The day is December 20th, 1946. Christmas is just around the corner, and acclaimed director Frank Capra is finally releasing his latest film It’s a Wonderful Life. People are pouring into the theaters, eagerly waiting to see what the studio has in store for them. Just as feature finally ends, the overall opinion hanging over the crowd is….meh.
Surely we must be talking about the wrong movie, right? Not the one featured on television every Christmas, and regarded as a holiday classic, without a doubt we must be mistaken? Afraid not dear readers, that holiday classic that’s so near and dear to all of us was met with mixed reactions upon release. Additionally, it even under performed at the box office, recording a loss of over $525,000 (which equates to over $6.7 million in today’s money). So this bears the question: Over a half a century later, what’s changed everyone’s minds?
Much like a fine wine, some movies take time to reach their peak and be appreciated for what they are. One reason could be that the “feel good, family/romance” genre was heavily saturated in the early days of filmmaking. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, despite being a genuinely great piece, may have been caught up in the whirlwind of lesser quality family/romance films, and was simply ignored because of it. Yet, now that those mediocre movies have fallen out of the public eye, It’s a Wonderful Life has risen above to earn its spot as one of Hollywood’s masterpieces. Even the likes of The Wizard of Oz suffered a similar fate during its 1939 release. Despite garnering positive reviews, the movie was MGM’s most expensive film during the time, and failed to turn a profit. Yet, again, Oz is regarded as a Hollywood classic.
That’s not to say the film wasn’t recognized at all during its era. It’s a Wonderful Life was, in fact, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. However, it only ended up winning Best Technical Achievement, which was only because the film crafted a new method to simulate falling snow. Certainly an important step for films later on, but it’s hard to imagine anyone watched this movie just to marvel at the revolutionary snow.
There is one other theory as to why these movies have aged so well to the public, a combination of nostalgia and the departure of favorite actors. James Stewart’s official last movie role was in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West in 1991, but that was only after over a decade of absence from the industry (and in all honesty, who even knew he was in that film to begin with?) Before that, his last big movie role was in The Magic of Lassie, released 1978. When James Stewart passed in 1997, at the age of 89, he left behind a long legacy in Hollywood to never be forgotten. Likely, his retirement and or his passing helped spark a major public response to appreciate his finest works, and It’s a Wonderful Life just happened to be one of those finest works.
Nowadays, the film holds numerous accolades and achievements for its filmmaking and storytelling. It’s been named as not only one of the greatest Christmas movies, but one of the greatest movies period. James Stewart’s acting is still held in high regards, plenty of television shows have done the “if you had never been born” episode, it’s safe to say Frank Capra’s film has finally reached the admiration it deserved from the beginning . Whatever the reason for this may be, the holiday season just wouldn’t be complete without the family sitting down together, and enjoying this Christmas classic.