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

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

Amy Irvine

10 Nov 2022
George Bailey (James Stewart), Mary Bailey (Donna Reed), and their youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes)
Image Credit: National Telefilm Associates, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To some, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without It’s a Wonderful Life on the television. Voted as the ‘most inspirational film of all time’ by the American Film Institute, the film has become a staple of the festive season.

However, Frank Capra’s film, which follows a frustrated businessman receiving a visit from an angel, wasn’t an instant hit. So how did the film go on to become the Christmas classic we know it as today?

Mixed reviews

Considering how fond audiences are of the film nowadays, it’s hard to imagine that its first reviews were decidedly mixed.

On 20 December 1946, the film received a charity preview screening at the Globe Theater in New York, one day before its official premiere. 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.

Theatrical poster for the release of the 1946 film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: "Copyright 1946 RKO Radio Pictures Inc.", Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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.

Origins and production

Although the film’s script is credited to three screenwriters (Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra), its beginnings went far back to 1938. 

The film began as a short story called The Greatest Gift, by Philip Van Doren Stern, and was conjured from a dream of Stern’s that mimicked Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Whilst Stern set the story at Christmas-time, he intended it to be a universal story for all people in all times.

The 4,000-word short story took Stern four years to complete, and in 1943 he set out to find a publisher. When none responded, Stern instead decided to put copies of his story inside Christmas cards which he then sent to his friends and family – sending out 200 copies printed on a 21-page Christmas card.

David Hempstead, a producer from RKO Pictures, happened upon one of the Christmas cards and showed it to film star Cary Grant. Legend has it that Grant brought it to RKO (a studio which he frequently collaborated with) wanting to turn the story into a film, so RKO acquired the rights. However, whilst RKO initially planned to cast Cary Grant and Gary Cooper in the lead roles, they later sold the rights to the project to Frank Capra in 1945.

Frustrated by the major studios, that same year Capra had set up his own independent production company, Liberty Films. He adapted the story into what we now know as It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946, instead lining up James (Jimmy) Stewart for the role of George Bailey.

Before being sent off to fight in World War Two, James Stewart had been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, appearing in 28 films and having won a Best Actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story. On his return and having spent 3 years in the US Air Force, Stewart (suffering from what was later recognised as PTSD) found his contract with MGM had expired and his agent had left. The call from Capra had come at the perfect time.

Capra obtained financing for the film to the tune of $1.54 million, although the final cost reached $3.78 million (due to script rewrites, shooting schedules and crew hires, not to mention creating the sets), 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 70 buildings, and a park with 20 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.

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.

Ending scene of the film. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Box office troubles

The original plan was to release It’s a Wonderful Life in January 1947 to avoid Oscar deadlines, but the film’s distributor (RKO) needed a film to release in time for Christmas, and Capra’s film was an easy solution. The film was therefore released in December 1946.

It’s a Wonderful Life’s saccharine tale touting old-time values was in sharp contrast to another film that had been released just a few weeks prior. William Wyler’s major film, The Best Years of Our Lives, was a hard-hitting drama about a US soldier returning home after the war, and went on to win 7 Oscar’s, including Best Picture. The differences between the two films made It’s a Wonderful Life seem outdated and irrelevant to postwar America. This was the first full Christmas after the war, and cinema-goers were looking for undemanding optimism – they were wary about a Christmas tale steeped in so much darkness.

Taking only $3.3 million at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life’s failure to recoup the $3.78 budget left Liberty Films in dire straits and Capra was forced to sell the company to Paramount Pictures.

Adding to the film’s setbacks, the FBI and Senator McCarthy’s paranoid House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) even investigated It’s a Wonderful Life for allegedly having communist leanings. They viewed the film’s protagonist George Bailey’s story to be rife with subversive tendencies such as demonising capitalist bankers, and including subtle attempts to magnify the problems of the ‘common man’ in society.

After World War 2, America feared communist infiltration of its institutions, including Hollywood.
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The film’s resurgence

After decades in the shadows, it was a clerical error causing a lapse in the film’s copyright in the 1970s that eventually brought about its rise to iconic status.

The 1909 Copyright Act stipulated that creative works were protected for 28 years, after which the copyright holder needed to renew the copyright. Thus in 1974, after the film’s copyright holder forgot to file for a renewal, the film entered the public domain.

With no royalties to pay, television channels screened it again and again during each Christmas period. The film’s reemergence on television gave Capra’s story new life. Despite postwar audiences rejecting the film’s sentiment, over the decades it became a festive staple, earning a place in the hearts of audiences who revelled in its nostalgia and quaintness. The more people watched the film, the more they were heartened by its uplifting messages about selflessness, generosity, and community spirit.

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 after the US Supreme Court established a precedent which meant that the film’s original copyright owner could regain ownership of the film since they owned the copyright on the original short story the film was based on, as well as the musical score. US television network NBC then paid for exclusive rights for airing the film each Christmas.

Nevertheless, whether through television, DVD, streaming services or cinema, It’s A Wonderful Life remains a staple fixture of the Christmas television schedules, and its poignant universal message synonymous with the spirit of Christmas.

Amy Irvine