Classic Holiday Film Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary

In 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life debuted in theaters across the country. This iconic family Christmas film was based on the short story and booklet The Greatest Gift. Initial tickets sales were disappointing, and reviews mixed. Though it received five Academy Award nominations, it did not win any Oscars. The film did not even come close to breaking even. Years later, the movie lapsed into the public domain, which allowed it to be broadcast without royalty fees. Television audiences rediscovered the film, and its popularity grew. It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered one of the greatest films of all time. It is No. 1 on the American Film Institute’s list of most inspirational movies. In 1990, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry.

The Austin American 12.8.1946

When author Philip Van Doren Stern began writing The Greatest Gift in 1939, he could have never dreamed that his story would one day become one of the most beloved holiday films of all time. Stern was a respected historian and best known for his books on the Civil War. This story was his first attempt at fiction. He finished the story, loosely based on the Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol, in 1943. Unable to find a publisher, Stern printed 200 copies and sent them to friends as Christmas cards. One copy went to a producer at RKO Pictures, who then bought the motion picture rights. He showed the story to actor Cary Grant, who became interested in playing the lead role. Before anything concrete materialized, RKO sold the rights to director Frank Capra’s production company, Liberty Films, for $10,000. Capra adapted the story for the big screen.  

The Baltimore Sun 5.12.1946

Jimmy Stewart played the lead character, George Bailey. Initially, Stewart was hesitant to accept the part. He was still recovering from his traumatic experiences during the war and considered giving up acting altogether, seeing it as frivolous and unimportant. However, when Stewart read the script, he was touched and signed on to do the film. The plot centered on Bailey, a discouraged man who was contemplating suicide and wished he had never been born. Bailey then meets his guardian angel, who grants him his wish. Bailey soon realized that his absence left a gaping hole in the lives of his family and friends. The realization brought a renewed zest for life and joy in living.

The Pantagraph 12.20.1987

The film debuted the first Christmas after WWII ended. The nation was in a celebratory mood, and though It’s a Wonderful Life ended on a joyful note, the film didn’t immediately resonate with audiences. “Our movie just got lost,” said Stewart. In 1974, the copyright for the movie lapsed, allowing television stations to broadcast it at no cost. A whole new generation discovered the film, and its popularity soared. More than 80,000 people purchased a videocassette copy of the movie in 1986. In 1987, that number nearly doubled. Watching the film became a Christmas tradition for many American families. Later in his life, Jimmy Stewart said that It’s a Wonderful Life was his favorite film.

Seventy-five years later, audiences continue to cherish It’s a Wonderful Life. Do your holiday plans include this Christmas classic? To see more newspaper clippings related to this iconic holiday movie, search Newspapers.com™ today.

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65 thoughts on “Classic Holiday Film Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary

    • I agree, every time I see it, it warms my heart. They didn’t appreciate it back then but that goodness this generation does.

    • I agree, every time I see it, it warms my heart. They didn’t appreciate it back then but thank goodness this generation does.

    • I attended college in Seneca Falls, NY, the town where the movie is rumored to have been filmed. I am a Bailey, and one day I received a telephone call from a reporter in Syracuse, NY who was taking a survey of people in the area by the name of Bailey. The survey was whether the town of Seneca Falls should be changed to Bedford Falls. I never learned of the results of the survey, as I relocated after graduating. There is a plaque on the bridge that crosses the canal where George Bailey and Clarence jumped into the canal.

  1. It never fell completely into the public domain – the copyrights in the music – the underscoring – were renewed and on that basis the film remains protected under copyright.

    • The underlying story was registered and renewed. Several of the songs were sync licensed for use in the film. The film’s copyright was not renewed. Generally the underlying story copyright is generally the claim that has taken the film out of the “public domain,” but people can use clips (without the music) as public domain

  2. It’s A Wonderful Life was my son’s favorite movie. Every year he would watch the movie no matter how many times he had seen it. He died February 11, 2021. It certainly was a wonderful movie.

    • Mary, I am so terribly sorry for your loss. But your son left you a wonderful memory. His love of It’s A Wonderful Life will carry on every year, and I am sure if you watch it this year, and I hope you do, you’ll feel his presence.

    • I can see that the movie gives you a warm link to your son, adding yet another dimension to a wonderful story. It has always been one of my favorites.

    • I’m so so sorry for your loss Mary.. I hope this Christmas isn’t too hard for you and your family. Sending much love to you ❤

  3. 75 years old now but I still hear little Zuzu’s voice in my head when I hear a bell ring. “Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”

    • I’m 76 now, but I prefer the line which ends the movie which is just seconds after Zuzu’s utterance. Stewart’s brother in the movie makes a toast to George, “Here’s to my brother George, the richest man in town.” Tough not to cry a bit every time I come to that line when watching the film.

    • My favorite movie ever! I was lucky enough to meet ZuZu (Karolyn Grimes) in person a few years ago at a It’s a Wonderful Life showing. She autographed my ‘Ol Bailey’s Boarding House’ from my It’s a Wonderful Life village!

  4. I finally get into the Christmas spirit after I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”. My yearly Christmas tradition.

  5. The greatest motion picture featuring the greatest actor of all time, James Stewart, a proud member of the Greatest Generation.

  6. Incredible experience more than a film.
    Like most of us we have favorite parts we both cherish.
    But I seem to see or realize something new and different each time I watch it.

  7. I WATCH ALL CHRISTMAS STORIES, BUT IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE AND A CHRISTMAS CAROL(1938) ARE MY TOTAL
    FAVORITES. THE MOVIE IS ONE YEAR OLDER THAN I AM WHICH MAKES IT ONE
    I TRULY CAN’T MISS. IT SHOWS A SMALL TOWN AS IT SHOULD BE, LOVING AND CARING FOR EACH OTHER.

  8. My all time favorite Christmas movie. I have watched it every Christmas Eve since I was 10 years old and before my husband passed away in 2019, we had watch it together. He’d never heard of it when we first met back in 1987. We watched it together for the first time that year on Christmas Eve and made it our tradition every year after that . . . I will always cherish all the loving memories this movie brings to me on Christmas Eve.

  9. It is by far my all-time favorite movie and favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart. I watch this movie every year at Christmas time and it never fails to tug at my heart. It is heartwarming, poignant, sad and joyful, all at the same time, a mix hard to beat. Each time I watch it, I see another touching detail.

  10. Our HS Drama Club produced the play and had a wonderful adventure bringing this to our stage. We had Old Lady Potter, and our angel was Clarissa but mostly stuck with the script. One of the best most inspiring shows ever. When brother Harry came running down the aisle there were no dry eyes in the house.

  11. Now it’s confined to streaming services and not easily available to see for free….another great movie gone…

    PS…NP.com is my favorite site and I use it constantly for my research on my blogs!

  12. Merry Christmas…Happy Holidays to everyone! I love the movie It’s a Wonderful LIfe and have been watching it for the last 35 years! Once more I know all the lines in the movies….that is how much I have watched it! It was just on a few days ago…such a Holiday tradition!

  13. I watch this beloved film every year in December. I have a Christmas snow village set up and there is a street sign, that I made, that says “You are now in Bedford Falls”. Next to my snow village with houses, on the wall, are two pictures of the final movie scenes of the Bailey family & Karolyn Grimes [Zuzu] has signed the photo’s. She’s a very nice lady! She has her own website and is still with us!

    • They actually made Christmas Village houses and city hall etc from It’s a Wonderful Life in late 80s early 90s! I was able to find city hall & Mr Potters house. Wish they would come out with it again. Love the movie!

  14. It’s a Wonderful Life is truly inspiring! Even though, George Bailey had put off the things he do. Because he cared about his family and his friends. He enjoyed making them happy. Alot of them were worse off then he was. The 1921 bank crash was very good example. 99% of people would keep going, Not George Bailey, He like Poter, keep a cool head, and saved the Building & Loan. And as usual He used his own money. George Bailey had a big heart, and everyone in town knew it! I’ll watch it next year again!

  15. Got to love all the characters, Bert and Ernie, ( Sesame Street characters name after them). My favorite line from Bert, “ I got to go home and see the wife. Jimmy Stewart should have won an academy award, especially for the scene in bar when he breaks down..
    It is a Wonderful Film.
    Thanks for sharing!

  16. It’s a Wonderful Life is very dear to me, thanks to the gift of a famous name given by my parents. I still glean life lessons from the film each time I watch. I must admit some of the expression is a bit harsh at times, but norms change and I’m guessing this just reflected when the movie was made.

  17. One correction: It first aired Dec. of ’71. I was a senior in high school. The copyright lapsed 25 years after it was first shown in the theater.

  18. I used to cry at the end–and then started at the pool scene and now, all I have to hear is the opening music! George Bailey is the person we would like to be–just as all Capra films represent the country I wish we could be. This movie is one of his greatest and helps take us out of the craziness of Christmas to the spirit of Christmas.

  19. Seneca Falls, NY celebrates the movie each year with a festival. It is usually the second weekend in December. Karolyn Grimes, Zuzu, her movie siblings and other cast members, as well as Donna Reed’s daughter, usually appear. There is good evidence to show that Frank Capra used Seneca Falls as his template for the images. There is a bridge that a man jumped off of and was saved from drowning, nearly identical to the movie’s. An old house so like George’s is on Cayuga St. A tavern on Bridge St. in the 1940s looked like Martini’s. Capra had his hair cut at the time, and was told about the bridge. His aunt and uncle lived in the next town over, Auburn. Other upstate NY place names are mentioned frequently. So come and dance under the silvery moon, join the annual race through town, meet the cast members, visit the museum with memorabilia, get mail postmarked “Bedford Falls” and much more.

    • My son went to HS in Bellows Falls Vermont and I always wondered if he used that town as a setting it is a one horse town with a bridge going over a river near downtown

  20. My favorite movie ever! I was lucky enough to meet ZuZu (Karolyn Grimes) in person a few years ago at a It’s a Wonderful Life showing. She autographed my ‘Ol Bailey’s Boarding House’ from my It’s a Wonderful Life village!

  21. It is a tradition for my wife and I to watch this movie every holiday season. Someone earlier mentioned how Harry’s toast to George at the end of the movie made them cry. It makes me cry also. 🙂

  22. One of the great Christmas movies, and certainly one my favorite actors. He is actually a cousin numerous times removed, but an ocasional playmate of my grandfather and his siblings in their youth. A branch of the Stewarts had several funeral homes in Indiana County, PA, and they buried many of my family over the years.

  23. I had never seen the movie until about 15 years ago. I was getting into the whole “It’s a Wonderful Life” thing while watching — until that part where we find out what would have happened to Mary if she’d never met George. She became — gasp! — an old maid LIBRARIAN! As a librarian myself (and unmarried then), I took umbrage at that! Aside from that, I love the movie and try to catch it every December! 🙂

    • The Redding Searchlight newspaper is doing a feature on Zuzu. I’m not sure when it will drop but they have one of their best writers working on it.

  24. I am unable to recall when or where I first saw the film, probably on television, but maybe not. It was definitely on my favorites list when I first made one, and has remained so ever since. I am now 78, and will watch again this year -not a tradition, but not just a habit either.

  25. I HAVE PAID FOR NEWSPAPER.COM BUT
    IT KICKS ME OFF EVERY TIME I TRY TO USE IT. HOW DO I GET ON AND HOW DOES ONE USE FOLD 3 ALSO.

  26. It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie of all time. I watch it several times every Christmas season. My kids even included that in my 70th birthday banner. It’s synonymous with Christmas.

  27. Although this may not be entirely appropriate to post here, I feel I have to say it. For many of “us” this has become a very influential part of our survival blanket, especially this time of the year. We all have “our own Belford Falls” in life. It’s more than just a story. A Counselor once told me, that “More” potential Suicide’s are averted every year by this movies message than any other single source currently known to him. I know that to be true and have my own DVD for the tough times.

  28. This year more than ever we need to remember that it is a wonderful life that we live. Even with so much fear and heartache this year there were so many moments of pure joy. Patients that got to go home, nurses and doctors that were cheered from rooftops every night, neighbors that helped neighbors they barely knew. They were small things, but added up it proved that our days on this earth are wonderful. I watch this movie and cry over it every year. I recently lost my husband, but like George, he was loved by so many and the stories told to me at his passing made me think of George and the quiet way he touched so many lives for the better.

  29. EVERY year. For many years we would look through the TV Guide to see when it was playing and that evening would be dedicated to watching this GREAT movie. Now we have it on DVD or watch it on Prime or Netflix. I am so glad that Jimmy Stewart did not give up acting after WWII!

  30. I am a 68-year old man and everytime I see this movie, I can’t hold my tears back. Even the scene where little George Bailey gets his ears boxed by the pharmacist, just the idea of being punished for something you didn’t do wrong. And so many parents used that form of discipline on their kids not knowing the damage they would cause to the children’s hearing when they were older. But among many parts that gets me in the heart are the scenes of that beautiful smiling face of Donna Reed. They remind me so much of my wife of 38 years, so kind and compassionate! And the scene where they are both on the phone talking with their “hee-haw” friend in NY reminded me of my unwillingness to give in to my heart when I was falling in love with my wife, being afraid of commitment and fearing rejection. Each time I see that scene, I grab hold of my wife and hug her close, since her love for me is what helped me to overcome those fears. A wonderful film about life could have not better title!

  31. I am a 68-year old man and everytime I see this movie, I can’t hold my tears back. Even the scene where little George Bailey gets his ears boxed by the pharmacist, just the idea of being punished for something you didn’t do wrong. And so many parents used that form of discipline on their kids not knowing the damage they would cause to the children’s hearing when they were older. But among many parts that gets me in the heart are the scenes of that beautiful smiling face of Donna Reed. They remind me so much of my wife of 38 years, so kind and compassionate! And the scene where they are both on the phone talking with their “hee-haw” friend in NY reminded me of my unwillingness to give in to my heart when I was falling in love with my wife, being afraid of commitment and fearing rejection. Each time I see that scene, I grab hold of my wife and hug her close, since her love for me is what helped me to overcome those fears. A wonderful film about life could have no better title!

  32. God now wants it released to the public domain again because we all need to understand the truth of why our world is in so much trouble: There is a focus on profits and revenue growth and not what is best for our collective civilization here on Earth or in the Universe. Since Google cannot show the video since Paramount owns the rights to it, I uploaded it to my Google drive. You will need to download it to watch it. It is 4GB so with 400MPS connection, it only take 12-15 minutes. Its worth the wait. Here is the link to It’s a Wonderful Life: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1n9GfFyg1wu_Z_ccoAOggqGD7vY3LH2ol/view?usp=sharing

  33. I ADORE this movie and the entire cast! I named my poodle “Zu Zu’s Petals” when my husband gave her to me for Christmas one year. The message that we should love one another, give quietly, and most importantly of all, LEAN ON GOD during the ups and downs of our lives, has touched generations. Merry Christmas to all who read this!

  34. One of my favorite movies, if not THE favorite. I’ve watched it too many times to count. Many, many years ago, my daughter bought me a large (very!) ‘coffee table’ book of the filming of the movie as the entire family knows of my love of the film. Also, I stumbled across the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Illuminated Village in a Walgreen’s flyer one lucky day in the early ’90’s. I had to have that village! The village consists of (probably) every Bedford Falls location: Ma Bailey’s house, City Hall, Bijou Theater, The Bedford Falls Bridge which includes George’s car smashed up against the big tree and the banner sign “Welcome to Bedford Falls”, Martini’s Bar, 324 Sycamore, Gower Drugs, Henry Potter’s Mansion and on and on. All total I have 20 pieces. They are beautiful, well-made, large pieces and when set up and illuminated are breath-taking. Walgreens kept producing or at least distributing the series for about three years but then stopped (because I believe each building in Bedford Falls had been represented.) I snatched up each one as it hit the market! I didn’t buy it as an investment; I bought it because I love the movie! Always have, always will! I’ve warned my daughter she will inherit them and I pray she will treasure them as much as I do. And I pray that the message the film sends will live on during trying times. I have great-grandchildren now and this Christmas I will introduce them to a wonderful b&w(!) film.

  35. It’s A Wonderful Life.

    What can I say that hasn’t been already said?

    A CLASSIC of classic films. A staple of the holiday season. I never even heard of it until 1977, when I was invited to watch it with a friend. WOW. This film resonated with my life. How many times had I wished “I had never been born.” Why?

    Through my pain and despair, the loneliness and hopelessness I felt. And no hope on the very distant horizon. I needed to start over, start anew, where I wasn’t known, and I could forge a new existence, and hope that I would be judged based on my character and skills.

    I went to sleep many a Christmas Eve night crying myself to sleep, dreaming of being George Bailey.

    Mr. James Stewart and Miss Donna Reed, thank you for your fantastic portrayal of the characters, Mr. and Mrs. George Bailey. Your performance is timeless, and an American Cinematic treasure.

  36. This movie inspired me to start a program to help prevent suicide. ‘Clarence Odbody’ was the angel who saved George Bailey and showed him life was worth living. The Mom and Mitchell Foundation (www.MomandMitchell.org) is introducing the ‘Clarence Program’, a program designed to foster mental wellness by recognizing a person in ones life who is there for them and advocates for their mental wellness, such as your best friend or family member. The Brett C. Bowers Inaugural Golf Event on June 6, 2022 in Oklahoma City is a 2-person scramble introducing the ‘Clarence Program’. Money raised from the event is donated to the Mom and Mitchell Foundation.

  37. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is still my most favorite of all movies. I’ve made it a personal tradition to watch every Christmas– at least once!
    J Stewart was one of my Mom’s favorites and after some homework about him, he’s not only my overall favorite, but a sort of fantasy Dad, too.
    The message of IWL, is–or should be timeless. We each are priceless and our most mundane or ordinary acts have ripples through others for all eternity.
    MERRY CHRISTMAS TO EACH!!☀

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