Merry Christmas, George Bailey reviews


A Different Take on ‘Wonderful Life.’ Stars gather for a radio-style reading of the beloved holiday classic.

December 25, 1997 | Don Heckman

Radio on television? What a concept.

But that’s exactly what turns up tonight in PBS’ “Merry Christmas, George Bailey,” a taping of a radio broadcast-style rendering of the classic holiday film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Even in an industry prone to remakes, that’s a mouthful, and one which somehow manages to chew every bit of sustenance out of the much-loved picture, from film to radio to live performance to tape to television. But there’s no denying the worthiness of the program’s fundamental goal, which was to benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

Taped at a live presentation at the Pasadena Playhouse earlier this month, the production features a sterling cast from Hollywood and Broadway that includes Bill Pullman in the central role of George Bailey; Nathan Lane as the Guardian Angel; Martin Landau as the conniving Mr. Potter; Penelope Ann Miller as Mary Hatch, Bailey’s wife; and Sally Field as his mother.

Hewing closely to the concept of radio, the performers work with vintage-style microphones, reading from scripts adapted from a 1947 Lux radio broadcast promoting the 1946 picture. The live music, played by an 11-piece pit orchestra, draws from Dimitri Tiomkin’s themes from the original film, and onstage sound effects are provided by veteran sound effect engineer Ray Erlenborn.

Viewed as television, the show initially has an appealingly archaic quality. It’s fascinating to watch the differences between the actors as they deal with the relatively unfamiliar technique–for most of them–of acting with their voices. Predictably, the most effective are those with the most idiosyncratic vocal styles–Lane’s quirky, inimitable sound; Jerry Van Dyke playing Uncle Billy in his familiar, wacky, foul-up screw-up style; and Carol Kane (as Mary’s mother) creating yet another ear-grating but hilarious scold.

And, despite the inherently difficult dramatic method of having actors move to a microphone, deliver their lines, then return to their seats, there are times when interaction takes place between the characters, and the story comes alive visually as well as aurally. The essentially expositional dialogue, for example, between Lane and Joe Mantegna as Joseph comes alive via both actors’ ability to add little vocal inflections and gestures to their exchanges. Pullman’s romance with Miller has its charming moments, and Landau brings intensity to every line he utters.

Still, the fact that this is simply an elaborately staged reading of a work so familiar that it resonates with visual images is ever-present. And the comparisons–even aside from the distractions of the radio format–aren’t always complimentary.

In the primary role, for example, Pullman approaches George Bailey with a kind of focused seriousness–understandable, perhaps, for a character about to commit suicide because he feels his life has been worthless. But, despite Pullman’s good intentions and his effort to find his own version of the character, it never matches the emotional connectedness of the Jimmy Stewart interpretation, with its unique rendering of Bailey’s everyman qualities.

Producer Jimmy Hawkins–who played the youngest son in the original 1946 film–has worked hard to bring this project together, despite complex legal obstacles that obliged him to use “Merry Christmas, George Bailey” rather than the original title. But it nonetheless remains radio on television. And the best way to watch it may simply be to close one’s eyes and listen.

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It’s a Wonderful Gift

But it wasn’t easy to get a radio version of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to the Pasadena Playhouse for a benefit performance.

In the early 1970s, actor Jimmy Hawkins left a phone message with a New York agent. When the man’s colleague, Mary Jo Slater, heard his name, she asked if he was the Jimmy Hawkins from her favorite film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” None other, Hawkins replied–and the seeds of a 25-year friendship were sown.

Slater, who later traded agenting for a Hollywood casting career, went on to produce a musical of the 1946 Frank Capra holiday classic. Hawkins, who played the youngest child of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in the movie, turned out a “Wonderful Life” scrapbook, calendar and trivia book.

Now, Hawkins and Slater, are presenting a Lux radio play version of the film tomorrow night at the Pasadena Playhouse, which will also be broadcast, as “Merry Christmas, George Bailey,” on KCET Channel 28 Christmas night. The live event will benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and the taped version, underwritten by PBS, will be available for pledge drives down the road.

Standing behind old-fashioned radio mikes will be an all-star cast: Bill Pullman as George Bailey; Penelope Ann Miller as his wife, Mary; Nathan Lane as Clarence the angel; and Martin Landau as the villainous Mr. Potter. Other roles also shine brightly: Sally Field will double as the narrator and George Bailey’s mother; Joe Mantegna will appear as Nick the bartender, Minnie Driver as Violet Bick and Carol Kane as Mary’s mother. Slater’s sons, Christian and Ryan, will also participate.

“We couldn’t resist the opportunity to bring a nearly lost art form to contemporary audiences with a whole new generation of talent,” says Mare Mazur, KCET’s director of national productions for drama.

On the face of it, the holiday project was a natural. But appearances can be deceptive. Because of the convoluted history of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the road to Pasadena and the television broadcast had almost as many ups and downs as Bailey himself.

“It was,” said Laurel Lambert, director of advertising and promotion for KCET, “like a big ball of knotted string [we had] to untie.”

Few people have more knowledge of “Wonderful Life” lore than Hawkins. He was 4 years old, and the veteran of more than 20 movies, when Capra shot the film. Hawkins would go on to play Tagg in the Annie Oakley series and to land continuing roles in “Bachelor Father,” “The Ozzie and Harriet Show,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Gidget” and “The Donna Reed Show.” But “It’s a Wonderful Life” holds a special place in his heart.

The movie focuses on a man who is saved from suicide by an angel who shows him how life would have been altered–for the worse–if he weren’t around. Its message, Hawkins maintains, is as relevant today as it ever was.

“People like to think they mean something–that, if they were gone, it would leave an awful hole,” says the 56-year-old actor-producer. A child of the ’50s, he has shown up for the interview in his 1959 gold-and-blue senior jacket from Sherman Oaks’ Notre Dame High School and plans a TV movie based on the life of Roy Rogers.

In retrospect, Hawkins points out, the most interesting aspect of “Wonderful Life” may be how little was expected of the film.

“Donna [later] told me that Capra and Stewart were nervous about the movie, the first they’d done after the war,” he recalls. “War changes people drastically, and they were wondering if they still had it. No one thought the movie was very special–it was just another picture to us.”

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