Why It’s a Wonderful Life Is Wonderful

Classic Christmas Movies: Why It's a Wonderful Life Is WonderfulFrank 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 that 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, Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), 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. 


James Stewart Articles:

James Stewart: It’s a Wonderful Career

James Stewart: His Five Best Performances

The Man From Laramie

Suspicion: First Viewing Experiences

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  • Heather B.

    Clarence’s last name is “Oddbody.”

  • Steve7485

    Here’s a piece I wrote for the Rocky Mountain News a few years ago: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2006/dec/13/bspeakoutb-60-years-later-its-still-a-wonderful/

  • Pingback: The Five Best Christmas Movies According to Rick29 | MovieFanFare

  • Hugo

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  • Lisanne

    “Meet John Doe” has long been my favorite Capra film with a Christmas in it, but I’m so glad “It’s A Wonderful Life” has the ability to attract crowds in movie theatres year after year. I stumbled upon the film on TV in the 1980s not knowing anything about it’s past as a box office failure. After it ended, I looked it up in film books and was very surprised it wasn’t a hit, especially considering some of the other films of the 1944-1946 time frame which were comparably not so cheery, yet did do well at the box office.

  • EMF

    At the risk of being the Grinch that stole Christmas, this movie stinks except for the last 20 minutes. The only reason it has become a holiday “classic” that because the copyright expired for a few years, it was shown over and over by every TV station in the country in the 1970′s and everybody got used to it. Up until then, it was considered a dud. It’s still a dud – sappy and overacted except for Lionel Barrymore and a reasonably interesting ending.

  • canada movie guy

    Martin Scorcese has said that this is the story of a man whose life is one long endless frustration. I agree. Nothing goes George Bailey’s way. His dreams are dashed and he grows old living in that small town where he has little or no future. This film is a drama from beginning to end with very few laughs. But the story is so compelling, it draws you in and keeps you there until the very end. I’m not sure that I buy the premise that one man’s life affects so many others or that the townsfolk would all pitch in donate the money he needs. Nevertheless, this is a genuine screen classic and one of the top Christmas stories of all time. I never get tired of watching it.

  • jan

    I seem to have read somewhere that Frank Capra never really liked the movie and didn’t want to be reminded of it. If that is the case, I can see him giving up the rights to the movie. I am sure that, if he knew then that the movie would be around this long, he would never have done so. The movie really has it all – George Bailey (the good guy), looking back on his life and not really seeing that he has ever done anything and feeling that his life has been a waste; Mr. Potter (the bad guy), greedy and selfish to the end; wonderful supporting cast; and a plot that makes us all want to be a little more aware of how what we say and do can influence someone we may not even be aware of.