An evergreen Christmas movie

A flop when it was first released, It's a Wonderful Life became an icon of the Christmas season. Why does the film continue to move us?

How popular is It’s a Wonderful Life?

It’s widely beloved. The American Film Institute has named it the No. 1 “inspirational” film of all time, as well as the 11th best film ever. It came in fourth in a Chicago Tribune poll of favorite movies, behind Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and ahead of Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz. At one point in the 1980s, the film was being shown by more than 300 TV stations across the country. “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” its director, Frank Capra, said in 1984. “The thing has a life of its own now.”

How did that life begin?

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In a very “Capraesque” manner. One day in 1939, a historian and author named Philip Van Doren Stern was shaving when he began imagining a tale about a small-town bank clerk who contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve, but pulls back when a guardian angel shows him how dark the world would be without him. Stern wrote a short story called “The Greatest Gift,” which he pitched to several magazines, without success. So in 1943, he printed 200 copies as 24-page pamphlets and sent them out as Christmas cards. One went to his agent, who immediately saw the movie potential and sold the film rights to RKO for $10,000. There, it was snapped up by Frank Capra, the Oscar-winning director of It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

What did Capra do with it?

With screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, he fleshed out Stern’s 4,000-word story into a magical 130 minutes of hope, despair, and redemption. At every step, the screenwriters heightened the dramatic tension and emotional payoff. In Stern’s story, “George Pratt” is simply bored with his humdrum existence. His movie counterpart, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is a bankrupted man of tragically thwarted dreams. Though he yearns to see the world, circumstances have kept him trapped in his hometown of Bedford Falls. The movie George enriches the lives of far more people than the literary George, even saving Bedford Falls itself from greedy banker Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore. In the end, of course, everything turns out all right, and George’s salvation typifies what punning detractors have called “Capra-corn.”

What did the critics think?

Despite some negative reviews—The New York Times called it “a figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes”—the critical reaction was generally positive. “It’s a Wonderful Life melted all the barnacles off my heart and left me feeling young and full of ideals again,” said the Los Angeles Herald Express. The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune predicted, “It’s a Wonderful Life will be looked back on in years to come as one of the classics of filmdom.” Yet despite such plaudits, It’s a Wonderful Life failed at the box office.

Why did it bomb?

It was a matter of timing. The studio did not originally plan to market the film as a Christmas movie, and, in fact, it was slated for release on Jan. 30, 1947. But when the studio’s hoped-for big year-end release ran into technical difficulties and had to be delayed, It’s a Wonderful Life’s premiere was moved up to Dec. 20, 1946. Just then, a huge snowstorm clobbered the Eastern U.S., forcing movie­goers to stay home. The film was also competing against the critically acclaimed The Best Years of Our Lives, which would go on to sweep the Academy Awards. (Capra’s picture, nominated for five Oscars, won none.) In the end, It’s a Wonderful Life lost $480,000 and fell into oblivion. “I don’t think it was the type of story people wanted to see right after the war,” Jimmy Stewart once remarked. “They wanted a war-related story or pure slapstick. Our movie just got lost.”

How did it come back?

Through one of the most fortunate mistakes in cinema history. Precisely because It’s a Wonderful Life was forgotten, no one bothered to renew its 28-year copyright. So in 1974, it fell into the public domain, meaning that TV stations could show it for free—which they did, repeatedly. It quickly found an audience. Devotees began hosting parties to watch it, and video sales soared. “Astounding as it may seem,” the Chicago Tribune declared in 1985, “It’s a Wonderful Life seems quietly to have replaced Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol while we weren’t looking as the one great Christmas story.”

Why isn’t it on TV as much anymore?

In 1993, Republic Pictures, a company that took over distribution from the film’s producer, announced that it still held the rights to Stern’s original story. Fearful of being sued for copyright infringement, TV stations stopped showing the movie. Eventually NBC acquired exclusive broadcasting rights and now airs it twice a year, during prime time.

So why does it still work?

If you have to ask, you haven’t seen it. There is the pitch-perfect cast, led by the upright Jimmy Stewart, who embodies all that is noble about the human spirit, and the beautiful Donna Reed, who as his wife, Mary, exudes sympathy, warmth, and love. Most important, the film plays on people’s great ambivalence about Christmas. For many, the holiday is a time of both great joy and mournful introspection. By deftly poising those two themes on an emotional knife-edge, Capra produced a movie that touched America’s collective heart. “It’s a Wonderful Life shows that every human being on this Earth matters,” says director Steven Spielberg, “and that’s a very powerful message.”

A lifesaving movie, literally

“Of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen in my 32 years,” a merchant marine officer wrote to director Frank Capra in 1956, “never has a story on film struck my heart as this one.” That sentiment is typical of the devotion inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life. Scores of people, from children to prison inmates, wrote similar letters, several of them saying the film helped them vanquish their own suicidal thoughts. One viewer thanked Capra for freeing him “momentarily from fear, rapacity, greed, intolerance, and confusion.” In 1987, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, who was caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal, attempted suicide. McFarlane later credited the film with giving him new hope—after a stranger who read about McFarlane’s woes sent him a videotape of the movie with the message, “Watch this.”

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