It’s a Wonderful Life celebrating 75th anniversary
As the holidays cast a bright light over winter’s long, dark days ahead, TV viewers can look forward to seasonal classics to lift their spirits. One such film celebrates an auspicious milestone as it only seems to improve with age.
Jimmy Stewart (The Philadelphia Story, 1940) stars as down-on-his-luck husband and father George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the classic film will air on NBC on Christmas Eve in what has become an annual tradition for the network.
Directed by Academy Award winner Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939), the holiday film follows George from childhood to age 38 when he learns an important lesson about the meaning of life.
On the brink of financial ruin as his family’s Bailey Bros. Building & Loan Association threatens to go under, he contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve and wishes he’d never been born. His wish prompts his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers, Mrs. Miniver, 1942), to show him what life would be like for his loved ones if he had never existed. George soon discovers that his beloved hometown of Bedford Falls is now known as Pottersville, named after greedy, unscrupulous banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul, 1931). George checks in with his loved ones, such as his wife, Mary (Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity, 1953), and his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, 1939), who insist they’ve never met him.
“Each man’s life touches so many other lives,” Clarence tells George in the film. “When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
While the drama that unfolds onscreen has captured the hearts of millions over the past 75 years, the story of how the film found its way to the screen is almost as fascinating.
Based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by writer Philp Van Doren Stern, which was, itself, inspired by the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol,” Van Doren Stern self-published the book and sent it around to friends at Christmas after failing to find a publisher. The story soon came to the attention of Hollywood studio heads, who wanted to cast Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby, 1938) in the leading role, but it eventually found its way to Capra, who saw its potential for Stewart.
Several writers were brought in to work on the script, including Jo Swerling (The Pride of the Yankees, 1942), Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun, 1951), Dorothy Parker (A Star is Born, 1937) and husband-and-wife duo Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (both Father of the Bride, 1950). Unfortunately, according to legend, the writing process was rife with conflict between the writers. In the end, writing credits went to Goodrich, Hackett and Capra with scenes by Swerling.
After the script was set, cast and crew got to work on a four-acre Bedford Falls set that consisted of a main street three city blocks long, 75 buildings and stores, and a quaint residential neighborhood.
Watching the film, you might swear Stewart and company were traipsing through a winter wonderland, but the truth is that the movie was filmed from April to July 1946 in exactly 90 days, as scheduled. In fact, part of it was filmed during a heatwave, including an iconic snowy scene—the one where George runs through a snowy Bedford Falls. Special effects artist Russell Shearman created a new “chemical snow” using soap flakes, sugar and foamite, which earned him and colleagues Marty Martin and Jack Lannan a Technical Achievement Award at the 1946 Academy Awards.
All in all, It’s a Wonderful Life earned five Academy Award nominations, separate from the technical award: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Stewart, of course), Best Film Editing and Best Sound Recording. While many try to claim the film was universally panned at the time of its release, that was not so.
Time magazine claimed it was among the best films of the year, calling it “a pretty wonderful movie.” However, many reviewers did find the piece overly sentimental, and the movie didn’t break even at the box office, losing about half a million dollars. The film’s critics included the FBI, which issued a memo claiming that It’s a Wonderful Life had communist undertones, attempted to discredit bankers and tried to show that rich people were mean and despicable by portraying Mr. Potter as the villain.
Still, despite naysayers, Capra claimed it was his favorite film, and he reportedly screened it for his family every Christmas season, as millions of families do now.
George Bailey was supposedly Stewart’s favorite character he ever played, his first big role after returning from serving in World War II. Several of the entertainment industry’s most successful directors have also cited It’s a Wonderful Life among their favorites, including Stephen Spielberg (Jaws, 1975), Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men, 1992) and Edward Zwick (“thirtysomething”).
Since its release 75 years ago, Capra’s movie has only grown in popularity, especially since rights lapsed into the public domain in the 1970s, allowing broadcasters to air it more easily during the Christmas season. It’s become a part of many people’s annual holiday traditions with its life-affirming message and picture-perfect performances by Stewart and Reed. In 2006, AFI ranked It’s a Wonderful Life as the most inspirational film of all time, and the following year it ranked the film as the 20th greatest movie of all time.
Love for the residents of Bedford Falls lives on during an annual festival in Seneca Falls, New York, which some people have claimed was Capra’s inspiration for the quaint setting of the film, though no one has ever found corroborating evidence that this is the case. Regardless, each year the town welcomes fans and special guests associated with the film.
The fact that there is an annual festival 75 years after the film’s release is clear evidence that its message rings true with today’s audiences. Far from today’s typical saccharine holiday offerings, It’s a Wonderful Life is dark and serious as George considers ending it all before coming to his senses and facing the music.
Perhaps his tale will prompt us all to take a look at our own lives and realize that while we may focus on what we do not have or have not done in our lives, it is the impact we’ve had on those around us that really matters. For, as Clarence writes to George, “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”
In a sometimes uncertain world, this is one holiday classic that is definitely worthy of an annual viewing or two.
Don’t miss It’s a Wonderful Life, airing Friday, Dec. 24, on NBC.