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All You Can Take With You Is That Which You’ve Given Away

by Steve Desroches

David Drake walks into the lobby of the Provincetown Theater smiling and ringing a bell. It cost only two dollars at a thrift store mid Cape, but it will do the trick just fine. Angels aren’t too picky about what kind of bell gives them their wings. He gives the bell another shake and its tinkling fills the air over the sound of a hammer pounding nails and the sticky sound of a roller painting the theater’s floor. It’s all coming together as the Theater prepares to host its holiday season offering It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, an old school presentation of the classic film with a new twist.

To borrow from the title of the show, it’s been a wonderful year for the Provincetown Theater. A brassy spring production of August: Osage County and a scintillating summer run of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street were both smash hits packing the Bradford Street theater. With the summer crush behind them and an autumn to prepare for the holiday season, it’s time for the theater to pull together the community it serves, says Drake. A town like Provincetown needs a successful and dynamic theater space, not because the arts make a stronger community, but to honor the rich theatrical legacy of the Cape tip. It’s why Drake chose this radio play adaptation of the 1946 film. It celebrates how one person makes a difference and how a community is stronger when the collective good takes precedence over the benefit of the few, something evident in Provincetown’s social history.

“It’s about gathering the community together in a hopeful way, a beautiful way,” says Drake. “It’s one way to look at it. It’s how I look at it.”

It’s A Wonderful Life is of course now a beloved Christmas classic and revered by film critics and historians as one of the greatest American films ever made. In 1990 the Library of Congress placed it on the National Film Registry for its cultural importance and the American Film Institute includes it in its list of the 100 greatest films of all time. But like lots of great works of art, upon its introduction to the American public it was quite a different story. Director Frank Capra was already a Hollywood legend and box office magician with hit films like It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. His eternal optimism and populist appeal garnered him some critics, much in the same vein as those of Norman Rockwell. But he was a bona fide cinematic magician by the time It’s A Wonderful Life hit theaters a few days before Christmas in 1946.

Laura Cappello as Mary Bailey

Despite his previous successes, It’s A Wonderful Life was a box office flop. The connection Capra repeatedly made with audiences with his feel-good Americana evaporated. Film reviews of the time ranged from tepid to dismissive to bad. Despite garnering five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, proving it had its early champions, It’s A Wonderful Life quickly became box-office roadkill, and in the holiday movie canon it was quickly eclipsed by Miracle on 34th Street, which came out six months later. Despite his legendary status Capra’s career never really recovered.

The film had something else working against it: conservatives and their anti-Communist witch hunts after World War II that spilled over to liberalism in general. Hollywood and the movie industry was a particular target of investigation for Communist activity. In May of 1947 the Federal Bureau of Investigation drafted an internal memorandum about suspected communist infiltration of the motion picture industry, specifically mentioning the now Christmas classic with its message of “all you can take with you is that which you’ve given away,” a line from the embroidery on the office wall of lead character George Bailey.

“With regard to the picture It’s a Wonderful Life, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture,” reads the FBI memo. “This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists. [In] addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”

Kenneth Lonergan as Clarence

It’s a bit ironic that the FBI was so concerned considering that for most of his life Capra was a registered Republican and a vocal critic of President Franklin Roosevelt and his progressive agenda. Nevertheless the government hand wringing was real and even resulted in the FBI taking a peek into the politics of the film’s stars, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. The paranoia of the times is now laughable, that It’s A Wonderful Life was even on its radar and that what some viewed as Communist propaganda is now a ubiquitous element of the holidays season and for some a family viewing tradition each Christmas Eve.

It’s unwavering popularity in large part came when the film fell into the public domain due to a clerical error when its owners tried to renew the copyright in 1974 (it has since returned to protected copyright status). For almost 20 years the film showed on multiple networks, sometimes around the clock, introducing it to new generations of fans. That led to Joe Landry, a fan of the film from Connecticut, to adapt It’s A Wonderful Life for live performances, presenting it as a classic 1940s live radio broadcast, performed much the same way such shows would have been done, including a foley artist for sound effects, which is what audiences will see at this production at the Provincetown Theater. Beau Jackett and Laura Cappello will play George and Mary Bailey, respectively, and the role of Clarence, the angel trying to earn his wings, will be portrayed by the Town Crier Kenneth Lonergan, with Colin Delaney, Nicholas Dorr, Paul E. Halley, William Mullin, Racine Oxtoby, Julia Salinger, and Anne Stott rounding out this community-based cast.

“These are difficult times,” says Drake. “To celebrate community is what brings us together. It’s what gets you through hard times, friends and neighbors. Bedford Falls is very much like Provincetown; we’re both small towns with tight knit communities. It’s people that matter. Like Clarence says to George, ‘No man is a failure who has friends.’”

It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is at the Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St. Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., November 21 through December 8 (no show Thanksgiving Day). Tickets ($35) are available at the box office and online at For more information call 508.487.7487.

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Graphic Artist

Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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