“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a holiday fixture now but that was not true at first. Movie fans did not always think the classic — No. 20 on the American Film Institute’s list of the best movies ever made and 75 years old this week — was so wonderful.
Released five days before Christmas in 1946, “Wonderful Life” introduced us to George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who faces a personal and professional crisis on Christmas Eve of 1945 and only manages to turn his frown upside-down with the help of a klutzy angel (Henry Travers).
It did modestly in theaters, reportedly falling about $500,000 shy of earning the $6.3 million it would have needed to break even. It earned respectful reviews and was nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, best director Frank Capra and best actor Stewart, losing those three to “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Then, for years, it was barely thought of.
But a few things changed that. The biggie was that Republic Pictures neglected to renew the copyright on the film, so it entered the public domain in 1974, which is why you can find slipshod Blu-rays for $4 at gas stations every December and why it pops up on TV year after year. Then, in 1977, Marlo Thomas, a big TV star at the time, produced and starred in a gender-flipped remake, “It Happened One Christmas,” which scored huge ratings and led many dads like mine to tell their kids, “You liked that thing? You should see the original.”
The main change, in terms of how we look at “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is us. It’s the same movie it was in 1946 but we come at it differently now than we did then — when, for a variety of reasons, it must have startled audiences hoping for a “The Bells of St. Mary’s”-like burst of holiday cheer.
Then: One of the most genial of Hollywood stars, Stewart earned audiences’ trust playing uncomplicated good guys, including in Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and his Oscar-winning role in “The Philadelphia Story.” It’s likely the Capra connection led Stewart to sign on to “Wonderful” as his first project after distinguished service in the U.S. Army, starting in 1941 (he remained in the Reserves).
If audiences were expecting another of those uncomplicated guys, they did not get it in “Wonderful,” where George spends a chunk of the movie contemplating suicide. George is a hero but “Wonderful” examines what it costs him to be one for the town of Bedford Falls, New York, whose citizens he repeatedly puts ahead of himself.
Now: With his entire career available, not just those early years, “Wonderful” does not seem like an outlier. A pioneer in actors wresting control of their careers away from studios, Stewart began stretching what audiences expected of his characters, especially with Alfred Hitchcock, who seemed to delight in roughing up Stewart’s image. Hitchcock cast him as a dangerously arrogant professor in “Rope,” a peeping Tom who somehow doesn’t know how incredible Grace Kelly is in “Rear Window” and a borderline necrophiliac in “Vertigo.”
Then: Capra rose to fame as a crowd-pleaser, to such an extent that the term “Capra-esque” means a corny, modern-day fable where hope and goodness always triumph. Capra was never as sunny as his rep — “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” especially, takes a dim view of politics — but audiences that loved “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “It Happened One Night” expected uplift.
Now: In hindsight, the darkness and cynicism that were erased in Capra’s happy endings have gotten more attention. The handful of documentaries he made as part of the World War II propaganda effort are a possible turning point. Having spent time immersed in the ugliness of war, Capra seems to have shifted to exploring ambiguous material such as “Wonderful.” That may also be why, although he continued to make movies for 15 more years, the six-time Oscar nominee and three-time winner earned no more nominations and only made one more enduring film — the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy “State of the Union.”
World War II
Then: Released a little more than a year after the war and at Christmas to boot, “Wonderful” may have hit when audiences weren’t ready to confront whether it really was “The Good War.” “Wonderful” celebrates the Allied victory, with the climax set on the day George’s younger brother Harry receives the Medal of Honor for war heroics. But dealing with the sacrifices of that war as well as World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic (in flashbacks) may have been more than audiences wanted to deal with while digesting their figgy pudding.
Now: Information about topics that were swept under the rug in the 1940s, when mental health was barely discussed, is widely available and we recognize that depression or death by suicide, for instance, should be examined, not ignored. We also know the holidays are a difficult time for lots of people — not just those, like George Bailey, who are saved from their darkest moments by a fledgling angel who helps problems disappear.