There Almost Wasn't a 'Wonderful Life'

As Christmas decorations come down and the New Year celebrations commence, millions of America saw for the immeasurable time "It’s A Wonderful Life" — the 1946 black-and-white film featuring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed that has become the staple of holiday season television.

By now, few are unfamiliar with the story: George Bailey of bucolic Bedford Falls wants badly to go on to college, leave his small town, achieve big dreams. But he is frustrated at every turn: the death of his father leads him to take over the elder Bailey’s Building and Loan Co., the only rock of hope for the town’s poor and target of the meanest and richest man in Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter. George watches school chums move on and become rich, sees his brother go to college and go on to become a hero in World War II (George was 4-F as a result of losing the hearing in one ear as a child when he saved his brother from falling through an icy pond), and seems to be bound to Bedford Falls through the business as well as his marriage to a local girl and their four children.

It all collapses for George Bailey when his absent-minded Uncle Billy loses $8,000 of the building and loan’s money as a bank examiner comes to scrutinize their records on the day before Christmas. Angry, taking his frustration and fears out on his family, and getting drunk, George considers suicide by throwing himself off a bridge and thus permitting his $15,000 life insurance policy to be cashed.

But, suddenly, he hears a cry for help from a drowning man, whom he promptly dives in the water to save. The man says he is Clarence, an angel who wants his wings and says he will get them by convincing George not to throw away “God’s greatest gift.” George is unbelieving and says he wishes he was never born. Clarence promptly arranges this and George gets to see Bedford Falls (now Potterville) had he never lived: it is an “open town,” with dance halls, gin mills, and people living in shacks built by Potter instead of the homes George’s building and loan built without a profit. Friends don’t know him and he goes unrecognized by his mother and wife (who turned out to be a librarian who never married).

Finally, a despondent George asks Clarence to “let me live.” He goes back to the town he knows and is exultant that friends and family know him. The final, tear-jerking scene is when he arrives home on Christmas Eve and wife Mary has told all of his friends he has a problem; without question, they come forward with money and even the bank examiner throws in something in the pot. He finally finds a book amid all the cash with an inscription: “Always remember: no man is a failure so long as he has friends. Love, Clarence. P.S. Thanks for the wings.”

Sappy fantasy, you say? Sure, but someone must like it out there. NBC has been running "It’s A Wonderful Life" for years, its 90-minute length extended to three hours with commercials. The characters are legend, with George’s friends, Burt the cop and Ernie the taxi driver considered to be the inspiration for the Muppet characters of the same name on Sesame Street.

But one fact that fans as well as occasional viewers may not know: the film that is considered a classic was initially a flop at the box office, panned by critics, and exiled to some studio vault until it was dusted off for the small screen in the early 1970s.

Legendary producer Frank Capra, just back from making documentary films in World War II, unsuccessfully pitched "Wonderful Life" to major studios but got the cold shoulder. He finally formed an independent venture known as Liberty Films with another producer and two directors to turn the proposed film — initially a short story by Phillip Van Doren Stern titled “The Greatest Gift” that had bounced around Hollywood for seven years. Stern’s agent got a copy of the story in his Chirstmas card and sold it to RKO pictures for $10,000 in 1943. After trying to make it into a film with Cary Grant in the starring role, RKO sold it to Capra, who in turn tried to make it a film himself.

According to Stewart biographer Donald Dewey, Capra pitched the project to Stewart (recently discharged following a heroic career in the Army Air Corps) at his home in late 1945. The actor “threw up his arms in exasperation” and told Capra that “instead of a legitimate story for a picture, he had ‘the lousiest [expletive deleted] I’ve ever heard.” Stewart, however, later relented, and agreed to take the part of George Bailey.

When it premiered in December of 1946, "It’s a Wonderful Life" met with reviews similar to the initial reaction of its star. “The weakness of the picture … is its allusory concept of life,” wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, adding that the characters and plot “all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.” The New Yorker’s John McCarten went further, saying the Stewart film was “so mincing as to border on baby talk.”

Nominated for five Academy Awards in 1947, "It’s A Wonderful Life" won none, and was seemingly dwarfed by the Goliath of postwar films, "The Best Years of Our Lives." Capra himself, according to Donald Dewey, was so discouraged by the critical reaction and mediocre box office performance of his film that he sold off the assets of his independent production company to Paramount. Of the film, Stewart himself said, “People had just been through a war and his was not quite what they were looking for. … I think movie audiences wanted Red Skelton, slapstick comedy, westerns, escapism. … Maybe it was just the wrong time to make the picture.”

His words were prophetic. The film collected dust for years but with the dissolution of Liberty Films, copyright control of "Wonderful Life" lapsed. What fared flaccidly on the big screen was, when shown on television on the small screen beginning in the 1970s, a hit that played to greater sentimental expectations than its Hollwyood midwives imagined. As Stewart biographer Dewey put it, “What Capra saw as ‘serious’ and ‘dark’ on the big screen has, even without the addition of colorization, gained the wide sheen of a seasonal bauble on the small one.”