Director Frank Capra once said that he never viewed his film “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a Christmas story when he took the project on—he just liked the story. But that story had roots in the quintessential Christmas story: Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Writer Phillip Van Doren Stern wrote a short story titled The Greatest Gift in 1939, which he loosely based on the Dickens classic. After several publishers rejected it, Stern self-published the story in 1943 as a booklet which he distributed to family and friends a as Christmas gift.
Here’s where things get interesting: reportedly, it was actor Cary Grant who first discovered the story and brought it to the attention of RKO Studios. RKO bought the rights to the story in 1944, with the hopes that Grant would star in it. However, the project was shelved after several rewrites (including scripts penned by playwright Clifford Odets and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo), with Capra eventually buying the rights from RKO after studio chief Charles Koerner convinced him to read the story. This would be Capra’s first Hollywood feature after the end of World War II, during which he left Hollywood to direct training films and documentaries to help the war effort. The film, eventually to be titled “It’s a Wonderful Life,” would also be the first postwar film for star James Stewart, who enlisted in the Army around 1941 and hadn’t appeared in a movie for five years. The pair, who previously worked together on 1938’s “You Can’t Take It with You” and 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” needed a fresh start, and a vehicle that would get them back into the cutthroat industry.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Stewart stars as George Bailey. The film’s supernatural opening finds the voices of angels detailing his life from youth to the present day, because, as they state, he’s in trouble, and he’s going to need some help from angel-in-training Clarence (Henry Travers) if he’s going to survive the night—the night of Christmas Eve, that is. George has aspirations to leave his hometown of Bedford Falls, go to college, and travel the world, but as so often happens, life has other plans. George never leaves Bedford Falls; he stays and takes over his father’s bank after his sudden passing, marries and has four children with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), and goes head-to-head with town Scrooge Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, who actually was famous at the time for playing Ebenezer Scrooge on annual radio broadcasts of “A Christmas Carol,” and was perfectly cast as the villain here). Clarence ends up showing George what his life, the life of his loved ones, and Bedford Falls as a whole would be like if he had never been born, in a sequence that transforms the quaint small town into a nightmare of corporate greed.
There was some behind-the-scenes drama on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” namely during the writing process. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who received a writing credit alongside Capra on the film, did not get along with the director at all (Hackett referred to him as “a very arrogant son of a bitch”), and neither did Jo Swerling, who worked on the script some with Capra, but was miffed when she didn’t received a writing credit (“additional scenes” were accredited to her instead). “It’s a Wonderful Life” was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (which it lost to that year’s big winner, William Wyler’s postwar drama “The Best Years of Our Lives”), but otherwise it received a largely lukewarm reception from critics, and even moreso from audiences. The film was a box office failure and failed to make a profit, prompting both Capra and Stewart to be plagued with some doubt as to their allure (or possible lack thereof) with a public that had changed in the wake of the war. Capra only directed a few more films, the best known of which is the 1948 Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy comedy “State of the Union,” although he remained active through the mid-60s, while Stewart ended up enjoying a fabulous second half of his career, with some of his most iconic roles still to come.
But “It’s a Wonderful Life” had more life left in it, as it turns out. After a clerical error prompted the film to fall into the public domain in the 1970s, its increased accessibility and repeated airings on television prompted it to become a holiday classic and an annual tradition for so many households. Today, it’s still aired on TV every year on Christmas Eve. And it’s been reassessed by critics as well, being named as one the top 100 movies ever made by the American Film Institute on multiple occasions. Like Capra’s pre-war films, “It’s a Wonderful Life” contains themes of the common man overcoming adversity and greed, which might not have resonated as strongly with post-Depression audiences at the time; still, over time it’s become the director’s best-known movie. Stewart is perfectly cast as the everyman hero, and the supporting cast is peppered with fantastic supporting actors, from Gloria Grahame to Thomas Mitchell. I’ve heard many people over the years echo Capra’s sentiment that they don’t really view “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a Christmas movie, but I can think of few films that better emulate the spirit of the holidays than this one. It’s so easy to feel like your life doesn’t matter, and that if you were to disappear tomorrow, no one would notice or care. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a constant reminder that you do matter, and that even if your life didn’t take the path you wanted, the life you have can still be a worthwhile one. The spirit of giving has never been better portrayed on film that at the end of this one, when George’s friends, family, and the entire town of Bedford Falls rally around to help him on Christmas Eve without a second thought. Is it sentimental? Sure, but it’s incredibly beautiful. There’s so much more that can be said about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but its doses of reality, fantasy, and heart in equal measure make its status as the ultimate Christmas movie unrivaled.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated PG.