It's a Wonderful Life is on the American Film Institute's list of "100 Greatest Movies Ever made" (coming in at #11) and was voted the #1 spot on the list of "Most Inspiring Movies of All-Time."
To all of us now, the film seems as much a part of the Christmas season as Santa Claus, egg nog, gift giving, and kissing under the mistletoe. But much like The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane, the most beloved Christmas movie of all time was a disappointing box office flop when it was first released. In fact, It's a Wonderful Life may just have sailed away, out of our collective consciousnesses, but for television and the magic of reruns. It wasn't actually until the 1970s, almost 30 years after its theater debut, that It's a Wonderful Life became the cultural icon it now is.
The film's copyright protection ended and it fell into the public domain in 1974, so stations could air it for free. Repeated airings at Christmas time in the '70s caused millions and millions of movie fans to fall in love with this now-considered "timeless classic." Republic Pictures restored its copyright claim to the film in 1993, with exclusive video rights included. At present, it can only be shown on the NBC-TV network.
Directed by the wonderful Frank Capra, It's a Wonderful Life had its official debut on December 20, 1946, and going into limited release just five days before Christmas. It didn't go into general release until July of 1947. One has to wonder at the logic of the distributors of the film. Why put an obvious "Christmassy" film into general release after the holiday? Nowadays, that would be rather like releasing one of the Halloween films in November or the film Valentine's Day in March. What the heck were these guys thinking?
It's a Wonderful Life also faced an even-bigger obstacle regarding its release. It was almost completely overshadowed by another film called The Best Years of Our Lives. An indisputably beautiful, touching film, The Best Years of Our Lives was a salute to returning World War II veterans. The film showed how each one dealt with life after war. The United States, of course, still had war on its mind, and this mindset probably caused the discerning movie-goer of 1946-47 to opt for The Best Years of Our Lives and neglect It's a Wonderful Life.
Critics, too, pretty much dismissed the film upon its release; reviews were decidedly mixed. It's a Wonderful Life did garner five Oscar nominations, but it was shut out at the awards ceremony. Jimmy Stewart was not the first choice to play the film's lead, perennial All-American George Bailey. (Stewart has called George Bailey his all-time favorite role.) The studio very much wanted Cary Grant, but fate, as is its want, intervened, and Stewart, a true screen legend, was given his quintessential role. Henry Fonda was also in the running for the lead role (he would have made a perfect George Bailey, too).
Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers
Ginger Rogers also was offered the female lead as Mary Bailey, George's devoted wife (director Capra's perennial favorite leading lady, Jean Arthur, was unavailable). But Ginger was set to do a Broadway play and gave the offer a thumbs down. She considered the story "too bland." Ginger never quite forgave herself for this monumental error in judgement, and Donna Reed got the part.
For Mr. Potter, the film's resident villain, the studio wanted Vincent Price. But like Cary and Ginger, Vincent Price too passed on the deal. Lionel Barrymore snagged the role and chewed up the scenery with relish as "Old Man Potter," the film's miserly heavy. Barrymore was very famous at the time for his portrayals of Ebenezer Scrooge in radio presentations of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and this made him seem tailor-made to play the penny-pinching Potter. Sheldon Leonard, who plays George's pa; the bartender in the movie, did accept the offer to play his role in the film. He later said the only reason he took on the role was that he wanted the money to buy Dodger tickets.
Jimmy the Raven (Uncle Billy's pet) had already appeared in You Can't Take It With You (1938) and was to make an appearance in every subsequent Frank Capra film. Besides Jimmy. for months before filming began, vast menageries of various animals were rounded up to give "Bedford Falls" a homey, intimate look and feel. H.B. Warner, who plays druggist Mr. Gower in the film, had actually studied medicine in real life.
There was also a very popular drugstore located on Gower Street in Hollywood which many studio employees frequented. If you see Jimmy Stewart sweating in the scene on the bridge where he thinks of committing suicide, it is not so much his great acting. This snowy scene was actually filmed in 90-degree weather; it was real sweat dripping from Jimmy's brow.
The intense "love scene" over the telephone between George and Mary is considered one of the steamiest, most viscerally passionate love scenes ever filmed. But parts of it were edited out because it was considered a bit too racy for censors at the time. The film beautifully and dramatically ends with the cast getting together and singing "Auld Lang Syne." But the original plan was for the film to end to the musical strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (the song that is played at the closing credits of 1988's Die Hard). Fortunately, this plan, like so many original ideas from the film, was nixed.
Originally, It's a Wonderful Life needed to make $6.3 million (twice its production cost) at the box office to break even. A colossal flop, it barely eked out $3.1 million. After the film's failure, Frank Capra's production company went bankrupt. The film's initial failure is theorized to this day and may possibly have been based on its dark nature. Incredibly, some executives at the studio tried to put the blame on Donna Reed and her performance. Director Capra theorized that Stewart looked "too old" in much of the film and this had a negative effect. After It's a Wonderful Life flopped, Jimmy Stewart himself had doubts abut his post-military acting career (he had been a decorated veteran of World War II) and wondered if he could still be effective as a film actor.
But like the ugly duckling who grows into a beautiful swan, It's a Wonderful Life has blossomed into a revered cinematic accomplishment. The film has delighted countless millions of movie fans all over the world during the holidays. We all, every one of us, has his or her own particular favorite movies, just as we all have our own favorite foods or songs or books. But like a small handful of movies, It's a Wonderful Life is on that rare "must see" list for anyone who loves the movies or anyone who has ever felt the spirit of Christmas.