“You’ve been given a great gift, George… A chance to see what the world would be like without you.”
A family favorite. A holiday perennial. An American classic. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was all these and more, a crowning achievement of both the director and his leading man, Jimmy Stewart. Capra and Stewart had recently returned from World War II, and both wanted to make a film reflecting the unsung hero, the small-town common man who endured hardship after hardship in search of the good life. Capra found his inspiration in “The Greatest Gift,” a story written by Philip Van Doren Stern as a Christmas card to the author’s friends. Under the banner of his new production company, Liberty Films, Capra debuted It’s a Wonderful Life just before Christmas, 1946.
The story concerns small-town Bedford Falls resident George Bailey, who always seems just one step short of his dreams. In the heavens, the angels recount George’s life, and how it has led him to the brink of suicide. In flashback, a young George saves his kid brother Harry from drowning after a sledding accident, losing his hearing in one ear as a result.
Still a child, George stops his boss, drugstore owner Mr. Gower, from accidentally mixing up a poisonous prescription for a customer. Later, the adolescent George is all set to go off to college and away from Bedford Falls, but his father’s death forces him to stay and protect the family Building and Loan business from mean old Mr. Potter, the richest man in Bedford Falls. George uses his savings to send Harry to college instead.
George ends up marrying childhood sweetheart Mary Hatch, but with a Depression on, he can’t even make it out of Bedford Falls for a honeymoon. George stays in town, working the Building and Loan as Harry goes off to become a Medal of Honor winner in World War II. On Christmas Eve, George’s forgetful Uncle Billy accidentally loses $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s money, which Mr. Potter secretly keeps. Without that money, George may end up in jail. Finally fed up, George tells off everyone from Uncle Billy to his own wife and kids, then runs off to get drunk and throw himself from a bridge.
Instead, George meets Clarence Oddbody, Angel 2nd Class. Sent from heaven as a guardian angel, Clarence gives George his fondest wish: that he had never been born. As a horrifying object lesson, George is sent on a trip to an alternate reality Bedford Falls (now Pottersville), where he learns just what makes up a wonderful life.
Despite its reputation as a warm-hearted holiday film, It’s a Wonderful Life had a fairly dark view of small-town America. George’s life was indeed wonderful, but the world around him kept trying its best to bring him down. Audiences apparently weren’t prepared for this kind of lesson, at least not from Capra and Stewart. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, but it was a financial disappointment.
It’s a Wonderful Life largely disappeared over the next few decades. Capra and Stewart both considered it among their finest work, but the world was less appreciative. In the early 1970′s, however, the movie’s copyright expired, and its rebirth began. Now in the public domain, It’s a Wonderful Life could be aired for free by any television station that could find it. Stations began airing the film every Christmas, and families across America made It’s a Wonderful Life part of their holiday tradition.
Today, the film is one of the most beloved motion pictures on the planet. It’s a Wonderful Life is still a tradition in households across the country, and the picture has earned a high spot on many “Greatest Films” lists. And somewhere in the heavens, this little film’s guardian angel is surely sporting a very nice pair of shiny, new wings.
If this is one of the classic films that warms your heart each holiday season, we hope you’ll take a moment to share your memories of It’s a Wonderful Life in our comments section.