Like its protagonist, It’s a Wonderful Life has its own redemption story. Released in 1946, the film received tepid reviews from critics and was famously a box office flop, failing to earn enough revenue to break even with the budget, contributing to the bankruptcy of the production company Liberty Films and its eventual sale to Paramount. Twenty-eight years later, a clerical error allowed the movie to enter the public domain, at which point television stations started airing it solely because they could do so without paying royalties. Just as Uncle Billy’s clerical error was the catalyst that pushed George Bailey to find new appreciation for his life in Bedford Falls, that mistake at Paramount allowed a new American audience to find and embrace Bailey’s story, turning the forgotten film into the perennial classic it is today.
Tag: Frank Capra
Editor’s note: On December 16, 2017, we had some special young guests among our audience for our annual screening of It’s a Wonderful Life. They are the high-school students from the Film Club at Boston Collegiate Charter School. We were very excited to have them as part of this Brattle holiday tradition, so we asked if they could send us their thoughts on the movie and the movie-going experience at a theatre like the Brattle. Victoria got back to us. We love her fresh take on this particular movie as well as the concept of “Christmas movies,” so we want to share this with you.
Editor of Film Notes
It’s that time of year again! Time for hot chocolate by the fire, building snowmen, hosting extravagant parties, and waiting for Santa to come down the chimney!
Of course, no one finds this their reality, as the majority of movies over romanticize Christmas. Most people know the type: the cheesy Hallmark Channel movie about some overly decorated suburban town with that one person who left, who then comes back to fall in love with his or her high school sweetheart. It might as well achieve its Christmas designation with some sage advice from a mall Santa. There are also over joyous Christmas movies like Elf, where I am left queasy with Christmas spirit after the opening scene and stuck with the image of Will Ferrell in tights burned into my retinas. Then there’s the classic tale of Ralphie pining for a ‘Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle’ in A Christmas Story, another holiday classic reminding me of simpler times when the most stressful moment in life was getting a “triple-dog-dare” from friends, whether that person was born in the 40s, 70s, or 2000s, like myself.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is an uplifting film only insofar as it ends on an upswing for its hero, summing up a treatise against self-destruction. Even though Frank Capra’s Christmas classic is moral allegory, class conflict suffuses it, resulting in a less-than-cheerful socioeconomic conclusion underlying its wonderful, Christmassy closing: that money can force American citizens to their knees at the expense of faith and self-confidence. Frank Capra lionizes the entrepreneurial main character, George Bailey (James Stewart), into the protector of the American Dream and gladiator of the “battle of Bedford Falls” so that he may knock him down several notches and watch him writhe. This narrative progression is not so much sadism on the part of the director as portraiture. Frank Capra uses George Bailey’s story as a case study for class relations in America, portraying the difficulty of attaining the American Dream when the Mr. Potters of the country are actively out to get the average American. The Dream haunts as a Christmas Ghost in this rightly canonized Capricorn picture.
There are only a few films that can be easily called a Christmas classic. They’re those stories that fill you with the appropriate warm and fuzzy feelings associated with twinkling lights, pine trees, and a jolly fat man. They are feelings that seem to embody the notion of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men and inspire love and hope during the coldest time of the year.
And now one of the seminal classics is celebrating its 70th birthday this month. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in 1946, and in the decades since it first graced the silver screen, it has become a holiday favorite of the critics and public alike.
Oscar season is upon us and we are all wondering who will take home the big ones: Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress. In 1935, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT was the first film ever to win all four (in addition to Best Writer/Adaptation). No surprise: it was the smash hit of 1934. The film was 24 carat “Capra-corn:” a spoiled heiress on the run, a reporter who can’t catch a break, and a bumpy bus ride that lands the exclusive story of a lifetime (quite literally) in the reporter’s lap. Seizing the opportunity, the reporter Peter (Clark Gable) helps the snobbish Ellie (Claudette Colbert) survive the foreign ways of the common man as she tries to rendezvous and elope with her lover. He wants the exclusive on her story, and she realizes she must comply if she doesn’t want her daddy Alexander to find her. Peter is rough and unapologetic as he educates the society girl on how to survive when you are broke. Thus, the comically unfortunate journey of these unlikely companions begins.
There are movies and there are MOVIES! IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is A MOVIE!
It is hard to believe now but IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE dropped a great, big bomb when it first appeared in 1946. Post World War II Americans had endured hardship after hardship, both overseas and on the homefront, and were not in a mood for Frank Capra’s usual cornball philosophies, or to see beloved all-American stars like Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed playing such dark material — the story is, after all, about a man on the brink of suicide. “It seesaws”, said one critic, “between sugar-coated candy and out-and-out nihilism.” Moviegoers stayed away in droves.
It’s a Wonderful Life – 1946 – dir. Frank Capra
“You know, George, I feel that in a small way, we’re doing something important…” –Peter Bailey.
For me, this one line sums up the entire film. No matter what it is we dream of doing, the truly important things are those that we have already accomplished.
George Bailey (James Stewart) is a man who dreams of greatness; of building skyscrapers and travelling the world. Instead of sailing the seven seas or even going to college, George remains rooted in his small hometown, running the family business and married with children. He barely makes enough money to survive, yet he constantly helps others in the town of Bedford Falls to live better lives.
By Peggy Nelson
It’s A Wonderful Life – 1946 – dir. Frank Capra
Recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946) has been variously described as a heartwarming celebration of family values, an historical appreciation of vanished small-town life, “sentimental hogwash,” an indictment of centralized banking, and a communist manifesto. It is all of these things. And yet, it is also something more.