Written By: Richard Jerome
The following is adapted from the introduction to LIFE’s new special issue It’s a Wonderful Life: The Season’s Most Beautiful Film, available at newsstands and online:
Director Frank Capra’s 1946 fantasy, It’s a Wonderful Life, is one of the most beloved American motion pictures and a treasured part of the Christmas season. Generations of families have gathered round their televisions to share this deeply affecting, vividly filmed, and superbly acted parable: the story of George Bailey, a small-town banker on the brink of suicide saved on Christmas Eve by an avuncular angel who shows him a nightmarish vision of what the world would be like had George never been born. The Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris called the film “manifestly an all-time masterpiece.” In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked it 20th on a list of the 100 greatest American movies ever made. The film’s star, James Stewart, who is arguably perfect as George, considered it his favorite of all the movies he’d made—and so did Capra, who directed some of Hollywood’s best. “It’s a Wonderful Life sums up my philosophy of filmmaking,” the director wrote. “First, to exalt the worth of the individual. Second, to champion man—plead his cases, protest any degradation of his dignity, spirit, or divinity. And third, to dramatize the viability of the individual.”
And to think that, in large part, the film owes its iconic status to a bureaucratic bungle. When the movie was released in 1946—to a generally tepid response—U.S. copyright protection lasted 28 years. In 1974, it could have been renewed for another 28 years if Republic Pictures, the original copyright owner, had filled out some forms and paid a nominal fee. For whatever reason, Republic neglected to do so, and the film passed into the public domain. Before long, TV stations across the country, relieved of the burden of paying royalties, showed It’s a Wonderful Life repeatedly around the holidays. A 1993 Supreme Court decision allowed Republic to reclaim the film from public domain by copyrighting the story and music; the next year, the company cut a long-term deal to grant NBC exclusive broadcast rights to It’s a Wonderful Life, which the network typically aired from one to three times a year.
In the end, the movie’s mix of whimsy, sentimentality—and a dose of horror—captured the imaginations of millions again and again. “What is remarkable about It’s a Wonderful Life is how well it holds up over the years,” critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1999. “Some movies, even good ones, should only be seen once. When we know how they turn out, they’ve surrendered their mystery and appeal. Other movies can be viewed an indefinite number of times. Like great music, they improve with familiarity. It’s a Wonderful Life falls in the second category.”
No one could have imagined all this 75 years ago. But then, the life of It’s a Wonderful Life has been full of improbable twists and turns of fate. The film owes its origins to a story titled “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern—a Civil War historian, of all things—who said the idea came to him while shaving. Stern revised and refined the tale repeatedly and had pretty much given up on publishing it when RKO Radio Pictures snapped up the rights and worked up a script. It kicked around for a bit—until RKO chief Charles Koerner sold the rights to Capra in 1945. At that point, the famous director was at a professional crossroads. In the 1930s he had built a sterling reputation for his handling of humor, sentiment, and pungent social commentary in movies such as It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra celebrated ordinary folks who triumph over daunting adversaries; some called his films hokey—hence the term “Capra corn”—but few disputed that, by and large, they were deftly executed. Serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Capra earned a chest full of decorations for his Why We Fight propagandist documentaries boosting the Allied effort. Now he was a civilian again, with a newly established production company, Liberty Films, and he was looking for just the right property to launch his postwar comeback.
The film’s appeal is manifold. Aside from the film’s spot-on performances, nostalgia, warmth, and emotion, Ebert noted, “the darker later passages have an elemental power, as the drunken George Bailey staggers through a town he wants to hate, and then revisits it through the help of a gentle angel.” Writing in Film Comment, Robin Wood called the movie “one of the greatest American films.”
Nevertheless, some otherwise admiring critics consider the movie flawed, among them Joseph McBride, a professor of film at San Francisco State University and author of the definitive 1992 biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. McBride argues that the supernatural aspect of the story—its deus ex machina resolution—is rather “a cop-out.” In McBride’s view, “It’s a Wonderful Life is a film about a failure. I asked Capra whether it was autobiographical, and he said ‘What the hell do you think?’ He was a rich, successful Hollywood director who had just won the Distinguished Service Medal. But Capra was plagued by self-doubt and considered himself a failure.”
Few would agree with that assessment. Frank Capra was many things, including a difficult and profoundly complicated character, but no one can call him a bust, any more than his self-sacrificing, civic-minded, deeply troubled cinematic hero from Bedford Falls. Together, with a little help from an unlikely angel, they struck a chord—or, if you will, rang a bell—that after 75 years and counting, still resonates deep in the human heart.
Here are a selection of images from LIFE’s new special issue It’s A Wonderful Life: The Season’s Most Beautiful Film.