From Box Office Flop to Christmas Favourite: The History of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

It's A Wonderful Life

The premise of 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a slightly odd one for a Christmas film. It starts on Christmas Eve 1945, in a suburban town north of New York City where a man named George Bailey is contemplating suicide.

Meanwhile, up in heaven, an angel named Clarence who is is hoping to earn his wings is assigned to George so that he might just save his life (and Christmas). Through a series of flashbacks, we get to see what a stand-up guy George is and how the world was definitely better off for him being in it.

While the movie is now a bonafide Christmas classic, it began its life as a total flop that essentially destroyed director Frank Capra’s career.

It’s a Wonderful Life is based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Philip Van Doren Stern. When Cary Grant came across the story, he saw its potential and sold it to Capra’s production company Liberty Films for USD $10,000 with James Stewart attached to star.

The film was made for USD $2.3 million and recorded a loss of USD $525,000 at the box office.

Liberty Films, being a small, independent production company could not bounce back from such a huge loss, forcing Capra to sell to Paramount Pictures who dissolved it in 1951.

Thanks to the failure of the film, and Capra’s reputation for being very difficult to work with, the director’s career was as good as over.

He later wrote in his autobiography that, “practically all the Hollywood film-making of today is stooping to cheap salacious pornography in a crazy bastardisation of a great art to compete for the ‘patronage’ of deviates and masturbators.”

To be fair, he had a point.

The problems faced by It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t end with its poor box office takings, either with the film being accused of having communist leanings and, according to Ayn Rand being a ‘pernicious threat to Americanism.” In fact, the FBI went so far as to claim in 1947 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” — a common ploy used by Communists. It was also noted that the plot deliberately showed the characters who had money to be mean and despicable in an attempt to smear the wealthy.

The film was also dismissed due to its dark themes, which came at a time when people were craving optimism after the trauma of the second world war. Another critic decried Capra of taking “an easy, simple-minded path that doesn’t give much credit to the intelligence of the audience”.

This discord was certainly at odds with how the cast and crew had felt as that had made the movie, united in their belief that they were truly making something special.

“I thought it was the greatest film I ever made,” Capra once said. “Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

It took some time, but eventually, the public began to agree. After being on the shelf for years, It’s a Wonderful Life fell into the public domain in 1974, as the studio, Republic Pictures, had either forgotten to or deliberately neglected to renew the copyright protection — an agreement that needed to be re-signed every 28 years, per the 1909 Copyright Act.

This meant that TV stations could play the film as often as they liked for free, which obviously they did because who doesn’t love free stuff?

Perhaps ’70s audiences were more sophisticated than 1940s ones had been, or perhaps it was because the TV stations played the movie until the cows came home, but either way, slowly but surely, the tides started to turn and people started to realise what a brilliant film It’s a Wonderful Life actually is thereby cementing its place as essential Christmas viewing — and one of Capra’s greatest triumphs.

There’s an iconic line in It’s a Wonderful Life in which Clarence the angel muses, “Each man’s life touches so many lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

It’s something of a Christmas miracle, but that poignant line perfectly sums up exactly how we now feel about the film itself.

It’s a Wonderful Life is available to stream on Stan.

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