New Orleans’ own trumpeteer-showman, Louis Prima, and Deana Martin, daughter of the “King of Cool,” Dean Martin, who were invited to participate in this panel discussion.  The captivating panel members shared perspectives on what it was like to have famous fathers and far-from-private lives growing up.  “It was nothing to have Jimmy Durante over for dinner, or Sammy Davis, Jr. over for lunch.  They were ALL uncles to me,” Deana said.

Frank Capra, Jr. was also there, representing his father, the decorated director of the 1930s and 1940s, who was responsible for other iconic films also starring James Stewart including 1934’s “It Happened One Night” (which became the first film to win the “Big Five” Academy Awards,  including Best Picture and Best Director), “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938) and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939).

As each of these legacies were being interviewed, I found myself sitting with Capra while waiting for his turn to be questioned.  We struck up a great conversation on Italian American heritage, and he invited me to lunch after his interview.  We dined at a Georgetown staple, Filomena’s Restaurant, an incredibly authentic Italian restaurant complete with a stout female pasta maker dressed in all white chef’s attire hand rolling gnocchi in the picture-window facing the street.

Frank, Jr. was president of the largest film studio east of Hollywood, EUE Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina, at the time.  So he was carrying on the legacy of his legendary director-slash-dad.  Jr.

He talked about the magical relationship his father had with Jimmy Stewart.  “My dad did three films with Jimmy, but they were friends for life,” he said.  “As a matter of fact, RKO Films first owned the rights to the film and they had Cary Grant slated to play George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life”.  But the first thing my dad did right after purchasing the film’s rights from them was to replace Grant for his ‘intellectual preference,’ Jimmy Stewart.”

He went on to tell me that the film was his family’s favorite, especially for his dad and Jimmy.  The film never won an Academy Award and was actually a box office failure.  “My dad worked harder on that film than he did on any other.  He was a perfectionist, even hiring a marksman to shoot out the window as Mary (Donna Reed) threw that rock as she and George made that wish.  It wasn’t needed, though, Donna Reed played baseball in school and knocked out the window herself on the first try!” he said.

Frank Capra was a master of subtle messaging.  Remember the black raven that was flying around the office?  That bird was actually in six Capra films and was the famous one that picked the straw from the scarecrow in “The Wizard Of Oz.”  The birds name was actually “Jimmy” and we know that because when George Bailey jumped over the counter to address the crowd of customers who came to pull their money out of the Building & Loan, he said, “move, Jimmy.”  And the bird appeared in almost every scene that Mr. Potter was beating down on the Bailey family…even pecking at a model of a typical Bailey house in one scene.

In another scene when George comes home late to find Mary in bed asleep, he looks at that needlepoint picture of “George Lassos The Moon” and then looks at Mary.  She turns over to break the wonderful news that she, as he put it, is “on the nest.”  She says, “George Bailey lassos the stork!”  But if you look very closely, you can see a piece of string with a small noose (or lasso) at the end dangling in between their faces.  I mean it was right there all the time!  I have seen this film a hundred times and never saw it, but it is there, plain as day!

A few years back, Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played “Zuzu,” joined us for special screenings of the film during our annual celebration of the movie.  Before the film began, Karolyn and I took the stage for a short question and answer session.  She spoke about her personal life first, and the ironies that she experienced.  Personally, she lived a very troubled, not-so-wonderful early life.  “It’s A Wonderful Life” was her fifth film by the time she was six, ultimately appearing in sixteen movies with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood.  It was short-lived, however.  Her career was halted as her mother died when the young actress was twelve.  Her father was killed in an accident a year later and that was it for her in Hollywood.

Since the film bombed, it floated in a sea of obscurity for years.  It was such a forgotten film that nobody renewed the rights when it was time in the early seventies, so it became public domain.  Since it was free to broadcast, television stations all over the continent showed it multiple times.  All of a sudden, people began to take notice of the film.  So much so that members of the press and fans of the film alike sought Grimes out for interviews.  Even Jimmy Stewart publicly wondered what had happened to his little “Zuzu”.

But the youngest star in the movie with one of the most memorable lines in movie history, “Teacher says, every time you hear a bell, an angel gets his wings”, the little girl who was Zuzu, then became an unknown, only to be re-discovered as ZuZu again, lives on.  At 76, Karolyn Grimes has the persona of a classic Bedford Falls character who jumped off the screen and into our hearts.  She is sweet and warm, the way we would want a person from that film to be (unless she was related to Mr. Potter, or that creepy guy who pushed his wheelchair).  Frank Capra hand-picked her for the role personally, not knowing that she would become the film’s biggest ambassador.  After sharing some precious moments with her, I can honestly say Karolyn Grimes is as wonderful as the film itself.

We all have had those “George Bailey” moments at least once in our lives.  A time when all seems lost, when we have seemingly run out of options, and when our spirit was down.  But just like the Godfather who suggests that he would “Make him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” or when Dorothy proclaims that “There’s no place like home,” or even when Citizen Kane speaks of his favorite Italian restaurant (Rosebud), the passage written by the Angel Clarence in a Tom Sawyer book to George stating “No man is a failure who has friends” is just as poignant.  Thank you all for being my friends, and for being my family.  Have a Merry Christmas as we hopefully come out of the “pandemonia” soon!  I’m just waiting for MY Clarence to show up!