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IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – Dimitri Tiomkin

September 19, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Philip Van Doren Stern was an aspiring writer trying to get his first novel, “The Greatest Gift,” published. It was rejected by major publishers and so in frustration he printed a twenty-four-page pamphlet in 1943 and mailed it to two hundred family and friends. RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead and Cary Grant’s agent both came to the conclusion that this story offered opportunity and so RKO Pictures purchased the film rights for $10,000. RKO Pictures also had a nine-film distribution contract with director Frank Capra’s production company Liberty Films and showed him the pamphlet, which captured his attention. They worked out a deal and sold Capra the film rights for $10,000 along with three other scripts. Capra moved forward with production with a budget of $3.7 million and would also direct the film. He also collaborated with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett to fashion a screenplay. James Stewart was cast in the lead role of George Bailey, and joining him would be Donna Reed as Mary Hatch, Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy, Henry Tavers as Clarence, Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Bailey, Ward Bond as Bert, Frank Faylen as Ernie, and Gloria Grahame Violet Black.

The story reveals George Bailey, who owns a small-town building and loan company. He is a generous man that has always helped others, who falls into tragedy when his uncle loses the company’s $8,000 deposit, which lands in the hands of Mr. Potter, George’s nemesis. Without the funds the company will default and go bankrupt, impoverish his family, and allow Mr. Potter to take over the company and town. George contemplates suicide, yet is saved by the power of prayer from loved ones, which solicits divine intervention from an angel named Clarence who comes to George’s aid and saves the day. The film was a commercial failure, losing $525,000. Critical reception was mixed with most criticism directed at its excessive sentimentality. How times have changes, as the movie has aged well and in 2006 was ranked the #1 Most Inspirational Movie of All Time by the American Film Institute. It earned six Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, and won a special achievement award for Technical Achievement in Special Effects.

Director Frank Capra had collaborated with Dimitri Tiomkin on twelve prior films and shorts, including Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and brought him on board for this latest project. Unfortunately, things went off the rails and this film experience soured their relationship as Tiomkin never again would work with Capra. To say Capra savaged the score in post production would be an understatement. His film edits dialed out music from several cues, truncated other cues, and even substituted music from composers Roy Webb, Leigh Harline and Alfred Newman whose “Hallelujah” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame replaced Tiomkin’s Beethoven inspired “Ode to Joy” in the finale. In his 1959 autobiography “Please Don’t Hate Me” Tiomkin said;

“The picture was in the best Capra style. Frank thinks it the finest he ever made. I never saw it after it was completed. After the music was on the sound track, Frank cut it, switched sections around, and patched it up, an all-around scissors job. After that I didn’t want to hear it”.

Tiomkin understood that this was a down on your luck Christmas story with a happy ending. To ground the film with a contemporaneous vibe, Tiomkin interpolated the popular song tune from “Buffalo Gals” by John Hodges as the score’s main theme. The theme is pervasive and provides the unifying thread, which holds the film’s narrative together. Instructive is how Tiomkin renders it in a multiplicity of forms of varying emotional dynamic. The Love Theme speaks to George and Mary’s romance and offers an A-A’-B-A construct. Rising and falling phrases borne by strings full of yearning imbue both tenderness, but also, a wistful quality. He also interpolated several songs and tunes to infuse his soundscape with authenticity and familiar cultural sensibilities, including; “Adeste Fidelis,” “Ave Maria,” “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night,” “Dankgebet, or We Gather Together,” “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones” by Irving Berlin, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, and “Auld Lang Syne”.

“Main Title” offers a score highlight where Tiomkin masterfully sets the tone of the film. It supports the opening credits, which display as turning pages from book. Supported by Tiomkin’s Main Theme, which abounds with the happiness of Christmas. Divided strings sentimentali introduce the melody, which transforms into a vibrant prancing rendering full of joy. At 0:34 a molto romantico rendering of the Love Theme joins, with a grand reprise of the Main Theme ending the credits with a flourish. At 1:03 we flow into the film proper atop the carol “Adeste Fidelis” as we hear numerous people in town offering prayers for George. At 1:38 we segue atop ethereal wordless voices, harp, and strings emoting “Ave Maria” into “Heaven” as we hear a conversation of angels deciding to send one of their own on a rescue mission. At 2:28 a comic rendering of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” supports the assigning of Clarence to come to the aid of George. We close with a return of the Ethereal Motif, which was intended to support Clarence being coached by his elders, but was dialed out of the film.

“Ski Run” is full of youthful fun. It reveals Clarence being shown a twelve-year-old George saving his young brother Harry who fell through pond ice into its freezing waters. The Ethereal Motif ushers in the spritely Main Theme as we see the boys one by one shovel sliding down a hill and across the frozen pond. The rest of the cue, and the next cue were dialed out of the film. We shift to the drug store atop the playful song “Pop Goes The Weasel” as we see George waiting on girls customers. At 1:06 we segue darkly into “Death Telegram” as George finds a telegram to the owner Mr. Gower, who is weeping in the back room, that his son Robert has died from influenza. Strings affanato emote a heart-breaking musical narrative as George tries to comfort his boss. In “Gower’s Deliverance” Capra dialed the music out of the film. George is given pills to deliver to Mrs. Bailey, with youthful strings full of zest carry his run. But he returns with them as he saw that Mr. Gower in his grief had accidentally used poison to make the pills. At 0:44 the music darkens with menace and dissonance as his boss repeatedly slaps him for not delivering the pills until George convinces him of the mistake. At 1:18 the music softens and warms with affection, and then surges on a crescendo dramatico as George is hugged by Mr. Gower who is very thankful.

“George and Dad” provides a beautiful score highlight with Tiomkin offering one of his most heart-warming compositions in his canon. Sadly, Capra dialed it out of the film. It reveals George having his last supper with his dad before he ship’s out to college. George wants to become an architect and build modern cities, while his dad dearly wants him to return home and instead join his loan business. Tiomkin offers sentimentality, and warm familial love to support the intimate father-son moment. Strings tenero speak of a father’s love and pride in his son, with the musical narrative adorned with saxophone and a gorgeous solo violin romantico. (*) “Class of 1928” reveals George attending his graduation party, which Tiomkin supports with contemporaneous source music. It comes to pass that George and Mary lock eyes, and we see an immediate mutual attraction as both are smitten. He takes her by the arm and they begin slow dancing only to have the band switch to the high-octane Charleston by James P. Johnson. As they walk home, they sing “Buffalo Gal Won’t You Come Out Tonight” by William Cool White.

“Father’s Death” reveals Uncle Billy arriving with bad news that George’s father has suffered a stroke. Tiomkin scores the scene full of dread. Most of the cue, which includes a dirge was edited out of the film with the scene it was attached – I surmise George grieving over his dead father. “George and Mom” (*) reveals a welcome home party for Harry and his bride Ruth. Outside George is coaxed by his mother to reconnect romantically with Mary who has just returned from college. Tiomkin supports softly under the dialogue with source music. In “Love Sequence” George goes into town in search of Mary but she declines his offer to go on a night nature walk. Later, he shows up outside her house for round two, and she invites him in, playing “Buffalo Gals” on the phonograph. After competitor Sam phones Mary, George finally breaks down and proposes, which Mary joyfully accepts. Sadly, Capra dialed out Tiomkin’s music, which I believe is a score highlight. His conception offers a molto romantico rendering of the Main Theme by dreamy strings d’amore.

“Wedding March” reveals the newlyweds descending Mary’s home stairs supported by a celebratory rendering of the “Wedding March” by Felix Mendelssohn as they navigate a shower of rain and rice. At 0:49 we segue into “Big Band”, which is evidently attached to a deleted scene and offers a classic high energy big band dance number. “Wedding Cigars” a playful saxophone and strings were intended to support George offering out the traditional gift, but Capra dialed the music out of the film. “Song of the Islands” (*) reveals there has been a run on the banks and George’s loan business. He saves the day for all the townsfolk by paying them off with his honeymoon money. Mary makes the best of it setting up their honeymoon night in an abandoned mansion she has decorated, prepared their supper, and setup the bed. As George arrives, the soothing Hawaiian “Song of the Islands” plays on the phonograph and we see he is moved by what she has done. Outside Bert and Ernie sing a Capella the romantic ballad “I Love You Truly” by Carrie Jacobs Barne.

“George Lassoes Stork” offers another score highlight, which was dialed out of the film. It reveals he has come home late after rejecting an offer by Mr. Potter to work for him for $20,000 a year. Mary is asleep, but wakes to him, as he asks of all the men in town, why did she choose him. She reassures him of her love and then drops a bombshell – she is pregnant. Tiomkin again supports with a dreamy romanticism of the Main Theme with an exquisite violin d’amore with contrapuntal strings romantico. In “Dankgebet” Tiomkin interpolates the famous song as we follow narration of George and Mary having two kids, a boy and a girl, with Mary working hard to restore their old mansion while George works long hours at work. At 0:29 we segue into “This Is The Army, Mr. Jones” as war comes following the attack on Pearl Harbor, which Tiomkin supports with “This Is The Army, Mr. Jones” by Irving Berlin. Further narration reveals George and Mary having two more kids and Sam becoming wealthy making plastic cockpit hoods for the US Air Force. Stories of heroism by all of George’s friends follows in a montage. “Dankgebet, or We Gather Together” joins as New Bedford celebrates the end of the war, and we see Harry being decorated by President Truman with the Congressional Medal of Honor, which Tiomkin supports with the classic war anthem “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”.

“Uncle Billy’s Blunder” reveals Uncle Billy accidentally losing an $8,000 cash deposit envelop to Mr. Potter. We open darkly was we see Uncle Billy run into Mr. Potter and accidently place the envelop in his newspaper after reading the headlines. At 0:39 a crescendo dramatico swells to support his realization at the bank teller that he has lost the money. In “Dilemma”, when Potter opens his newspaper and discovers the envelop, a malevolent musical narrative unfolds as the loss will enable him to finally acquire George’s business. “Bank Crisis” was dialed out of the film. Uncle Billy discloses to George that he has lost the $8,000 deposit. Tiomkin supports with a dramatic rendering of the Main Theme, which ends with foreboding. “Search For Money” was also dialed out of the film. As George and Uncle Billy search for the money, and retrace his steps a dramatic crescendo appassionato swells, yet futility dissipates its energy and a rising desperation unfolds as George erupts in anger against Billy, saying that the loss means bankruptcy, and that one of us is going to jail, and it will not be me! “Potter’s Threat” is supported by dire strings and an oppressive musical narrative of doom. “Christmas Woes” (*) reveals a devastated George coming home to his family, unable to hide his despair and anger from Mary who realizes something is very wrong. His daughter plays “Hark! The Herald Angels Sings” by Felix Mendelssohn on piano to support the scene. Eventually his anger explodes frightening Mary and the kids as he departs to beg relief from Mr. Potter.

In an unscored scene George begs Mr. Potter for mercy and assistance only to be rebuffed and threatened with an arrest warrant for maleficence. “No Hope” (*) reveals George drowning his despair at the bar in Martini’s Italian Restaurant as the Italian song “Vieni, Vieni” by Vincent Scotto plays in the background. He in desperation prays for God to show him the way. The music darkens with menace as Mr. Welch, the aggrieved husband of the teacher George excoriated over the phone, punches him and knocks him to the ground. He leaves the restaurant drunk and crashes his car into a tree as an eerie surreal ambiance supports. In “Clarence’s Arrival” eerie strings of despair carry George to a bridge, he walks to the rail, and looks down into the icy waters below. The rest of the cue is dialed out of the film. Tiomkin sows both despair and tension as we see George contemplating suicide so the $15,000 life insurance policy can save his family. At 1:07 a crescendo dramatico slowly builds as Clarence, who has been observing, jumps into the water and cries out for help. The music swells powerfully as George dives in and secedes in rescuing him.

In “George Is Unborn” George and Clarence meet as they both warm up in the bridge manager’s cabin. Clarence discloses that he is George’s guardian angel and eventually convinces him that he is here to help him. When his request for $8,000 is refused, George says it would be better if he was never born. Clarence grants his wish, wind-like swirling strings usher in a “not of this world” musical narrative as George’s left ear can again hear and his bleeding lip is healed. As they walk to his car, they arrive to find it gone. Ethereal wordless women’s voices and surreal strings waver and dance to and fro, creating an eerie ambiance as George struggles to reconcile with the altered timeline. He takes Clarence to Martini’s only to find that it too has changed, now named “Nick’s”, as he orders drinks. They are eventually thrown out as neither Nick or Mr. Gower recognize George, who they believe is crazy. George will not accept from Clarence that he does not exist, and departs to go home to his wife and kids. In “Potterville” (*) he wanders through town, now called Potterville, and Tiomkin interpolates the festive jazzy “King Porter Stomp” by Jelly Roll Morton, followed by a parade of source songs as the bewildered George stumbles through a town he no longer recognizes.

In “Haunted House” George orders Ernie to drive him to his house, yet when they arrive, he discovers a derelict mansion that has been uninhabited for twenty years. Tiomkin again offers an eerie, surreal musical narrative of ever shifting string textures and dire horns as the bewildered George stumbles through the house. As George becomes frantic, so too does the music, progressing to a cacophonous crescendo. At 1:25 the music subsides, shifting to strings affanato as Bert arrives. A tortured musical narrative swells as Bert decides to arrest George, but Clarence bites him, allowing George to escape. Clarence then disappears when Bert tries to cuff him at 2:13 as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” plays in the background. We close eerily as a befuddled Bert and Ernie try to fathom what just happened. “Bailey’s Boarding House” (*) reveals George returning home to see his mother, who does not recognize him, slamming the door in his face. Tiomkin sows a bleak soundscape full of despair as we see George struggling to deny what Clarence said is true. In “Pottersville Cemetery” George takes Clarence to see his friend Martini, who lives in Bailey Park, only to instead find the Potterville Cemetery, which Tiomkin supports with wind-like strings, wordless women’s chorus and a grim musical narrative as George is shattered by the discovery that his brother Harry died drowning as there was no George to save him.

In “Wrong Mary Hatch” offers a score highlight, which offers the score’s most powerful composition. George demands to know where Mary is, and Clarence tells him she is an old maid who is now closing the library. A desperate George runs off to see her. Music enters with impassioned strings of desperation as he calls to Mary, who fails to recognize him and flees, with him in pursuit. A yearning Main Theme joins and builds to crescendo as George cries for his wife, only for her to faint, and the crowd to restrain him. We build upon a crescendo orrible, which explodes in violence as George punches Bert. At 1:23 racing strings of flight carry George as he flees crying out to Clarence as Bert repeatedly fires his revolver. George reaches the bridge railing and at 1:32 and we segue into “The Prayer” atop a Main Theme joins with the “Diss Irae” melody emoted with desperate longing as George prays for Clarence and God to take him back. The music is transformed with warm religioso auras as Bert arrives and calls George by his name. He is ecstatic as his life has again been returned to him.

“A Wonderful Life (Original Finale)” offers Tiomkin’s original conception and a joyous score highlight. Regretfully Capra dialed most of it out of the film, instead using the Christmas carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and Alfred Newman’s “Hallelujah” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In my judgment, having heard both, I believe Capra made a gross creative error. I shall offer a review of the cue as conceived by Tiomkin. An ecstatic George arrives home and is greeted by the bank officer, press, and police who have come to arrest him for embezzlement. George wishes them Merry Christmas, does the same with hugs to his four children, and then finally to Mary. Throngs of townspeople then arrive, with each out of friendship, gratitude and the Christmas spirit gifting George money to replace the missing $8,000. Tiomkin channels the wonderful spirit of Christmas with a parade of carols with interplay with both the joyous Main Theme and Love Theme, including; “Silent Night”, “Adeste Fidelis”, and Jingle Bells”. He crowns the finale with a joyous statement of Beethoven’s wondrous “Ode to Joy”. “Auld Lang Syne/End Title” reveals Harry arriving and offering a Christmas toast! George then finds a book amidst the money – “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain. He opens it and discovers hand written script; “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings! Clarence” Tiomkin supports with a heartwarming statement of “Auld Lang Syne”, with the crowd joining the orchestra as the film ends with familial love and joyous Christmas spirit. It’s A Wonderful Life (Vocal) is a wonderful bonus cue, which offers a song version with lyrics by Frederick Herbert with music by Dimitri Tiomkin. The vocalist is uncredited.

I would like to thank Bruce Kimmel, Lukas Kendall and Kritzerland for resurrecting Dimitri Tiomkin’s original score to the wondrous “It’s A Beautiful Life”. The acetate disc transfers by Bob Auger and audio restoration and digital mastering by Chris Malone were commendable, however I advise that a number of cues were in bad shape and acetate noise is present. Despite these minor imperfections, Tiomkin’s wonderful Christmas score shines through and provides a good listening experience. This film offers a heartwarming tale of the power of friendships, how life rewards people of goodwill, and the joyous Christmas spirit. The film’s narrative offered a number of intersections where powerful emotions were on display. In each, Tiomkin provided some of the most inspired music of his canon, including; “George and Dad” with Tiomkin offering sentimentality, and warm familial love, with one of his most heart-warming compositions in his canon. In “Love Sequence”, which offers a molto romantico rendering of the Love Theme by dreamy strings d’amore as George proposes. “Wrong Mary Hatch”, which offers the score’s most powerful composition as impassioned strings of desperation swell as George calls to Mary, who fails to recognize him and flees, with him and his longing heart in pursuit. And “Finale” where, Tiomkin channels the wonderful spirit of Christmas with a parade of carols, with interplay of the joyous Main theme, including; “Silent Night”, “Adeste Fidelis”, and Jingle Bells”. He crowns the finale with a joyous statement of Beethoven’s wondrous “Ode to Joy”.

Folks, in scene after scene Tiomkin music enhanced the film’s narrative flow and storytelling. Regretfully, and inexplicably, Frank Capra mutilated what I believe is a masterpiece of Tiomkin’s canon. I used to believe that RKO Pictures management’s post-production mutilation of Bernard Herrmann’s score to “The Magnificent Ambersons” was the worse I have seen, but what Capra did here may indeed be worse. We are fortunate that the creative team resurrected Tiomkin’s original score, which I believe is a masterpiece, and one of my Holy Grails. I highly recommend this album as an essential purchase of one of the finest scores of Tiomkin’s canon, and a gem of the Golden Age.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a wonderful thirteen-minute suite; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Isi18cFW7Nk

Buy the It’s a Wonderful Life soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title/Heaven (3:45)
  • Ski Run (1:31)
  • Death Telegram (1:59)
  • Gower’s Deliverance (2:03)
  • George and Dad (1:45)
  • Father’s Death (0:30)
  • Love Sequence (2:12)
  • Wedding Cigars (0:41)
  • George Lassoes Stork (2:03)
  • Dilemma (0:36)
  • Bank Crisis (0:54)
  • Search For Money (2:01)
  • Potter’s Threat (0:50)
  • Dankgebet/This Is The Army, Mr. Jones (2:20)
  • Uncle Billy’s Blunder (1:15)
  • Clarence’s Arrival (2:20)
  • George Is Unborn (2:24)
  • Haunted House (2:40)
  • Pottersville Cemetery (1:14)
  • Wrong Mary Hatch/The Prayer (2:06)
  • A Wonderful Life (Original Finale) (3:24)
  • Auld Lang Syne/End Title (0:55)
  • It’s A Wonderful Life (Vocal) (written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Frederick Herbert) (3:53) BONUS
  • Wedding March/Big Band (1:10) BONUS
  • Father’s Death (Alternate) (0:21) BONUS
  • Haunted House (Alternate Take) (2:41) BONUS
  • Pottersville Cemetery (Without Chorus) (1:19) BONUS
  • Auld Lang Syne (Extended Take) (0:32) BONUS

Running Time: 49 minutes 26 seconds

Kritzerland KR-20028-2 (1946/2014)

Music composed and conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. Orchestrations by Herschel Burke Gilbert, Paul Marquardt, Nathan Scott and David Tamkin. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Dimitri Tiomkin. Album produced by Bruce Kimmel and Lukas Kendall.

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