Considering all of the best of lists that have been made, It’s A Wonderful Life is at the top of mine for all time movies. The American Film Institute recognized it as one of the 100 best films ever made but many people might not know the history of this films late occurring success.
Now I’ve seen this movie plenty of times and even wrote a paper on it during Freshman year in college. I know the quotable lines like; “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings” or “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!” (ask the editor and creator of this site to say that in his best Jimmy Stuart voice). The message that every life has a purpose and even if your crazy uncle lost $8K (casual $106K in 2019) you should still treat life to the fullest and in the hectic world we live in today, this message from 1946 still resonates today.
However, on December 20, 1946 when the movie debuted, it received mixed reviews. It recorded a heavy loss for RKO studios and in May, 1947 the FBI wrote a memo basically saying the movie was used to discredit bankers and is a common trick used by Communists.
Fun fact, Mr. Potter is played by Lionel Barrymore who is the great-uncle of Drew Barrymore, and Lionel was frequently used in the Christmas Carol broadcasts and played Scrooge.
Now comes the crazy stuff; when Liberty Films was purchased by Paramount Pictures in 1951, the rights to the movie were still in flux and because of a clerical error from the National Telefilm Associates in 1974 the film basically went away for 20 years to the general public. TV stations began airing the “lost film” in the 80s to which it finally gained some popularity.
Frank Capra said “The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be President. I’m proud … but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
NBC in 1996 has been licensed to show the film but “one of the greatest films of our time” had basically vanished from the public’s eye for 30 plus years. I had a surprise visit to the movie theaters last night with Ms. Kearns and watched this on the big screen for the first time in 14 years. It still holds up as my favorite and if ya don’t know the history of this film.. now ya know.