Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life celebrated its 70th birthday on December 20, 2016.
Sure, there are better-made films. And, yes, there are far more influential ones. It’s a Wonderful Life’s status as an American classic is owed largely to a quirk of paperwork — after National Telefilm Associates, which owned the film after a long, convoluted chain of corporate sales, failed to renew its copyright in 1974, the movie fell into the public domain. Local TV stations found it to be a good way to paper over the long winter afternoons of December, their viewers discovered how good it is, and it became the classic it is today.
But if you were to tell Capra back in the late ’40s that his film would go on to become a perennial favorite, he might have scoffed at you. Upon release, It’s a Wonderful Life was greeted with weak box office earnings and reviews. Though the film was nominated for a handful of Oscars (thanks mainly to Capra’s prestige within the industry at the time), it lost to William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives.
Weirdly, It’s a Wonderful Life seems to be slipping back into the mists of time. It’ll never be as forgotten as it was before that paperwork mishap, of course, but in recent years it’s been replaced in popular discourse by a new series of Christmas movies, like A Christmas Story and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Now that NBC owns the exclusive rights to broadcast the film, it’s less ubiquitous, just another annual tradition.
It would be too bad if the film lost its cachet, though. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the best films America has ever made about itself, and that’s why it is loved so much:
it belongs to a very specific subgenre of popular American art
the film is a not-so-subtle argument for New Deal values
It’s a Wonderful Life is a message in a bottle
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IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE | DEC 06-21