It's a Wonderful Life

If you asked 20 people to name their top-10 Christmas films of all time, odds are that 19 of them would find a place on the list for Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. It graces our television screens every season, to the point where the season wouldn't be quite the same without it.

The Movie Background

During World War II, Capra, who had scored with such hits as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonMr. Deeds Goes to Town, headed the government’s Office of War Information, and directed the powerful Why We Fight series of documentaries. When the war ended, Capra returned to Hollywood and, with William Wyler, George Stevens, and Samuel Briskin, formed Liberty Pictures—an independent production company in an era of big-studio moviemaking.

For Capra’s first Liberty Pictures project, he bought the rights to a short piece by Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift.” It told the tale of a man who was afforded the opportunity to see what life would have been like if he had never been born.

Capra asked Jimmy Stewart, who had returned from active duty as an Air Force pilot, to be his leading man in It’s a Wonderful Life. To win Stewart’s commitment before any script existed, Capra had to give a verbal summary of the plot he had in mind.

According to Stewart, the account was a rambling one that had to do with an angel who didn’t have any wings yet, a good man named George Bailey who wanted to see the world but never got to, a savings and loan company, a small town, and a misplaced wad of money— among many, many other things.

Although Capra’s summary left Stewart more baffled than ever about what the film was actually about, he agreed to do the picture. Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Thomas Mitchell also signed on.

The picture was filmed over the summer of 1946. All the snow in the winter scenes is fake; all the actors in overcoats and mittens were sweltering. When the movie was released in late December 1946, it received generally positive critical notices, but not such a positive welcome at the box office.

A Movie Flop

One argument goes that the film failed because it was Capra’s darkest effort to date. It's a Wonderful Life includes a child-beating scene, a suicide attempt, and a nightmarish tour of a very seedy, very depressing outpost that could no longer call itself Bedford Falls. It may well be that the many down moments of the film just weren’t in tune with the mood of the moviegoing public shortly after World War II.

Even though the film features what may be the happiest (or, depending on your perspective, corniest) ending in movie history, that ending is a long time coming, and a war-weary audience may simply have been looking for more upbeat entertainment in late 1946 and early 1947.

Another line of reasoning has it that Liberty Films had trouble competing with bigger, better-promoted, and better-distributed studio films. This may well have been the case; even though RKO was handling the distribution of the picture, the number of theaters initially showing the film seems quite low for a major release, and Liberty apparently had trouble collecting from theaters.

The third theory suggests that bad timing was the film’s undoing. It was released to a few dozen theaters very late in December 1946, with broader distribution coming only late the following January. Not, perhaps, the best way to launch a Christmas movie. Another obstacle may have been the weather: A major blizzard put a huge hole in East Coast movie attendance during the film’s run.

Whether it was because of the tone of the film, the competitive pressures from the big studios, the timing, or a combination of all three, It’s a Wonderful Life was anything but a wonderful experience for the fledgling Liberty Films studio. By the end of the year, that project and others like it had brought the company into serious financial trouble. To avoid personal responsibility for Liberty’s debts, Capra and his partners dissolved the studio—and, in so doing, paved the way for the remarkable revival of the story of George Bailey of Bedford Falls.

A Television Revival

The irony is that if Liberty hadn’t failed, It’s a Wonderful Life might never have become a holiday tradition—television, not the movies, was the medium through which Capra’s film became widely known and loved. This was largely because the company’s failure allowed the film’s copyright to enter the public domain at a time when broadcasters were hungry for cheap holiday-oriented programming. If you had a copy of the film, you could show it, period. (You could also delete as many scenes from it as you pleased in order to accommodate television’s appetite for commercial breaks, a fact that has frustrated many a Capra purist.)

Thankfully, the official, original, and unedited version of the film is available on DVD (Turner Entertainment, which obtained the RKO library, has the original negative). Head down to your local movie rental or retail outlet and check out a copy of the crystal clear, uncut It’s a Wonderful Life for holiday viewing. But get there early— you’ll have some competition!


Even the experts aren’t perfect all the time. Watch for these film flubs in Capra’s holiday masterpiece.

  • In the dinner scene before the big dance, when Harry Bailey says, “Annie, my sweet, have you got those pies?” the water-pitcher on the table is about one-third full. Later in the scene, without anyone’s assistance, the level has mysteriously risen to about one-half.

  • Shortly after Mary loses her bathrobe and dashes into a nearby bush, she tells George that she’s hiding in the hydrangea bush. It’s hard to tell what the set designer was getting at with this “plant,” but one thing’s for certain: It isn’t a hydrangea.

  • Watch very closely after George tosses the robe onto the bush; the robe vanishes in the next shot!

  • In the scene in which George walks into the Building and Loan carrying a holiday wreath, the wreath magically appears and disappears on his arm in various shots.

  • After George leaves Mr. Martini’s on the night he attempts to commit suicide, he crashes his car into an old tree. Before the car hits the tree, the car has no snow to speak of on it, but in the very next shot, noticeable snowdrifts have suddenly appeared on the car’s body.

  • Right before George’s line “I wish I’d never been born,” Clarence Oddbody is standing with his arms at his sides. But in the very next shot, Clarence’s arms are crossed.

  • Near the end of the long final scene of the film, Zuzu reaches for the pocket watch before the stocky man pulls it out of her coat to surprise her with it.

If you can spot them all, give yourself an extra cup of eggnog!

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