A Wonderful Time to Watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

As happens in December, my TV watching turns into a holiday movie marathon. There are so many good ones, many of which I make a point to watch every year, out of tradition.

If “It’s a Wonderful Life” is also on your holiday playlist like it is on mine, you may have a clerical error that took place 45 years ago to thank.

December 20, 1946: the theatrical release of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Director Frank Capra was one of Hollywood’s A-list directors in the 1940s. Everything he directed touched the heart and was a huge success, movies such as “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. In 1946, he directed a black-and-white film starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed that looked like it would be another winner: “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

But to everyone’s surprise, it did not do well at the box office, certainly not up to expectations. The movie had weak ticket sales amid strong competition at the box office – “Miracle on 34th Street” came out at the same time – and “It’s a Wonderful Life” did not earn back the $6.3 million it cost to produce and market.

And the movie is a bit of a downer.

Jimmy Stewart plays a good guy named George Bailey who is always helping others in his town, puts them ahead of himself. Things go wrong, however. And at Christmas time, his character is thinking of suicide. Heaven sends down a novice guardian angel to show Bailey how much he has helped others, how much others love him. Clarence, the angel, saves Bailey. At the time of the movie’s release, the message was too dark for many to embrace.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” owes its current iconic status to an oversight. The movie was produced under the 1909 Copyright Act, which protected copyrights for 28 years, with an option to renew for another 28. In 1974, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was 28 years old. And someone dropped the ball.
That year, the film’s owner, Republic Films, failed to file a copyright renewal application. As a result, the movie entered the public domain. Low budget TV stations suddenly had a inexpensive way to fill air time around Christmas without paying royalties. And air it they did, hundreds of times on hundreds of stations between 1974 and 1994. Soon, the movie was embraced by a new generation of TV watchers.

Jeanine Basinger, author of the “It’s a Wonderful Life Book” said, “Television made it into a classic, an annual part of our lives”. The TV experience played a big role in our embrace of the movie. A story that felt dark and gloomy in a movie theater worked better in the living room. “On TV, where you’re in your own home at Christmas, surrounded by your family, was a different kind of viewing experience,” Basinger says. “People could absorb the darkness without feeling defeated by it.”

TV saved the movie. TV dusted it off, showed it to a new audience, and made it an American treasure and Christmas classic. TV helped us make the discovery.

If you haven’t watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” yet this holiday season, NBC will air the film at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

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