“It's a Wonderful Life is truly the platinum standard in Christmas movies; the benchmark by which all other entries in the genre are judged.” — Thomas A. Christie, author of The Christmas Movie Book
The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 75th anniversary of the release of It’s a Wonderful Life, the Christmas classic directed by Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and starring James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story, Vertigo) and Donna Reed (From Here to Eternity, The Donna Reed Show).
In 1990 the Library of Congress selected It’s a Wonderful Life for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and in 1998 the American Film Institute (AFI) recognized the film as the 11th greatest movie ever made. The film has been released countless times on home media formats with its most recent release (on 4K UHD) in 2019 (and reviewed here). [Read on here...]
For the occasion of the film’s anniversary, The Bits features an interview with a trio of film historians and scholars who reflect on the film.
Thomas A. Christie is the author of numerous books about Christmas-themed movies including A Very Spectrum Christmas: Celebrating Seasonal Software on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Extremis, 2021), The Golden Age of Christmas Movies (Extremis, 2019), The Golden Age of Christmas Movies: Festive Cinema of the 1940s and 50s (Extremis, 2019), A Righteously Awesome Eighties Christmas (Extremis, 2016), and The Christmas Movie Book (Crescent Moon, 2011). A third volume in his four-part history of 20th century Christmas movies is due to be released in 2022. The United Kingdom-based Christie has written several other books, among them John Hughes FAQ (Applause, 2019), Contested Mindscapes: Exploring Approaches to Dementia in Modern Popular Culture (Extremis, 2018), The Spectrum of Adventure: A Brief History of Interactive Fiction on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Extremis, 2016), Mel Brooks: Genius and Loving It! (Crescent Moon, 2015), The James Bond Movies of the 1980s (Crescent Moon, 2013), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Pocket Movie Guide (Crescent Moon, 2010), John Hughes and Eighties Cinema: Teenage Hopes and American Dreams (Crescent Moon, 2009), and The Cinema of Richard Linklater (Crescent Moon, 2008). He is a member of the Royal Society of Arts, the Royal Society of Literature, the Society of Authors, and the Federation of Writers Scotland. His work on Richard Linklater was featured at an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2019, and his work on Mel Brooks was featured in conjunction with the Banco do Brasil Cultural Centre in Rio de Janeiro in 2020.
Steve Cox is the author of over twenty books on pop culture including It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book (Cumberland House, 2005). Other works include The Beverly Hillbillies: A Fortieth Anniversary Wing Ding (Contemporary Books, 1988; revised edition HarperCollins; third edition Cumberland House, 2002), The Munchkins Remember: The Wizard of Oz and Beyond (E.P. Dutton, 1989), Here’s Johnny!: Thirty Years of America’s Favorite Late-Night Entertainer (Crown Books, 1992; revised edition Cumberland House, 2002), The Hooterville Handbook: A Viewer’s Guide to Green Acres (St. Martin’s Press, 1993), The Addams Chronicles: An Altogether Ooky Look at the Addams Family (Cumberland House, 1998), Dreaming of Jeannie: TV’s Prime Time in a Bottle (with Howard Frank; St. Martin’s Press, 2000), The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane (Watson-Guptill/Backstage Books, 2006), One Fine Stooge: Larry Fine’s Frizzy Life in Pictures (with Jim Terry, Cumberland House, 2006), and Mining Bedrock: The Voices Behind Television’s First Animated Sitcom, The Flintstones (forthcoming from BearManor Publishing). He has also written for TV Guide, The Hollywood Reporter, US, Los Angeles Times, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Joseph McBride is a professor in the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University and the author of Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (Simon & Schuster, 1992, and St. Martin’s Press, 2000 revised edition) and the memoir Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra (Hightower Press, 2019). He has written over a dozen other books, including Steven Spielberg A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1997 plus updated editions) and Searching for John Ford (University Press of Mississippi, 2011). Recent books of his include Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge (Columbia University Press, 2021) and upcoming books include What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career (University Press of Kentucky, 2022, updated edition of 2006 book) and The Whole Durn Human Comedy: Life According to the Coen Brothers (Anthem Press, 2022). He was the co-writer of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) and can be heard on the audio commentary track of numerous home media releases including Broken Lullaby (Kino Lorber, 2021), Some Like It Hot (Kino Lorber, 2022), and The Sun Shines Bright (Eureka/Masters of Cinema, 2022).
The interviews were conducted separately and edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think It’s a Wonderful Life should be remembered on its 75th anniversary?
Tom Christie: It's a Wonderful Life is truly the platinum standard in Christmas movies; the benchmark by which all other entries in the genre are judged. Most love it, a few loath it—but whatever your view, it is impossible to ignore it. The influence of Frank Capra's film is all-encompassing. Even now, 75 years after it first appeared in cinemas, people are still discussing the fascinating facts behind its production, debating its themes and continued significance, and finding themselves presented by unexpected nuggets of trivia. There is always someone who is surprised to learn that it was filmed during a summer heatwave, or to hear about the pioneering technology Capra's team used to simulate snowfall. Then, famously, there is the suspicion with which the FBI held the film at the time of its release, considering it subversive that a bank manager should be portrayed as a villain (while simultaneously missing the point that the compassionate hero also works in the financial services industry). Likewise, it's difficult to imagine the popular culture surrounding Christmas cinema without the debt it owes to this wholehearted glorification of community spirit, reveling in the transformative power of the festive season and emphasizing both the importance of the individual and the collective. The call for us to work towards not just a better tomorrow, but also a better today, is still heard loud and clear all these decades down the line. It says everything about the film's ongoing cultural relevance that it continues to be discussed and appreciated even in the present day, and of course new generations are still discovering George Bailey and his friends with every passing year.
Joseph McBride: As an iconic but problematical work by one of America’s great directors, Frank Capra’s last good film before his career disastrously collapsed. In one sense, as William S. Pechter wrote in 1962, “Perhaps, having made It’s a Wonderful Life, there was nothing more Capra had to say.” But with its resorting to a supernatural solution to the kind of nearly intractable social and personal problems he had dealt with so keenly in his 1930s classics, Wonderful Life was Capra’s climactic career cop-out, his abandonment of his role as a social critic. Other than for the startling fantasy of the “unborn sequence,” as the script calls it—a nightmarish vision of the world as if George Bailey (James Stewart) had never been born—the film has little to do with the reality outside the theater in 1946. The unborn sequence is a vividly disturbing piece of film noir, the genre that was taking over from what had been known before World War II, affectionately or not, as the homey virtues of “Capracorn.” Capra could not deal with the new realities except in the guise of fevered, nightmarish fantasy. His subsequent films were a precipitous evasion of contemporary issues and a retreat into remakes and childishness as the blacklist era and the Cold War made him terrified of dealing with social problems.
Steve Cox: This Frank Capra masterpiece should be revered as one of the wonders of 20th century filmmaking. How many other black-and-white films receive a network broadcast (sometimes twice) during the Christmas holidays each year? How many films have been rediscovered in such a majestic manner over the decades? Not many.
The Digital Bits: Can you recall your first impression of It's a Wonderful Life?
Christie: I first saw It's a Wonderful Life on VHS back in the 1980s, and I remember being really taken aback at the amazing degree of contrast that Capra achieves between the appealingly idealized Bedford Falls and its sinister reflection, Pottersville. As so many have observed since, it is a film which expertly achieves a sense of personal horror and despondency which is only dispelled by the majestic power of its closing scenes. It is testament to Jimmy Stewart's performance that audiences really do come to view George Bailey's hometown through the prism of the character's life; his lifelong affection for his friends and neighbors, his tangible desperation when things start to spiral out of control, and of course his gradual re-evaluation of his personal choices as he considers what the world would look like without him, slowly realizing how much of an impact one person can have on an entire community. It is a film which has retained its subtle power, largely because the world of the 1940s that is being depicted can now be viewed through the lens of wistful nostalgia. Bedford Falls is no longer a place to appreciate and preserve, but rather a concept of common humanity to value and work towards.
Cox: I first took serious notice of the movie on TV on a snowy afternoon in my dorm room when I was in college in the mid 1980s at Park University in Kansas City, Missouri. I was aware of the film and because it was thought to be in total public domain at the time, dozens of versions were circulating on VHS in stores and in rental establishments. It wasn't until I was in college, however, that I sat down one Saturday afternoon in December and watched it uninterrupted. I totally absorbed it. Needless to say, the magic took hold as the story unfolded and it swept me through the emotional ride. That's where it hit me.
McBride: I liked it more at first than I did later, as I gradually came to realize how evasive its use of George’s guardian angel (Henry Travers) is to resolve the story problems. I came to agree with critic James Wolcott, who wrote in 1986 that Wonderful Life was “the perfect film for the Reagan era, celebrating the old-fashioned values of home and hearth that everyone knows deep down have eroded. Its false affirmations . . . spring not from joy but from anxiety.” The over-the-top, cultish adulation of Wonderful Life by many young admirers and others who failed to understand its problematical nature and failed to see what a retreat it signified from such socially engaged, daring Capra films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Meet John Doe helped turn me off to the whimsical aspects of Wonderful Life. But I came to appreciate even more its dark side.
It is, in fact, one of the most despairing American films, so it is especially ironic it is embraced as a Christmas classic, but then, Christmas is the time of year when the most murders and suicides take place. William S. Pechter wrote that the film’s supernatural resolution exposes the “fatal weakness” of Capra’s work, his tendency to resolve impossible social dilemmas with “strangely perfunctory” happy endings that are imposed “de force majeure…. Yet, for those who can accept the realities of George Bailey’s situation . . . and do not believe in angels . . . the film ends, in effect, with the hero’s suicide. . . . Capra’s desperation is his final honesty. It ruthlessly exposes his own affirmation as pretense.” Screenwriter Michael Wilson did a late polish of Wonderful Life without screen credit, and his widow, Zelma, told me in an interview for my Capra biography, “Mike was not a great admirer of Capra. He thought Capra was a very overestimated director. I don’t think Mike felt that It’s a Wonderful Life was a great movie; he thought it was pretty good, but he was a disenchanted Catholic, and he was not wild about pictures with angels. I remember him groaning about having to write dialogue with an angel, but he was a professional writer and he did his job.” Capra later informed on Wilson, who was blacklisted.
The Digital Bits: In what way is It's a Wonderful Life a significant motion picture?
Christie: It's no coincidence that It's a Wonderful Life is almost certainly the most heavily analyzed of all Christmas movies. There is a significant and growing corpus of insightful scholarship which continues to focus on the film's influence and themes, and it's easy to see why. As it has been so widely viewed thanks to its repeated television broadcast, the film is of course synonymous with the spirit of the festive season. We see the importance of family and friendship. We see one of cinema's most reprehensible, morally-bankrupt villains in the form of Lionel Barrymore's expertly-portrayed Mr. Potter—and though he doesn't exactly receive his comeuppance, nor too are his loathsome plans allowed to succeed. We see a community rallying to the benefit not just of its favored son George Bailey, but (in saving the building and loan) to the collective good of all. It is a movie which excels at demonstrating the ways in which abstract notions of Christmas can be brought into sharp relief and implemented in practical ways. And yet, it is much more than that. It is an unabashed celebration of Americana, of small-town life and all its delights and pitfalls. It is also a warning of what can happen if selfish material desire is allowed to put the best interests of a community at risk, and an examination of how individual virtue and unified action are sometimes both required in tandem in order to endure an existential threat. Capra commends all that is good, honorable and constructive about the American spirit, and emphasizes just how much can be achieved with a can-do attitude and a belief in our fellow human being. At that, even more than its importance to Christmas cinema, may well be why the film remains such essential viewing even today.
Cox: It can be considered significant because director Frank Capra expressed thoughts late in his life that it was among—if not the—favorite film in his prolific career. If for nothing else. With such an astounding body of work, any film Capra had designated as the one he is most proud of should be taken seriously and certainly deserves dissection and celebration in the ways only film fans can.
McBride: One way it is significant is that it marked the last high point of Capra’s standing as a major American filmmaker before his career began its precipitous freefall into a long series of misbegotten and failed pictures and unmade projects. Part of that, as I reveal in my 1992/2000 biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, had to do with Capra’s clandestine informing during the postwar blacklist era. His political problems began around the time he made Wonderful Life. He came under attack for the social criticism of his prewar films and even, to some extent, for the relatively mild social criticism in Wonderful Life. Most damaging to his career was his association over the years with many liberal or leftist screenwriters. That “guilt by association” in the eyes of the U.S. government led to accusations that the deeply patriotic Capra, who was a lifelong Republican, was subversive. He reacted to that absurd charge by, in effect, claiming, “The writers made me do it.” He informed on some of his writers and others to the Army-Navy-Air Force Personnel Security Board, the FBI, and the State Department, and the secret guilt and shame that caused him helped destroy his life and career. He exiled himself to his ranch in the southern California town of Fallbrook for several years during the 1950s, in effect blacklisting himself.
It’s a Wonderful Life had nine screenwriters—Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett received screen credit with Capra and Jo Swerling, and Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets, Marc Connelly, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker worked on it without screen credit—and eight of them, including Capra, ran into trouble with the witch hunt. Three of the writers were blacklisted: Trumbo, Wilson, and Parker. Capra’s egotism and credit-hogging had alienated him from his best screenwriter, the liberal Robert Riskin, but Wonderful Life still followed what Capra followed his “formula,” the one established mostly by Riskin in their 1930s classics. The “unborn sequence” I believe shows what the world would be like if Robert Riskin had never been born. When I helped Capra write his acceptance speech for his 1982 American Film Institute Life Achievement Award while I wrote that CBS special with producer George Stevens Jr., Capra wanted to say that the “love of people, the freedom of each individual, and the equal importance of each individual” was “the formula upon which I’ve based all my films.” I suggested that “principle” would sound better than “formula,” and Capra eagerly followed my suggestion, but I should have left it at “formula,” because that’s what those humanistic values really were to him.