By Maureen Lee Lenker
Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to imagine Christmas without It’s a Wonderful Life. The shot of Jimmy Stewart gathered around a Christmas-tree with Donna Reed and their onscreen children, his daughter saying, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,” is a defining part of the holiday season. But things weren’t always so rosy for this Frank Capra picture with unusual beginnings.
The film began as a greeting card – when Philip Van Doren Stern could not get his short story, “The Greatest Gift,” published, he distributed it as a Christmas card to family and friends in 1943. This is how it ended up on the desk of an RKO producer, who purchased the rights for $10,000 with the idea of creating a vehicle for Cary Grant. After several unsuccessful stabs at writing a script, RKO sold the rights to Frank Capra’s Liberty Films who had a distribution deal with RKO. Capra loved the story (and the adapted film) as a tale consistent with his films that championed the common man and the notion of family and close-knit community over material wealth.
The film, which premiered in New York in late December 1946, but didn’t reach wider audiences until early January 1947, met a lukewarm reception. Not even released to most audiences at Christmas, despite its holiday setting, the film was not the instant classic we might expect. Many reviews were negative or dismissive, with The New York Times bemoaning its “sentimentality” and The New Yorker criticizing the actors who “behave as cutely as pixies” and the “sticky confines of the script.” It lost RKO $525,000 at the box office, and the $3.7 million budget financially devastated Capra’s Liberty films (which ultimately produced this and only one other film, 1948’s State of the Union).
While critics disliked the film’s sentimental themes, audiences, still recovering from the dark days of World War II, seemed to reject the serious themes of the picture. For a supposed “Christmas” film, the story deals with suicide and a man who sees the tragic fallout from a world where he’s “never been born” – not exactly the typical fare of holiday escapism.
Rushed into a late December release to be eligible for 1946 Oscar nominations, the film gleaned no awards at the ceremony, but did receive a Scientific and Technical Award from the Academy for its development of new film snow. Prior to this film, studios used cornflakes painted white for a falling snow effect – a noisy bit of film magic. Capra wanted to record sound live and so RKO used a chemical called foamite, soap, and water to create a new (and silent) method for shooting falling snow on set.
Not only was the film a box office disappointment, but in 1947, as part of the rising tide of anti-communist hysteria, the film was cited in an FBI memo on “Communist infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry” for its anti-banking attitudes. The memo read, “With regard to the picture 'It's a Wonderful Life', [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists. [In] addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”
So how then did this much maligned and financially disappointing film become one of the most iconic Christmas classics of all time? When the film was made in 1946, U.S. copyright protection lasted only twenty-eight years. Republic Pictures, who owned the rights at the time, neglected to complete the paperwork to renew the 1946 copyright in 1947. Thus, the film entered the public domain and became a television staple in the 1970s and 80s. Stations could run it without paying royalties, which meant that excepting production overhead costs, showing the film on television was essentially free. The film aired seemingly nonstop between Thanksgiving and Christmas on multiple networks (even appearing in a terrible colorized format) throughout the 1970s and 80s. With its numerous television airings, the film re-entered the public imagination and became a holiday favorite.
Though Capra and Jimmy Stewart regularly both cited the film as the favorite of their work, they were delightfully surprised by this turn of events. In 1984, Capra told The Wall Street Journal, “It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen. The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I'm proud ... but it's the kid who did the work. I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
With its growing popularity, Republic regained the film’s copyright in 1993 by leaning on a Supreme Court ruling that said the copyright holder of a story on which a film was based had some rights to the film property as well. After regaining copyright controls, Republic brokered a deal with NBC in 1994, which retains the broadcast rights of the film to this day and airs it a few times each December.
Though its visibility has slightly decreased from the heyday of its public domain days, It’s a Wonderful Life is now a holiday stalwart. In 2006, the American Film Institute named it the number one Most Inspirational Movie of all time – the honor refers to the film itself, but its rise from flop to hallowed Christmas classic is an inspirational story all its own.