Frank Capra was a great director, but probably a lousy businessman. How else do you explain his Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life falling into the public domain, and not earning a nickel for the director or his family for decades?
Although the financial rewards were obviously non-existent for some time, the value of Capra’s film rose higher and higher over the years because of its unpaid exposure. VHS tapes, then DVDs, were duped by anyone who wanted to earn some quick cash. Television stations looking for cheap yuletide programming just slotted Frank’s film in the schedule. The result was the multi-decade rollout of It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that made little impact when first released in 1946 although it was nominated for five Academy Awards, but is now recognized as a classic and, in many people’s estimation, the greatest Christmas movie of all time.
The movie is far from simple and not altogether cheery. Its themes of greed, morality and troubles in small town America play particularly powerful in this day and age. Set on Christmas Eve in 1946 in the hamlet of Bedford Falls, New York, the film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, the owner of a failing savings and loan company, who is contemplating suicide. We learn that a mistake has put George in the red for $8000 and likely to be sent to prison for the debt, while the local businessman/despot Potter (Lionel Barrymore) takes over the town.
With George at the end of his rope, Clarence Goodbody (Henry Travers)—an incompetent angel who has yet to earn his wings—is sent to help him out. But first Clarence takes note of George’s life, reviewing his many kind deeds, which includes saving his brother from drowning (and suffering because of it) protecting a sick child, and putting aside his plans for college and travel in order to keep Potter away from the townsfolk. And we get a look at the horrible alternative—what would happen if George never had been born, and was unable to contribute his goodness to all those around him. We witness the people of Potterville (as the town would be called if George weren’t around) being drawn by their own worst instincts into self-destructive habits and behavior.
Of course, the reconsideration of his life brings George to an important decision, as he finds the good people of Bedford Falls uniting to bail him out and save the town and themselves from Potter. And Clarence, ultimately, earns his wings.
The feel-good dramatics are common with Capra’s cinematic canon, which includes It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But It’s a Wonderful Life it is tempered with serious doom and gloom, which doesn’t necessarily make it a lightweight holiday viewing choice for the entire family.
The storyline is based on a short story called “The Greatest Gift” by Phillip Van Doren Stern, although Capra and other screenwriters made major changes in the plot. According to legend, such notable writers as Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus), Michael Wilson (The Bridge on the River Kwai), Clifford Odets (Sweet Smell of Success) and Dorothy Parker (A Star is Born) worked on the screenplay.
While the reviews of the film were decidedly mixed, few would argue with the excellence of the cast. Capra, working for his newly established Liberty Films company (which he co-owned with fellow WWII veterans George Stevens and William Wyler), amassed Oscar winners Stewart, Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), plus future winners Donna Reed (George’s wife, Mary) and Gloria Grahame (town pushover Violet). Rounding out the cast were Academy Award nominees Travers, Beulah Bondi and H.B. Warner, as well as character actor faves Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as—that’s right!—characters named Bert and Ernie.
Books have since been written and documentaries have been made about It’s a Wonderful Life, examining its unlikely journey from the neglected work of a legendary filmmaker to its status as not only one of the greatest holiday films ever made, but some may argue, one of the greatest films ever made, period.
Like George Bailey and his family and neighbors in Bedford Falls, It’s a Wonderful Life has bounced back, resurrected from oblivion in a big way.
Once you’ve read the arguments for both It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street being chosen the top Christmas movie of all time, we invite you to head over to our Movie FanFare poll “‘Wonderful Life'” or “‘Miracle'”: Which Is THE BEST Christmas Movie?” and let your voice be heard.