Karolyn Grimes today

George Harter is the host of "A Night on the Town", the nationally syndicated radio program of musical theater. He has hosted a program of film music on KXTR in Kansas City, Missouri Since 1980.


Essays: Sharing from Friends


he Story Behind the Music of It's A Wonderful Life

by George Harter

If some years ago someone had whispered in my ear as I was watching for the 45th time It's A Wonderful Life, that Zuzu, little Zuzu - every time a bell rings Zuzu - would become a close personal friend of mine, I'd a thought, one doesn't make friends with black and white film icons. Besides, look there on the screen, she's a little girl, she's a lot younger than me.

But after being introduced to her by my program director when I was looking for a guest host for my weekly radio program, Karolyn came alive in living color and we've shared many memorable moments both professionally and privately (and we're pretty much the same age too). I am proud to count her among my friends and proud of her ministry of providing in each person she meets, with each smile and handshake, the message in miniature of George Bailey's revelation in It's a Wonderful Life. The message that life is God's Greatest Gift; the original title of the story on which the film is based.

During a viewing of It's A Wonderful Life I happen to notice in the credits that original music for the film was written by Dimitri Tiomkin (1899-1979). As the producer of a radio program that deals with film music I am very familiar with Tiomkin's full bodied scores for such films as Giant, The Thing From Another World and Lost Horizon to the simple western themes for High Noon, for which he wrote the popular title song in 1951, sung by Tex Ritter. Yet none of the music in It's A Wonderful Life sounded anything like the treatment Dimitri Tiomkin would have given the score. In fact, other than the recurring reference to Buffalo Gals, an old Erie Canal drinking song bargemen would sing about the prostitutes in Buffalo, New York they would enjoy at the end of the line, and Clarence's theme, a variation on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, there is little in the film to be noted as a musical score at all. Toward the end of the film, as George is running down the main street of Bedford Falls shouting "A Merry Christmas" to everyone, a grouping of Christmas carols can barely be heard concluding with Beethoven's Ode To Joy. But none of these cues contain any original notes of Dimitri Tiomkin. So why was he hired?

In 1946 Tiomkin had already proved himself as a versatile composer who could bring atmosphere and life to a motion picture, setting any mood he wished. Born in the Ukraine he was especially good at writing music depicting great expanses of land, capturing the open spaces of Texas in his score for Giant or the icy, eerie desolation of the Arctic in The Thing From Another World. It's A Wonderful Life was ripe for a lush Americana musical score by one of Hollywood's leading composers- but in the finished product, it isn't there. The reason, it turns out, had nothing to do with Tiomkin, but with marketing and economics.

When work began on It's A Wonderful Life on April 15,1946 Tiomkin had a clear idea from reading the script and his meetings with director Frank Capra as to exactly what the film was to be about. It was the sixth collaboration between Tiomkin and Capra, so there was no misunderstanding; It's A Wonderful Life was an American period piece - a drama that dealt with suicide and the disappointments faced by every man. The Christmas scenes at the end were only a vehicle for gathering everyone at the close and had little to do with the story at large. By fall 1946 Tiomkin had provided the film with a complex and rich musical score of surreal Americana, romantic in places, that perfectly fit the films constantly changing mood. He had worked in folk melodies such as Red River Valley for Peter Bailey's theme, and Pop Goes The Weasel. He wrote a lush love theme for George and Mary with several variations to be heard throughout the film. There was even a pop version of the love theme with lyrics, recorded for radio air-play as the song It's A Wonderful Life.

The picture had originally been slated for release in spring of 1947. But studio heads at RKO, the distributor for Capra's Liberty Films, apparently smelled trouble and thought the film would do better if released before Christmas 1946, capitalizing on its minor Christmas scenes, downplaying the drama, thereby turning it into a holiday film release.

Since the film was already shot, the flavor of It's A Wonderful Life had to be changed by altering its post production values. A film's music is the major factor in setting tone and atmosphere, and Tiomkin's music was to somber and dark for the film's new approach. His work was cut heavily, music was moved within the film to places where Tiomkin did not intend it to be, and the work of other composers was even inserted in places. The places where Tiomkin's music remained were mixed so low they are nearly inaudible.

The folk tunes and Christmas Carols were harmless enough so they all stayed. But here is a list, by working title, of the major cues by Dimitri Tiomkin that were cut from the final print of the film:

Ski Run - for the scene (longer in the original cut) which introduces George Bailey as a child and the ice-break accident. The music is boyhood America and sounds a little like some of Bernard Hermann's music depicting a young Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941).

Death Telegram / Gower's Deliverance - Very somber music for the news of Gower's son's death and for George's return to the drugstore and redemption. The scene's now play with no music in the final film.

George and Dad - A wonderful, soft bittersweet theme originally to be heard under the dinner table conversation between George and his father.

Love Sequence - A full statement of Tiomkin's old fashion movie music love theme for the film was to follow Mary's breaking of the Buffalo Gals record. The scene plays without music now.

Many very dramatic Tiomkin passages designed for the Bank Crisis, Clarence's Arrival and especially music to accompany George encountering the world without him were only partially used and at very low volumes. A quote from the "Dies irae" that Tiomkin employed remains in place as George prays to live again. But this too, is not Tiomkin's music, he borrowed this common liturgical passage as a device for the film.

Dimitri Tiomkin was not at all happy with the treatment of his music in the film, even though it did not affect his fees. He tried to have his name removed from the films credits but the studio owned the right to use his name and his reputation was already established.

There is no doubt the studio got what it wanted. The cut and paste job on the film score worked to soften the dramatic elements and highlight the Christmas aspect of It's A Wonderful Life. So it's difficult to say if the film would have been better with all of Tiomkin's original music. The film is a work of art the way it is, and with any great work of art- it cannot be imagined any other way.

Tiomkin's original score for It's A Wonderful Life was recorded only once - in 1988 by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of David Newman. It is available on the Telarc label, number CD 88801. The recording was made from the composer's conductor scores, housed in the Cinema-Television Library and the Archives of the Performing Arts at UCLA. There is also a set of acetate disks of the original recording sessions before the musical changes were made.

by George Harter
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