We all know the story, for it has become a Christmas classic—etched into our collective memory. At its core, It’s a Wonderful Life is a parable of a good, honest man who, after years of struggling to do the right thing, questions his life and the choices he's made. Teetering on the brink of despair, the protagonist, George Bailey, finally concludes that his life has been a failure. Surmising that it might have been better if he had never been born, he contemplates suicide, only to be rescued by an angel determined to get his wings.
While It’s a Wonderful Life is often referred to as a sentimental movie, the issues it presents—questioning what makes a man a failure or a success—are hardly lighthearted. Perhaps that accounts for the strong reactions it evokes. As the year ends, we tend to take stock of our own lives, questioning our worth and our place in a world that often doesn’t behave as we expect. Like George Bailey, things didn’t go as expected for It’s a Wonderful Life, the movie. But its story would have a happy ending too, emerging to become synonymous with Christmas and one of the most popular films of all time.
The Greatest Gift of All
The original screenplay for It’s a Wonderful Life grew out of a short story (“The Greatest Gift of All”), that, ironically, no one wanted. After it unsuccessfully made the rounds in publishing circles, author Philip Van Doren Stern distributed the twenty-four page pamphlet as a Christmas card. It finally fell into the hands of a Hollywood agent, and eventually made its way to Charles Koerner, the head of RKO Radio Pictures.
Koerner purchased the property as a potential movie vehicle for Cary Grant, but RKO and its writers were unable to translate the dark tale into a workable screenplay. After many fruitless attempts the script was finally shelved and deemed unusable.
The Little Man
Enter director/producer Frank Capra. Having returned to Hollywood after World War II, Capra, like many of his fellow servicemen was looking for work and struggling to find his postwar footing. In his autobiography, “The Name Above the Title,” Capra wrote of that time that he “faced a loneliness that was laced with the fear of failure.” In an interview with Esquire magazine in 1981 Capra recalled that, “perhaps I had put too much faith in the human race—you know, in the pictures I had made. Maybe they were too much as things should be. I began to think that I really was a Pollyanna.” Looking for a film that would help him express his complicated war-influenced emotions, Capra saw great potential in “The Greatest Gift,” with its mixture of comedy and soul searching.
Still, the cathartic story of an angel trying to get his wings by saving a suicidal man would give the director pause. While presenting the story line to Jimmy Stewart he realized how absurd “talking angels and heavenly voices” sounded. But Capra would ultimately get his arms around the film's distilled essence: “It’s a movie about a small town guy who thinks he is a failure and wishes he had never been born,” said Capra. “He’s surprised to learn that he was not a failure, that he did fit into the scheme of life and actually contributed much to the happiness of several people. I think people everywhere will be able to associate themselves with the character and will perhaps feel a bit better for having known him....There’s a little George Bailey in all of us.”
On September 1, 1945, Frank Capra and his new company Liberty Films bought the rights, original material and three complete versions of the script to “The Greatest Gift of All” for a mere $10,000. Jeanine Basinger, curator of the Frank Capra archives and Chairman of Film Studies at Wesleyan University notes that the mid-1940s were a pivotal time for the director. “The vision he had about life had changed,” she says. “As a result, Capra questioned his own ideas about America—about everything. The film was important because it was a chance to speak in a new voice that still was, nevertheless, his old voice.”
The re-written story, now entitled It’s A Wonderful Life, found its delicate balance of humor and pathos. Jimmy Stewart, also newly returned from the military, and a veteran of Capra films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and You Can't Take it With You, would be George Bailey. The film was assigned a ninety-day shooting schedule and began filming in April 1946 at RKO Encino Ranch—newly transformed into Bedford Falls. Donna Reed was signed to play Mary Bailey, Lionel Barrymore would be the crotchety Mr. Potter, and Henry Travers would be Clarence, the angel.
Wonderful Life’s Clipped Wings
On December 21, 1946, Frank Capra’s magnum opus was released, although many questioned if the film and its difficult themes would succeed in postwar America. “A lot was riding on the movie,” agrees Basinger, “but it was not a failure.” Recalling the famous tag line she insists, “Any movie that has that many friends is not a failure.”
While It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t a commercial disaster, it wasn't exactly a success either. Opening to generally positive, sometimes glowing reviews, the movie did not do as well as either Capra or Hollywood expected, losing money on its initial release. Box office receipts would fall off after the holidays and despite publicity efforts it continued to falter at the box office.
As expected, the film would go on to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Sound and Best Film Editing, but failed to bring in a single Oscar. (Capra would win the Golden Globe award as the year's best director.) Adding to the disappointment, It’s A Wonderful Life opened very poorly in London, where critics rejected the film’s sentimentality. By the spring of 1947 It’s a Wonderful Life appeared to be dead.
Life after Life
Capra quietly accepted the public’s response and turned his attention to other movies. Basinger notes, “Wonderful Life did not have the huge success that some of his earlier movies did, but he knew that for him it was an important movie at an important time in his life.” Little did he know the impact the film would have many years later. However, Capra must have had an indication when he began receiving letters. Lots of letters. Recalls Basinger, “He said once to me, ‘I sat down to answer a letter about Wonderful Life in 1948 and I was still writing those letters in 1965.’ He would continue getting emotional, passionate missives until the day he died.”
Capra, as his archives indicates, was an excellent letter writer and answered each query and comment graciously. Says Basinger, “What he did not expect was what television would do for this film and how it would become so much a part of the annual holiday landscape.” Ironically, a legal oversight was largely responsible for catapulting It’s a Wonderful Life to its current stature in film and cultural history.
Wonderful Life Gets Its Wings
In 1974, twenty-eight years after its release, the copyright owner (a bankrupt film production company) failed to renew It’s a Wonderful Life’s copyright. Ignored and apparently forgotten, the film quietly slid into the public domain—hardly the desired end for a Capra classic. But from this mistake something truly wonderful happened. Television discovered It’s a Wonderful of Life anew. Stations all over the country realized they could show the picture whenever they wanted at no cost. And show it they did. It was not uncommon to see the movie go up against itself on many of the country’s cable stations. Millions of viewers were introduced and re-introduced to the classic. Video would soon follow and thousands were making the little film that had almost been forgotten a part of their holiday traditions.
After fifty years why do people continue to be drawn to Capra’s creation? “People make a direct emotional connection to it,” says Basinger. “They reach it and it reaches them. People have the idea that this is an extremely sentimental film. Actually, this is a very dark movie. It’s about a guy who's a failure and who feels like a failure.” Basinger agrees with Capra that people identify with George Bailey and his crisis of faith. “A lot of people don't get what they want out of life,” she notes. “A lot of young people dream of adventure, travel, success, wealth, luxury—and it doesn’t happen. They stay in the same little town that they’re in and they have smaller lives than that. The movie raises a lot of real questions.”
While the film’s core values and themes have been debated for years, Basinger believes that each person takes away something personal from the film. “For some people Wonderful Life is going to be about friendship,” she says. “For some, it’s going to be about love and marriage and enduring and helping you through it. For some people it’s going to be about failure. For others—and these are the Potters of the world that you have to watch out for—it’s about false sentimentality. That’s the great thing—the film is about a whole life. Good things happen and bad things happen and a bank run happens and someone nearly drowns. The great thing about Wonderful Life is that it’s ambivalent. Failure is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on your expectations, your goals, and what your value system is.”
The film's eventual status as a cultural icon was satisfying to both Capra and Stewart and up until their deaths they were frequently asked about the film they so passionately believed in. When looking back at his favorite ‘child,’ Capra summed it up best: “There’s more to the picture than I put in it…. There’s more to it than we thought we had. It’s the picture I waited all my life to make.”