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  • Writer's pictureVinnie Favale

It's A Wonderful Backstory

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

"It's A Wonderful Life" wasn't always the beloved holiday film that we all know by heart. It received mixed reviews when it was released in 1946, it lost half a million dollars for RKO films and was censured by the FBI which issued a memo at the time stating, "With regard to the picture 'It's a Wonderful Life'... the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists."

It is now considered one of the greatest films of all time. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made. It was No. 11 on the American Film Institute's 1998 greatest movie list, No. 20 on its 2007 greatest movie list, and No. 1 on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time. In 1990, the film was designated as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. So how did this turnabout happen?

In 1974 Republic Pictures (which owned the rights to the film at the time) failed to file a renewal for the film’s copyright protection. It went into public domain which meant local stations didn't not have to pay any licensee fees or residuals to run the film...and run the film they did...days, nights, weekends and then eventually on VHS. By 1990, Republic managed to secure the rights again but by then it grown in stature to become the classic that it is (and deserves to be.) This came as a welcome surprise to its Director Frank Capra and others involved with its production. "It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen", Capra told The Wall Street Journal in 1984. "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."

Capra based the film on the short story and booklet "The Greatest Gift", which Philip Van Doren Stern self-published in 1943. In February 1938 Stern awoke with the story in mind. Inspired by a dream that was reminiscent of the 1843 Charles Dickens novella "A Christmas Carol", Stern wrote a 4000 word short story called "The Greatest Gift". He began it in 1939 and finished it in 1943, but was unable to find a publisher for it. He sent 200 printed copies to friends as Christmas cards in December 1943.

The story was published as a book in December 1944, with illustrations by Rafaello Busoni. Stern also sold it to Reader's Scope magazine, which published it in its December 1944 issue, and to the magazine Good Housekeeping, which published it under the title "The Man Who Was Never Born" in its January 1945 issue (published in December 1944).

One of those pamphlets came to the attention of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead, who showed it to actor Cary Grant, who became interested in playing the lead role. RKO purchased the motion picture rights for $10,000 in April 1944. After several screenwriters worked on adaptations, RKO sold the rights to the story in 1945 to Frank Capra's production company. Liberty Films for the same $10,000. Capra adapted the story into It's a Wonderful Life in 1946.

In December 1946, James Stewart, who played George Bailey in the film wrote to Van Doren Stern, calling the story "an inspiration to everyone concerned with the picture ... the fundamental story was so sound and right.


Lux Radio Theater "It's a Wonderful Life" March 10, 1947

Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Victor Moore starred in this special live radio version of "It's A Wonderful Life". This 1947 production for Lux Radio Theater is true to the film version with many of the stars reprising their famous roles for radio. You can listen to it below.


It's A Wonderful Parody

The true sign of a classic is if is parodied on the Simpsons and SNL and you can check both boxes for yes on this one. SNL did a memorable take off starring Dana Carvey. The Simpson's parodied the film no less than eleven times!

Dana Carvey as George Bailey and Jan Hooks as Mary.

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