Christmas classic had an unpromising start
by Bob Thomas
The Associated Press, July 3, 1997
Mushy and improbable, it was anything but a blockbuster when it reached
the theaters at Christmastime in 1946.
Now "It's a Wonderful Life" is a holiday classic -- and
one big reason Americans are fondly mourning James
Stewart almost as a relative, even young people who are just seeing
his movies for the first time.
Probably no other film has appeared on television more -- partly because
the copyright was inadvertently allowed to lapse for many years, partly
because people enjoy seeing it again and again because it's uplifting.
Both Stewart and director
Frank Capra said the movie
saved their careers. Both served in World War II for five years, an eternity
to be absent from the screen.
Back from the war, Capra
co-founded Liberty Pictures to escape studio control, but he was having
trouble finding projects. Finally the head of RKO
Studios showed Capra
a story that Phillip Van Doren Stern had written as a Christmas card. It
was called "The Greatest Gift."
Capra read the few typewritten pages.
"It was the story I had been looking for all my life!"
he wrote in his 1971 biography, "The Name Above the Title."
"A good man, ambitious. But so busy helping others, life seems
to pass him by. Despondent. He wishes he had never been born. He gets his
wish. Through the eyes of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would
have been had he not been born. Wow! What an idea."
Stewart made that man
George Bailey -- honest, decent, generous to a fault, driven to the verge
of suicide when his dotty uncle loses a wad of cash he's supposed to deposit
for the family savings and loan.
It's the stuff of a thousand video clips -- from the moment the angel
Clarence Odbody stops a hollow-eyed Stewart
from jumping off a snow-covered bridge to the finale when Stewart
and his adoring wife, played by Donna
Reed, are joined by the simple townspeople of mythical Bedford Falls,
N.Y., singing "Auld Lang Syne"
around a Christmas tree.
The movie ends with perhaps the most famous line in the film, when
his youngest daughter, the impish Zuzu, says, "Look, Daddy: Teacher
says that every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings."
Stewart had returned to
his MGM contract after the war,
but the studio had found no projects for him. He leaped at the chance to
work with Capra again (they
had paired on "Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington" and "You Can't Take It With You").
Free of studio control, Capra
spent lavishly. The total was $3.78 million, a huge budget in those postwar
RKO hurried the film into
December release to qualify for the Academy Awards. Unfortunately for Capra,
his partner (and rival) William
Wyler had made "The Best
Years of Our Lives," which was released at the same time.
"Best Years" captured
the reviews, the business and the Academy Awards.
"Practically all the actors involved behave as cutely as pixies,"
sniffed The New Yorker, saying "Wonderful Life" was "so
mincing as to border on baby talk."
The movie collected only $3.3 million at the box office, compared
with $11.3 million for "Best
Years." Capra, Stewart
and the picture were nominated for Oscars. They lost to Wyler,
Fredric March and "Best
Not until television made "It's a Wonderful Life" available
to all Americans would Capra
find the vindication he so desperately wanted. He died in 1991.
The film's copyright lapsed in 1973, 27 years after it was issued,
because then-owner NTA failed to apply for a renewal.
Two decades and countless TV showings later, NTA's successor, Republic
Pictures Corp., regained control of the film's rights and began charging
royalties. So it's seen less often now but remains a Christmastime classic.
One of the movie's biggest fans is Steven Spielberg, who once told
Capra he takes a copy of
" It's a Wonderful Life" on his film locations.
"I show it to the cast and crew," Spielberg said, "and
I tell them, 'This is the kind of picture I hope we can make."'
© 1997 The Associated Press