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Celebrating its 70th anniversary!



Dimitri Tiomkin's Memorable Film Score

by Roger L. Hall


The Film

It ranked high on the American Film Institutes Top 100 List (No. 11 in 1998) and the film was No. 1 on its "100 Cheers" list.

Here are the nominees and one Oscar received for this 1946 film (from Wikipedia):

Category Result Nominee / winner
Best Picture Nominated Frank Capra | Winner: Samuel Goldwyn – The Best Years of Our Lives
Best Director Nominated Frank Capra | Winner: William Wyler – The Best Years of Our Lives
Best Actor Nominated James Stewart | Winner: Fredric March – The Best Years of Our Lives
Best Film Editing Nominated William Hornbeck | Winner: Daniel Mandell – The Best Years of Our Lives
Best Sound Recording Nominated John Aalberg | Winner: John P. Livadary – The Jolson Story
Technical Achievement Award Won Russell Shearman and RKO Radio Studio Special Effects Dept. for the development of a new method of simulating falling snow on motion picture sets

Surprisingly, even though it later received six Oscar nominations, the film only received mixed reviews when it premiered on December 20, 1946 at the Globe Theater in New York.

It took several decades to attain the popularity it now has after the film was shown on hundreds of television stations. It is now one of the film favorites, especially during the Christmas season. It has a 94% rating from the film critics on the Rotten Tomatoes site.

I first watched the film on television but don't remember what year and I have loved it ever since. Like many who love this film, I've continued to follow it through all the media technologies -- first on VHS tape, then on DVD and most recently on Blu-ray which includes a colorized version which I did watch -- but only once. The black & white original remains the best since it was filmed that way and for good reason.

The film was directed by Frank Capra who said it was his favorite film. Likewise for one of its stars, James Stewart, and his co-star Donna Reed said it was one of her favorites as well.

There is a stellar supporting cast, including: Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame, Henry Travers, H.B. Warner, and those adorable Bailey youngsters: Bobbie Anderson (young George), Larry Simms (Peter), Carol Coombs (Janie), Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu), and Jimmy Hawkins (Tommy). Several of these youngsters have since become celebrities when they were older, especially Karolyn Grimes who has had a thriving business selling memorabilia through her newsletter called "The Zuzu News." I know since I am one of her satisfied subscribers and have a lovely photo from the film authographed by her. Many have been touched by her stories about the film in her newsletter and on her personal appearance tours. The interest in this film and its message of hope winning over despair remains strong.

Many of the cast can be seen in this photo:

Here is a rare autographed copy of the film script:

The Score

Even though there were six Oscar nominations, Dimitri Tiomkin was not nominated for his film score.

Perhaps that was not so troubling to him since in his autobiography, Please Don't Hate Me (1959), Tiomkin was not pleased with how some of his music was used in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE:

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.

Stephen Cox in It's a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book, expresses a similar opinion but inaccurately claiming the amount of changes in the film score:

The film that eventually became one of Tiomkin's most famous works actually became a disappointment for the composer, both personally and professionally, when Capra replaced much of his original orchestration with existing music from other sources.

Actually most of Tiomkin's score remains.

But there were some awkward substitutions. One of them was Alfred Newman's "Hallelujah" music from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939), used instead of Tiomkin's much more approrpiate quoting of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in the scene near the end where George Bailey jubilantly runs through town in the snow.

Cox mentions that album producer, Willard Carroll, found Tiomkin's entire original score in the 1980s in the archives of the University of Southern California:

Carroll, along with composer and conductor David Newman, set out to release the unaltered Tiomkin score," Cox wrote.

He goes on to write:

"In 1988, their CD (which also includes suites from MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET and A CHRISTMAS CAROL) was released by Telarc, with music richly recreated and recorded by London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Cox quotes Carroll as saying:

The score as it stands in the movie is a hodgepodge. Most of it is Tiomkin, but because of the accelerated release date, a great deal of it was chopped up, switched around, and in many cases, replaced by cues from other movies...We recorded the complete score as Tiomkin originally intended it, unheard since 1946.

Tiomkin had a special fondness for using familiar tunes in his film scores and he uses "Buffalo Gals" (for George and Mary/ James Stewart and Donna Reed) as his main theme, as well as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" (for Clarence Odbody AS2/ Henry Travers).

Fortunately this great Tiomkin film score was discovered, recorded (though not complete), and released on Telarc [see Recommended CDs below]

Next time you watch the film, listen closely to the music, for example the ghost-like effects Tiomkin wrote for the Pottersville Cemetery scene with George Bailey and Clarence Odbody, AS2 ("Angel Second Class").

Tiomkin composed one of his most "wonderful" scores for this "wonderful" film about "a wonderful life."

Both the film and Tiomkin's score deserve to be remembered and cherished for years to come.

See Roger Hall's 2002 Soundtrack article, "Dimtri Tiomkin's Golden Decade," available online -- CLICK HERE


Recommended CDs


Dimitri Tiomkin's music has continued to grow in popularity along with the film. Here are two recommended CDs with Tiomkin's film score:

Total playing time = 64:34 (16 tracks)

This CD contains the Tiomkin score for IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE including music cut from the film. Also included are suites from Richard Addinsell's A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951) and Cyril Mockridge's MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947). The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by David Newman. This is a superb release in the unfortunately short-lived Sundance series and the CD is now a collector's item. Highly recommended!

Hear a sample from this CD on YouTube -- CLICK HERE

Total playing time = 41:04 (19 tracks)

Though not for soundtrack collectors who only want the music, this enjoyable CD features "the most memorable moments from the movie -- in music and in dialogue." Along with the film's soundtrack dialogue there are portions of Tiomkin's original score included on this Nick at Nite CD,


There was the first official release of the original tracks
from IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE by Kritzerland Soundtrack Recordings.
Unfortunately that CD is now Sold Out.
You can hear several sample tracks from it -- CLICK HERE.

More samples from this Sold Out original soundtrack are on YouTube,
including the unused title song sung by an unknown singer.
The lyrics are by Frederick Herbert -- CLICK HERE.


See Jimmy Stewart on the Air for more about the soundtrack -- CLICK HERE.


Are you a fan of Jimmy Stewart?

Did you know he sang in a few films, including IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE?

Click on this link to read about his singing:

James Stewart Centennial


100 Essential Film Scores

See the list of Tiomkin scores on the list of...

100 Essential Film Scores of the 20th Century



Related Links



Dimitri Tiomkin is one of the featured composers
and all the Film In Focus titles are
on this deluxe multimedia computer DVD:

Music Masters:
Fifteen Film Composers

Read about it -- CLICK HERE




This is a highly recommended DVD edition...


IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (60th Anniversary Edition)


There is also the Blu-Ray 2 disc set with two versions of the film:
the original in Black & White and also a Colorized version. If you're a purist, you will prefer the Black & White version from 1946, or if you'd prefer to see how good it looks in color, then you can watch that version.



(2 disc Blu-Ray)


The Tiomkin score plus "Buffalo Gals" and other songs are discussed
in this highly recommended book:

It's a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book

by Stephen Cox
Foreword by Bob Anderson
(who played young George Bailey)

Another recommended book:

The Essential It's A Wonderful Life:
A Scene-By-Scene Guide to the Classic Film

by Michael Willian








Read about the annual festival for IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE
held in the "real" Bedford Falls










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