Whether you love it or hate it, the film It’s a Wonderful Life is inescapable during the holiday season. First released in 1946 to a lukewarm response but later discovered by television viewers who fell in love with it, it is a well-loved classic enjoyed by generations of viewers in the same way The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music and Disney’s animated films are. Although the first time I watched it I was hardly a fan. I thought it was sappy. But as with many films I revisited as an adult, I grew to appreciate it over the years and recognize its brilliance and now I think it is a masterpiece.
The film tells the story of a man named George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, who attempts suicide on Christmas Eve after his dreams fall apart during the holidays, before his guardian angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) shows George how many lives he’s touched and how different the world would be without him, convincing George that life is worth living. The story was the standard bearer for the “What would life be like if you were never born” plot that has been imitated in pop culture by everything from the Muppets to Rugrats to the Adam Sandler movie Click.
The story of how the film came to be is a unique one. The film originated with Civil War historian, editor and author Philip Van Doren Stern, who first wrote a short story (which was inspired by Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol in obvious ways) called The Greatest Gift in 1939 but for years was unable to find a company that would publish it. By 1943, he decided to send the 21-page story to his close friends as Christmas cards instead. A year later, the story finally got published in book form and came to the attention of Cary Grant’s agent and RKO Pictures, which bought the rights to the story with the hope of turning it into a vehicle for Grant.
RKO urged Frank Capra, who had previously directed successful films like It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to read The Greatest Gift and Capra immediately saw the story’s potential as a film. Capra worked on several drafts of the screenplay for the film along with the husband-wife writing team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich as well as respected writers like Jo Swerling, Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly and Clifford Odets.
Jimmy Stewart, the Tom Hanks of his time, was well cast as American everyman George Bailey. In fact, Capra thought Stewart was the only actor at the time capable of playing “a Good Sam who doesn’t know that he is a Good Sam.” Stewart, who collaborated with Capra previously on You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), immediately accepted the part. Actresses like Olivia de Havilland and Ginger Rogers were considered for the role of Mary before Donna Reed, who had acted in movies before but had never had a starring role, was given the part, and Lionel Barrymore, radio’s Ebenenzer Scrooge, was a natural for the part of miserly banker Henry F. Potter.
The film was shot at RKO Radio Studios in California from April 1946 to July 1946 and it premiered at the Globe Theatre in New York in December 1946. The film received mixed reviews and some people thought it was too sentimental and fantastic. You have to remember that fantasy was not really a popular genre in the Hollywood studio era (the period in film history between the 1920s and the 1950s). Later film critics and film historians realized how great it was and now it is seen as a masterpiece and a Christmas classic, especially after 1976 when it started airing on television annually, much to the surprise and delight of Frank Capra and the crew who worked on it. Three decades after making the film, their work was finally getting the respect it deserved, and now many critics and organizations like the American Film Institute hold it in high regard as one of the best films ever made.
Don’t get me wrong. Many critics in 1946 did recognize its brilliance. Frank Capra was a well-respected director after all and the film was even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. But one of the problems was that it was largely overshadowed by another 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, which was the highest-grossing film of the entire decade. It’s a Wonderful Life basically had a timing problem. It also helped that the copyright on the film lapsed in 1974 and it was in the public domain, which is why it was able to air on television all the time and garner such a large fanbase, but only until 1994, although NBC retains the American television rights and Channel 4 retains the British television rights, and it still airs on those networks every Christmas (The legal issues surrounding the ownership of the film are way too complex for me to get into here, but basically it was in the public domain from 1974 to 1994, and now it’s owned by Paramount, making it one of the few RKO films not owned by Warner).
The film was adapted for radio several times in the late forties and early fifties with Stewart and Reed even reprising their roles as George and Mary, and several stage adaptations were made too, including musical versions. The film was also remade as a 1977 television movie called It Happened One Christmas, with a gender reversal – this time Mary Bailey (played by Marlo Thomas) was the protagonist. It also starred Wayne Rogers as George, Cloris Leachman as Mary’s guardian angel Clara Oddbody and Orson Welles as the villainous Mr. Potter and it was well-received and even got an Emmy nomination, but it hasn’t seen the light of day since the seventies.
There was also a 1997 PBS TV movie called Merry Christmas, George Bailey starring Bill Pullman as George, Penelope Ann Miller as Mary, Nathan Lane as Clarence and Martin Landau as Mr. Potter. Plus there was a Hallmark Channel TV adaptation in 2013 called The Christmas Spirit, and a 1990 made-for-TV sequel called Clarence starring Robert Carradine (of Revenge of the Nerds and Lizzie McGuire fame).
There’s a reason why so many people love the film and why it gets adapted so many times. Frank Capra called It’s a Wonderful Life a story about faith. Its message of “No man is a failure who has friends,” its optimism and its life-affirming story of a man who realizes his life has meaning are all irresistible themes for many people. And while the film is accused of being too sentimental, if you pay attention to the film, you will see that its story of renewed faith is handled well and isn’t overly sappy. It’s actually pretty dark and can be genuinely sad at times. The film’s themes of loss, struggle and sacrifice are even seen by some historians as ways of tapping into the national post-war attitude in America (something The Best Years of Our Lives did even more literally). Meaningful themes about American life are not surprising coming from Capra, the man who previously directed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The film’s villain Mr. Potter definitely feels like an allegory for the problems of capitalistic greed and its harmful effect on the little guy.
Also, if you will allow me to look at it through a modern lens, there are some things about the film that don’t hold up well, although that’s expected from a film that was released in the forties. I won’t highlight the problems and I don’t mean to be an annoying “woke” person, but let’s just say you can definitely tell it’s a film aimed at conservative white people and no one else. That definitely put a barrier between me and my full enjoyment of the film. But I don’t expect any film made during the studio era to cater to me, a black man in 2021, and fortunately I still got a lot out of the experience because Capra tells the central story so well, and I still think it’s a masterpiece.
I said at the top of this article that I used to think this movie was sappy. But even if it is, there’s nothing wrong with sentimentality in fiction. Real life is soul-crushing enough. Do we need every movie to be that way too? It’s a Wonderful Life is the kind of movie people need. As evidenced by its massive popularity.