Every time someone watches It's a Wonderful Life in the month of December, an angel gets its wings, and the legend of Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart grows another inch. No Christmas movie is more famous and more beloved than this one -- but why? How did we get to the point where It's a Wonderful Life is practically synonymous with sentimental holiday spirit? Let's jump off the bridge and investigate.
The praise: It's a Wonderful Life was nominated for five Academy Awards -- Best Picture, director, actor, editing, and sound recording -- but went home empty-handed. In 1998, the American Film Institute named it the 11th best movie of all time, dropping it down to 20th place on the 2007 revised list. It's also the No. 1 film on the AFI's list of "most inspiring movies."
The context: Frank Capra was 44 years old and had three best director Oscars under his belt when the United States entered World War II. He was president of the Screen Directors Guild and the most successful filmmaker in Hollywood. Nobody expected him to drop everything and enlist in the Army. He did it anyway, and made 11 patriotic, morale-boosting documentaries, including the "Why We Fight" series, aimed at American soldiers. One of these films won the Oscar for best documentary of 1942.
After the war, the director of It Happened One Night, You Can't Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington chose as his first civilian effort a project that was then being called The Greatest Gift. Based on a short story that a writer named Philip Van Doren Stern had sent out as a Christmas card (more like a pamphlet -- it was 24 pages long), the project had been in development at RKO Pictures for a couple years, with an eye toward Cary Grant as a star. None of the screenplay efforts were suitable, though, and Grant made The Bishop's Wife instead, leaving The Greatest Gift on the shelf. Capra read the story, recognized it as being right up his alley, and bought the rights from RKO. The studio was so glad to be rid of it they threw in the three abandoned screenplay treatments for free.
More rewrites followed, along with a new title. James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore, who'd both appeared in Capra's You Can't Take It with You, were cast as the hero and villain. Other cast members who'd worked with Capra before included Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Beulah Bondi (George's mother), Ward Bond (Bert the cop), and H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower the druggist). Capra wanted Jean Arthur, his You Can't Take It with You female lead, to fill the same role in It's a Wonderful Life, but a prior commitment made her unavailable. Donna Reed took her place.
The film has a reputation for being a box-office flop -- one of those notorious cases where something bombs at first and then becomes a classic. But that's a bit of an exaggeration. It wasn't profitable, and it wasn't nearly the hit that Capra's prewar films had generally been, but it wasn't a disaster, either. Variety reported that it was the 26th highest-grossing movie of 1947 (its December 1946 release was in New York City only), with a total haul of $3.3 million.
The movie also has a reputation for getting bad reviews when it was released. That simply isn't true. Capra was the chief perpetuator of this myth, as he focused on the criticisms contained in what were mostly very positive write-ups (a rather glass-half-empty attitude for an optimist like him). Time magazine said its only competition for best film of 1946 was The Best Years of Our Lives (which did indeed win Best Picture at the Oscars). Bosley Crowther's review in the New York Times was all praise up until the end, when he said: "The weakness of this picture, from this reviewer's point of view, is the sentimentality of it -- its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra's nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities." And that's hardly a slam. Box Office Magazine called it "a thoroughly engrossing picture, in which sterling performances and excellence of all technical details vie for top honors." It was nominated for Best Picture, for heaven's sake, which almost never happens to movies with mostly negative reviews.
The movie: George Bailey is a small-town guy who always dreamed of a bigger life somewhere else, but who kept finding his plans thwarted by fate. When he finally snaps and declares that he wishes he'd never been born, an angel shows him exactly what the world would be like if he hadn't been. And it's terrible. And so George Bailey appreciates his wonderful life after all. Wings are distributed.
What it influenced: There was one direct remake, a 1977 TV movie called It Happened One Christmas, with Marlo Thomas in the lead (the genders were reversed) and Orson Welles as Mr. Potter. But the movie's primary influence on movies and TV has been more general. A clerical error led to it falling into the public domain in 1974, and hundreds of TV stations started showing it regularly around the holidays. This constant exposure to what was already a well-liked movie made it an even bigger part of the collective consciousness, and references in other works abound. The copyright issues were settled in 1993, so it isn't broadcast nearly as often as before -- but by now it hardly matters whether anyone has actually seen the movie recently. We know it by heart anyway.
Since the characters of Bert the cop and Ernie the taxi driver are frequently seen together, there has been a persistent rumor that the Sesame Street characters were named after them. But it isn't true. Jerry Juhl, one of the original Sesame Street writers, says it was purely a coincidence.
What to look for: The peculiar thing about this movie's status as a Christmas classic is that it has almost nothing to do with Christmas. Though the key events take place on Christmas Eve, the holiday doesn't actually figure into the story: it could just as easily be set in July. Nor did Capra intend for it to be considered a "Christmas" movie. It was originally scheduled for release in January 1947, and was moved up to Dec. 20, 1946 -- in New York City only -- not to capitalize on the Christmas season, but to be eligible for the 1946 Academy Awards. (Then, as now, studios like to release potential Oscar favorites in December.)
Thematically, though, It's a Wonderful Life has a stronger connection to Christmas than, say, Die Hard (which is also set on December 24). The warm fuzzies it produces, and the spirit of giving exemplified by the townspeople rallying to help George Bailey at the end, are appropriate for the season. Even if the movie didn't take place on Christmas Eve, it would be the type of movie that families would watch on Christmas Eve. Capra said at the time that he made the film "to combat a modern trend toward atheism," and while there are no specific references to the birth of Jesus, the movie does start -- it STARTS -- with people praying to God to please help George Bailey. George prays, too, in a much more intimate manner than is typical for a mainstream movie, addressing God as "dear Father in heaven."
Several writers in recent years have responded to the film's unabashed sentimentality and optimism by interpreting it the opposite way. "A terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people," said one. "That reassuring holiday spectacle is really the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made," said another.
But of course the point of the movie is that while George never did get to see the world and fulfill all the dreams of his youth, what he got instead -- the love of his wife, children, and fellow citizens, the respect of every person who knew him -- was just as wonderful. Tiny Bedford Falls would be a miserable place for someone who truly needed to be elsewhere to be happy. But George is happy. He just forgot that for a minute.
What's the big deal: And that brings us to the film's message, which is why I think it's been so resonant for so many people for so many years. Jimmy Stewart was known for his "every man" performances, but was it ever more true than when he was George Bailey? Like George, almost all of us fail to accomplish many (most?) of the things we originally wanted to do. Some of those are genuine failures, things we really ought to have done. Others are things we sincerely wanted at the time but came to want less as other, equally valid paths came into view. Sometimes, circumstances force us to revise our wishes. Something becomes impossible, and so we either learn to stop wanting it, and to find joy in what we do have ... or we succumb to bitterness and regret. The point is, we can't live in a different timeline, one where we succeeded at meeting all of our life's goals. We can only live in this one, the one where we made mistakes and had disappointments and had to adjust our plans because Dad died early and we had to take over the family business. We have to make the most of it. And as George shows us, if we look at our lives with the right attitude, we'll see that what we have isn't all that bad.