How Frank Capra’s ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Became a Christmas Classic

History Hit

3 mins

20 Dec 2017

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without It’s a Wonderful Life on the TV. On 20 December 1946, the film received a charity preview screening at the Globe Theater in New York, one day before its official premiere.

Mixed reviews

Considering how fond audiences are of the film today, it’s hard to imagine that the first reviews were decidedly mixed. The New York Times described it as a “quaint and engaging modern parable” but concluded:

“…the weakness of this picture… is the sentimentality of it – its illusory concept of life. Mr Capra’s nice people are charming, his town is a quite beguiling place… But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.”

Audiences weren’t so keen either. At least not keen enough to take the film into profit, landing it with a $525,000 shortfall.

“I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president.”

Frank Capra

Plot and production

The film’s story is well known. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a businessman facing financial ruin. On Christmas Eve, George attempts suicide but is saved by a guardian angel, Clarence, who is attempting to earn his wings. Clarence reveals to George the positive impact he has had on the lives of people in the town of Bedford Falls.

With a new sense of optimism, George returns home to his family and discovers his neighbours have donated money to save his business.

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The film began as a short story called The Greatest Gift, by Philip Van Doren. Doren struggled to get the story published and decided to distribute it among his friends and family in the form of a Christmas card.

A producer from RKO Pictures happened upon the story and bought the film rights. RKO planned to cast Cary Grant and Gary Cooper in the lead roles.

In 1945 the rights passed to Frank Capra. Frustrated by the major studios, in 1945 Capra set up his own independent company called Liberty Films, in partnership with a small number of other filmmakers. Capra lined up Jimmy Stewart for the role of George Bailey.

Donna Reed (Mary Bailey) and James Stewart (George Bailey).

He obtained financing for the film to the tune of $1.54 million, although the final cost reached $3.78 million, making it the most expensive film Capra ever made.

Show stopping set

The set for Bedford Falls, the town where the story takes place, extended to four acres of the RKO lot. It included over seventy buildings, and a park with twenty fully grown oak trees.

But Capra didn’t stop at a jaw dropping set. He wanted the snow for his Christmas movie – filmed during a stifling heat wave in California – to look (and sound!) as realistic as possible.

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The usual method for producing snow on film was to use white cornflakes. But they tended to produce a very loud crunching sound when actors walked on them, sometimes intruding on the dialogue! Instead, Capra worked with his special effects man, Russell Sherman, to develop an innovative new artificial snow.

Sherman mixed foamite (used in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water, and used a wind machine to distribute 6,000 gallons of snow over the set. He won an Oscar for his efforts.

Liberty’s legacy

The film took $3.3 million at the box office. Its failure to recoup the $3.78 budget left Liberty Films in dire straits and Capra was forced to sell the company to Paramount Pictures.

Liberty Films only ever produced two full-length feature films: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946) and ‘State of Union’ (1948).

It was a lapse in the film’s copyright in the 1970s that brought about its rise to iconic status. With no royalties to pay, television channels screened it again and again during the Christmas period. Over the decades, it became a festive staple and earned a place in the hearts of audiences.

Frank Capra was taken aback by its newfound success, saying “I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president.” The rights returned to studio control in 1993 but it remains a fixture of the Christmas television schedules.

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