It Really is a Wonderful Life

Today, December 20, was the release date for Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in 1946. If you haven’t seen this picture, do so. The film has been in the public domain since the 1970’s.

Let’s go to the beginning. In 1939 Philip Van Doren Stern awoke from a dream that was inspired by Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’. He wrote ‘The Greatest Gift’ and rewrote it and played with the 4100 word story until 1943 without success. He couldn’t find a publisher. So, in frustration, he printed two hundred booklets and sent them out as Christmas cards that year.

Smart move. RKO pictures thought the story would be a perfect vehicle for Cary Grant. The actor thought so as well. They bought the movie rights from Stern for ten thousand dollars. (That would have been five years’ salary for a policeman at the time.) RKO commissioned a screen play. Then another screen play and then a third one. After that they unloaded the entire project on a director named Frank Capra.

Frank Capra was a well known and very capable director. His films before the war had been nominated for forty academy awards and had won eleven. After Pearl Harbor, at the age of forty-four, Capra enlisted as a major in the United States Army.

When the war ended, Capra and two other directors founded Liberty Films. Capra bought the movie rights to ‘The Greatest Gift’ and hired writers to create another screen play. This is the only time he took a writing credit for one of his films. He also renamed the picture to its present title.

Jimmy Stewart was also back from the war. He had worked with Capra before. Jean Arthur was considered for the role of Mary Hatch but had prior commitments so Donna Reed got the part.

Filming began on April 15, 1946, and ended on July 27, 1946. It took exactly ninety days as Capra had predicted.

The film was originally slotted for release in 1947, but RKO’s Christmas release of ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ was delayed by production problems. ‘It’s a Wonderul Life’ was rushed into the theatres to take its place.

That’s where the story of the film turned sour. The critics didn’t like it. The movie was a financial failure. The film didn’t recoup its production costs. Liberty Films was sold to Paramount Pictures in May 1947.


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