It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra’s examination of failure.

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.

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