TNB Night Owl – An Unlikely Christmas Favorite

It's a Wonderful Life 1946. Photo by National Telefilm Associates.

It seems impossible that there could be any adult in America who has not yet seen It’s A Wonderful Life at some point in the last 73 years. After all, it premiered in 1946. Yes that’s right, and i’ll repeat – you’ve had 73 years to see this movie so, no excuses. Since you’ve all seen it, there’s no need to go into great detail explaining the plot, or issuing a mandatory spoiler alert. Right? Right.

There are several reasons why it was unlikely It’s A Wonderful Life would become a Christmas favorite. For starters, when it opened, the film had to compete in theaters with the blockbuster The Best Years of Our Lives, which opened just weeks before IAWL. This is widely thought to be why it didn’t do very well at the box office.

IAWL wasn’t even supposed to premiere at that time. It had been scheduled for a 1947 release (and the titles do show copyright 1947). However, a delay in the delivery of color film prints caused by Technicolor meant that the scheduled Christmas release of Sinbad The Sailor also had to be delayed. The studio hastily replaced Sinbad with IAWL at the box office.

At the time It’s A Wonderful Life was being made, no one, not even Frank Capra, who co-wrote the screenplay, then financed, produced, and directed the film, expected IAWL to become one of the greatest films of all time, let alone a Christmas favorite. It was just another studio film cranked out in short order, in this case in under 90 days.

So how did IAWL become a Christmas favorite? A mistake in 1974 made by clerical employees of National Telefilm Associates (NTA), which owned the film at the time, is frequently cited as the reason for the film’s huge fan base. NTA allowed the copyright to lapse due to an administrative error in their copyright office. It seems they just forgot to renew the paperwork. As a result, for the next 20 years, until 1994, IAWL could and would be shown royalty-free by television stations all across America. In those years, the film could be seen dozens of times between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s when the film’s popularity really took off, and it became a favorite Christmastime movie tradition.

But, what makes it so great? Sure, the cast is top notch, and the directing is superb. However, it’s the message that makes It’s A Wonderful Life such a great movie.

Without giving away too much (in case you really haven’t ever seen it but it made it onto your bucket list) this is a story about Good versus Evil, but with a twist. The twist being that a good man is shown how bad life would be for the people he cares about – his family, friends, and the citizens of his home town – if he had never existed.

George Bailey, the good man, who has put others ahead of himself many times in his life, learns that the world is a better place for him being in it.

Mr. Potter, a greedy, selfish man, a sociopath who places himself above all others at all times, cares not a wit for his fellow human beings. The world is a much worse place because of him.

Out of this conflict between Good and Evil, there are two distinct core messages in It’s A Wonderful Life which resonate with audiences.

First, this film touches audiences because every person who believes in good would like to know that their being here has made the world a better place – that their life has mattered. This is the Christmas connection. Everyone who puts other’s needs ahead of their own help make the world a better place, and that’s the true message of Christ. It’s what Christmas is really about. It’s the real reason we celebrate Christ’s birth on Christmas Day. The message of the film is a natural fit with the holiday.

Second, at the very end of the story, on Christmas Eve, the entire town comes to George’s aid to help him out of the serious jam he’s in (through no fault of his own). All the good that George has done in his life comes back to bless him. The entire town of Bedford Falls has his back. Audiences love this, because every good person wants to believe in the good of humanity, that good people will come to help us in our time of greatest need. Not only is there a very happy ending, but the movie ending takes place on Christmas Eve, a traditionally festive time which cements It’s A Wonderful Life as a Christmas movie.

“The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.” — Frank Capra

Question of the night: What are your plans this Christmas?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.