20. Not such a wonderful life?

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In the stereotype of modern seasonal celebration, the Christmas movie holds a prominent place. Every year cinemas and television schedules are filled with general variations on a theme that also includes a collection of so-called “classics”, the grandfather of which being the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Directed by Oscar winner Frank Capra and starring Oscar winners James Stewart and Donna Reed (in her first starring role) the film itself was nominated for five academy awards with Capra later claiming: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”[1] However, the film only won one Oscar and that for “Technical Achievement”, Capra having developed a new form of movie snow based on foamite and sugar water rather than painted cornflakes.[2] It did even worse financially making over half a million dollars less than its budget of $3.18 million, with a final worldwide box office taking of just $3.3 million.[3] While some reviewers praised the film’s humour, most greeted it with scorn deriding its sentimentality. To make matters even worse, unbeknownst to the filmmakers the FBI became suspicious; an excerpt from their report into communist infiltration of Hollywood reads:

“With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”[4]

It’s unsurprising that the film pretty much disappeared after the 1940s being forgotten except as an idle curiosity for fans of Stewart, Reed or Capra. That was until the 1970s. In 1974 nobody bothered, or they simply forgot to renew the film’s copyright as was required every 28 years.[5] TV executives looking to air content at Christmas without much expense pounced on the film it having now fallen into the public domain. It was therefore, free to air. The original owners of the film were powerless to do anything until recovering the rights in 1993 following a Supreme Court ruling that the owners of the story a film was based on had certain rights to the film itself. By this time, this commercial and critical failure had been turned into one of the most beloved movies of all time simply by virtue of nearly two decades of children growing up with its repetition.

By Alex Wakelam


[1] http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/person/28439%7C53185/Frank-Capra/

[2] John Howard Reid, Popular Pictures of the Hollywood 1940s (Lulu, 2004), 59-60

[3] Michael Willian, The Essential It’s a Wonderful Life: A Scene-by-Scene Guide to the Classic Film (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2006), 4

[4] http://www.wisebread.com/fbi-considered-its-a-wonderful-life-communist-propaganda#memo1

[5] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/1999/12/why_wonderful_life_comes_but_once_a_year.html

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