It’s a Wonderful Life – Is it the best movie ever?

It’s a Wonderful Life – Is it the best movie ever?

I used to say that Its a Wonderful Life was my favorite movie of all time. But that isn’t the same as saying it’s the best movie ever.  This picture is definately a great movie and shoud be considered to be a classic.

You the reader will be the ultimate judge as to whether It’s a Wonderful Life is just a great classic or really is the best movie ever. I’m going to lay out many pieces of information that will help you to make up your mind.

As usual, I will not retell the story here. But I will give you some background  about the making of this picture, its stars, director, writers and other information that you may not be aware of.

The origin of the stoy – is a Christmas card

Beleve it or not It’s a Wonderful Life was inspired by a story that was included in a Christmas card. The author, Philip Van Doren Stern, had written a short story called The Greatest Gift in 1943. When he was unsuccessful in getting the story published, he decided to print 200 copies that he sent to his friends as a Crristmas card in December of 1943.

How The Greatest Gift became a movie – Background

RKO Pictures bought the movie rights for the story from Philip Van Doren Stern for $10,000 in April of 1944. They intended for it  to be a movie for Cary Grant.  However the project was put on the shelf. In that version, George Bailey (Cary Grant), would have been an idealistic polition who becomes so cynical that he contemplates suicide.

Charles Koerner who was the studio chief at RKO asked Frank Capra to read The Greatest Gift.  Capra had made training films and documentaries during the war. He saw this story had great and bought the rights from RKO for the same amount that they had paid, $10,000.

Director Frank Capra – It’s a Wonderful Life cost him his career

Co. Frank Capra

During the war

Frank Capra had founded Liberty Films, an independent production company.It’s a Wonderful Life was the first of two films produced by Liberty Films. It was released in 1946 after World War II. Film critics’ reviews were unfavorable and the movie lost money In fact Frank Capra lost $500,000.

State of the Union released in 1947 was the only other film Liberty Films made. Although  in my opinion it was a great movie, it barely broke even. Liberty Films was sold to Paramount Pictures and these films became their property. In 1951 Paramount Pictures dissolved Liberty Films.

Even with all of that, Frank Capra said It’s a Wonderful Life was his best movie.

Choice of the leading roles – James Stewart and Donna Reed

James Stewart was from Indiana, Pennsylvania which was a small town. This movie is set in a small town of Bedford Falls. He had just returned from combat in the European theater and wasn’t sure that he would return to acting. However when Frank Capra told him the story outline, James asked when would they start shooting. His character, George Bailey, wanted to build things, and James had a degree in architecture that made him a good fit.

Donna Reed also was from as small town in Iowa. She was well suited for her role as Mary.  She surprised the director when she threw a rock hit a target herself in a scene. Frank had a sharpshooter ready to hit the target for her. What Capra didn’t know was that Donna had a very strong and accurate throwing arm. She was an experienced baseball player.

Great supporting cast

  • Lionel Barrymore was cast for his ability to portray a callous deceitful and hateful business man.
  • Thoms Mitchell was chosen because he had the ability to show frustration and bewilderment.
  • Beulah Bondi had played James Stewart’s mother in other movies and was always convincing.

It’s A Wonderful Life – From obscurity to a must see Christmas movie

As I mentioned earlier, this movie did not fare well in the theaters when it was released in December 1946. Because of it’s lack of popularity most people didn’t remember this movie.  So when TV stations put Christmas movies in their lineup, this movie was rarely chosen. Many other holiday movies had been produced and the station owners thought those movies would give a grater return if they rented them to show. However due to a   clerical error the copyright owners failed to renew their copyright in 1974 for an additional 28 years under the 1909 copyright law that covered this movie. Because of that failure, It’s a Wonderful Life went into Public Domain. TV stations were able to show It’s a Wonderful Life multiple times without paying royalties.  Over the next 20 years, the movie was shown over and over every Christmas season. Now people consider it to be a holiday classic.

In 1993 everything changed. The Supreme Court ruled that the current copyright owners could enforce their claim to the film notwithstanding the clerical error.  So we might have never seen this movie if it had not been for the clerical mistake that caused the renewal application not to be filed.

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13 thoughts on “It’s a Wonderful Life – Is it the best movie ever?

  1. I have always loved this movie when I have seen it and I had no idea that it had a history of being a failure when it was first released. This definitely makes me want to go read the short story that the movie was inspired from so I can see what the correlation between the two is. Thanks for this great article!

    1. A contributing factor of the movie being a failure at the box office, was the fact that “The Best Years of Our Lives” came out around the same time, that movie was a box office hit.

      “The Greatest Gift” is available from Amazon.  My first mention of the book has an affiliate link to Amazon, for your convenience.

  2. I had never heard of this movie until I read your article. Your enthusiasm is unmistakable and has persuaded me to look for it in the local library and on Netflix and the internet. Watching it will help me understand what you were trying to say about a target and the lead actress and sharpshooter Donna Reed. It may be worth proofreading the written article a couple of times to ensure that what is written is indeed in line with what you would like to convey. On the whole, it was a good article. I look forward to reading the others you’ve posted on your site.

    1. It is a dark movie. However, I think people were influenced by the negative reviews it had. By the way, I have an affiliate link embedded in the use of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the first paragraph. Thanks again. You most likely will love it.

  3. There are several film classics. I love old movies, and I have seen many, but I hadn’t heard of this one. It sounds like this movie has a deep message. Where can I see this film? I doubt that it’s on Netfix, or is it?

    Why did it do so badly when it was released? Because it was about someone contemplating suicide and people after the war wanted to see happier things perhaps? I’ll watch it over the Holidays. I like James Steward, he was a great actor, and Donna Reed was great too.

    1. It is a great movie. You can find it if you click on “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the first line under the top picture. That will take you to Amazon.

  4. I had never heard of this movie until I read your article. Your enthusiasm is unmistakable and has persuaded me to look for it. Watching it will help me understand what you were trying to say about a target and the sharpshooter Donna Reed.

  5. Hello, I really want to appreciate your effort in putting together this website and writing this article. I love movies and this movie seem to be a great movie. As the movie implies its a wonderful world. I am beginning to wonder how old James Stewart and dona reed are right now. I would say movies like this holds more meaning than the new movies of these days

    1. There is a relatively recent movie called “It’s a Wonderful World” which is nothing like “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

      Donna Reed passed away in January, 1986 at age 64. And Jimmy Stewart passed away in July, 1997 at age 89.

  6. Thanks for this awesome article it would be of great help to the public as it has been of help to me.i have been around for sometime and I know the effect of movies….I have watched alot of movies and I most of them form the 19th century has brought big memories and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is one of them..I would say indeed it’s the best movie ever

  7. Interesting background of the movie, Its a wonderful Life.  Strange how such a popular movie nowadays was actually

    a failure in the theaters in December 1946. 

    I did not know it was a Christmas movie, guess it has been a long time since I saw it. 

    Do you know if we can watch it for free on YouTube?

    1. Sorry. It’s not available for free on YouTube. However, If you follow my link I mentioned in tone of my other replies you can watch for free if you have an Amazon Prime membership.

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