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.
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.
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 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.