Under the Radar

Actor Jimmy Hawkins Talks About WWII and the Making of 'It's a Wonderful Life'

This 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition of director Fran Capra's Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.  Jimmy Hawkins, who played George Bailey's son Tommy in the movie, is still with us and he talked to us about the movie, how it became a classic and why making the film was so important for returning WWII veterans Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra.

After Hawkins grew up, he appeared in a couple of movies with Elvis Presley and was a regular guest star on '60s television shows. He later worked as a film and TV producer and became the acknowledged expert on It's a Wonderful Life, writing several books and producing documentary tributes to the film.

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The new release includes a beautiful black-and-white transfer of the original film and a colorized version that was done in 2007 (and is far better than the colorization process you might remember from the '80s. There's also  “The Making of It’s A Wonderful Life,” a documentary featurette hosted by Tom Bosley. Both the Blu-ray and DVD set include collectible, limited edition art cards featuring images of original ads and lobby cards.

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How old you were when the film got made in 1946?

I was 4 1/2, the 1/2 was a big deal back then, of course.

Do you have any memories of World War II?

We had been doing like all Americans did, had a victory garden, collected tinfoil from our gum wrappers, balls of string. My mom would save the grease for cooking and put them in jars and bottles, did just what all America was doing for the war effort. We had restrictions on gasoline and what have you.

My dad was away in the war and she was a single mom raising two kids. She always wanted her kids in the business because she came from the business -- part of her family worked with Charlie Chaplin, art director. My mom was born across the street from Mack Sennett Studios.

Mom would take us on interviews and one of them was for a new movie starring Jimmy Stewart, directed by Frank Capra. When we'd go out on interviews, we'd have to leave from Los Angeles and take buses and street cars to get to Culver City. After three or four interviews, Frank Capra finally felt he had the Bailey family. He took his four kids over on the set, Stage 14 at the Culver City RKO-Pathé Studios.

We stood on the front porch and they took a picture of us and there's the Bailey family. We worked on the picture for 12 days. It was 90 degrees outside, but of course there was snow around the house, real, real snow around the house and there was the Christmas tree and everything.

It was a wonderful experience. Capra had a very happy set, and everybody knew the movie was work time, but yet it was fun. You didn’t mind going to work.

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I have vivid memories of my mom waking me up when it was dark on those 12 days. We had to go out on streetcars and buses and watch the shop owners open up their markets at 5:00 in the morning. Then we'd arrive at the RKO-Pathé and be on this wonderful set. People were bustling around doing what they did, I’d have to go to makeup and hair, but kids didn’t use much makeup back then, so it was kind of easy. Then we'd rehearse the scenes and then shoot the scenes. Like I said, all the stuff with the Bailey kids took 12 days to shoot.

I have nothing but fond memories of making the picture. It was fun to be on the set and to play with the other kids. I vividly remember Frank Capra giving me directions. He would stop everybody because he wanted me to say “excuse me” at these different spots during the scene. He had to stop all the action of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and the rest of the characters while we were walking through from the dining room to the kitchen.

He made it very clear where he wanted me to say certain things. And then we shot it a few times and he was happy with what he got. I remember Jimmy Stewart pulling me towards him, hugging me, thinking of the $8000 he lost, the embarrassment, and everything that would happen to him for losing $8000.

Every time he pulled me into him, the Santa Claus mask I was wearing, would hike up and inside the mask it was like sandpaper; it kept scratching my cheek. But I knew that I had to pretend it was the first time he was pulling me towards him. I knew that when we were taking it, that I had to pretend like it was the first time it ever happened, so you don’t flinch when it scratches your cheek. That’s all I remember.

Jimmy Stewart was a very fine man. You could tell that he was treating this situation very professionally. He treated us like actors, he didn’t play down to us or anything. He just played the scene the way the scene should be played, realistically.

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Wasn’t this Jimmy Stewart's first film after he completed his WWII military service?

That’s right. It was his first film and Frank Capra's first film. And they were both frightened, they were scared, they wondered if they still had it. Did they lose it in those five years? Jimmy Stewart was very concerned if making movies was really what he should be doing in life. He had just been through World War II, saw death, saw everything that war brings, and it wasn’t pretty.

He asked Lionel Barrymore about it. “Is this really what I should be doing? I just came out of something that was so real and now I'm sitting on this set being pampered, saying these words, what's this all about? I'm very confused. I think I should go back home and run my dad's hardware store. At least that’s what real people do.”

Lionel Barrymore told him, “No, no, no. You have a great gift. You can speak to the people for two hours in the dark and that’s a rare gift that you have, that people want to sit there and listen to you. You have something to say. You have a gift of acting and you must act, just like the other people who are returning have to go back to what they were doing. You did what you had to do when you had to do it. Now that’s over. Now you have to go back to what you do best.”

He told Jimmy Stewart that what he was doing in acting is important and that helped Jimmy Stewart get through it a great deal. He saw what his gift was. Well, it's important. He could act and talk to people and give them a message.

In a way, that’s what this movie is about. A man gets to see what life would have been like if he had never been born. And my God it impacted on him. Each man's life touches so many others, if they weren't around and were taken out of the equation, everything would be different.

That’s why people love that movie, because everyone can see that there's some George Bailey in them. They mean something, even if they don’t think they did anything, they did something to touch lives.

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The movie wasn’t a big theatrical success back then. I’ve read that Frank Capra was incredibly disappointed by that.

Right. I talked to Sheldon Leonard about that. Sheldon played Nick the bartender. He said the film never changed, the people changed. The people needed that message. When the movie fell into public domain, TV stations all over the country could play it for free. That’s when Capra's people saw it. Capra made a film for his people, the common man, the guy that goes to work every day. That’s who he made his films for.

When the common man finally saw it for free when it was shoved down their throat on every station across the United States, people started having trivia parties and getting together and discussing the film and then it grew and grew and grew.

But, like Sheldon Leonard said, the film never changed, the people did. They needed that message and today they need it more than ever. People have to see the film to see that they are important, they can make a difference, and that’s why people gravitate to that film.

After Jimmy Stewart saw real life in the military, he just thought what he was doing was trivial and it wasn’t. He had to return, like all the vets, to their hometowns and do the job that they were doing before the war.

He never talked about the military. In fact, in his contract, when he was doing It's a Wonderful Life, he didn’t want any interviewers to be able to ask him about the war. He kept that to himself. Like a lot of vets, he kept his war experiences private.

People raised in the World War II era, that was a generation that'll never be again. Ever. It was a great generation that gave their word and they kept their word. The more stories we can hear about that era, the better, because one day those horses are gonna be silenced and then we'll never know.

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Tell us about this new 70th anniversary release.

People will never ever see it better. Paramount has gone to great lengths to give them perfect, perfect prints of this film, whether they prefer the original black-and-white or the colorized version, which blew me away.

I went down to the place where they did the colorizing of that film. They explained everything to me because I asked, “How did you know that’s the color of powder blue that was the outfit I was wearing?” Well, they researched everything and they just were impeccable in this colorized version.

The reason I like the colorized version is because kids today don’t like black and white. They like color. So in order to get them to see the film, it's been colorized, and that’s important because now they will too get the message of It's a Wonderful Life.

Over the years, you’ve become the great scholar of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Tell our readers about the books you’ve written.

For fun, Paul Petersen and I wrote the It's a Wonderful Life Trivia Book. That was the very first one. There’s The Fiftieth Anniversary Scrapbook, which was an oral history from the people who were there, whether it was the cinematographer or the Albert Hackett, the writer. They all share their stories: me, actors, actresses. The guy that made the snow in the movies tells us how he made it.

I got to tell stories that Donna Reed had told me or Jimmy Stewart had told me and Capra told me. He had a vision of what the picture was about and all the people around him hopefully had the same vision, so everybody was making the same movie.

He didn’t get along with some of the people. They didn’t like the way Capra worked, but Capra didn’t care. He had a vision of what this picture was about. The one thing everybody said, whether they got along with him or not, was that they respected him and they said that, in the end, it was Frank Capra's picture all the way. No matter what their input was, it was his movie. They did it his way because he had a passion.

In the end he was proven right, because now it's known as the most inspirational movie of all time. Now it must have been very frustrating to make this picture and it was a bomb. It lost a half a million dollars. It took a lot of time. Some guy dropped the rights and let the film go into public domain. Then TV stations all over the United States could show it for free. They took advantage of it and then It’s a Wonderful Life found its audience.

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