SOME CALL IT A BOX-OFFICE BOMB With a budget estimated at $3.2 million, this 1946 feature film took in an estimated $3.3 million. So it wasn't a money-loser. But "It's a Wonderful Life" sure wasn't the post-World War II smash expected from established star James Stewart and original name-above-the-title director Frank Capra. The filmmaker was vastly popular for his "Capra corn," or overt sentiment, as seen in his previous hit with Stewart, 1939's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
WEREN'T CHRISTMAS FILMS BIG THEN? Ah, but "Wonderful Life" wasn't really a Christmas movie, despite taking place in that time frame. Though it opened on Dec. 20, 1946 in New York, it didn't hit the rest of the country until nearly three weeks later. And releasing studio RKO promoted it as a romantic comedy. Yes, this dark-toned rumination on whether your life is actually worth anything without "success" was pitched as a lighthearted romp. The lobby card featured Stewart and co-star Donna Reed in full smooch, with the tag line "They're going steady -- straight to your heart!" No wonder word-of-mouth didn't send people streaming into theaters.
BUT THE MOVIE WAS A CRITICAL SUCCESS "Wonderful Life" copped five Academy Award nominations, among them best picture, director and actor. (It won none.) Largely overshadowing it was another reflective drama, "The Best Years of Our Lives," depicting how Americans were struggling to return to normal routines from their wartime roles -- more relatable than the metaphysical musings of "It's a Wonderful Life."
THE CULTURAL STORMS OF THE '70s RESURRECTED ITS REPUTATION In the wake of Vietnam, Watergate and other trust-shattering crises, "It's a Wonderful Life" spoke to baby boomers questioning social norms. They saw the movie then -- and saw it, and saw it -- because in 1974, its owners neglected to properly renew copyrights. When the film fell into the "public domain," TV stations could run it virtually free. And its story took place at Christmastime, when news was slow and shows were in reruns. Americans home wrapping presents or writing cards turned on their TVs to find "It's a Wonderful Life" running endlessly. They watched almost by default, internalizing its message that no man is a failure as long as he has friends.
That holiday tradition remains, even now that its copyright has been regained, with TV rights sold to NBC. That network runs "It's a Wonderful Life" twice every December, climaxing with the annual Christmas Eve screening.
Other yule credits
'It's a Wonderful Life" wasn't the only Christmas outing for many of its 1946 participants.
Lionel Barrymore. Playing the evil Mr. Potter, he was already a holiday legend doing "A Christmas Carol" annually on the radio. (Listen at archive.org/audio.)
Karolyn Grimes. The child star cast as daughter Zuzu would also appear in 1947's Christmas perennial "The Bishop's Wife." (Airing Christmas morning at 2:30 a.m. on TCM.)