By Thomas Myler
It has been called the ultimate Christmas movie and few if anybody can argue with that. Released on December 20th 1946, It’s A Wonderful Life has stood the test of time over 70 years on.
Scan your Christmas TV listings and the chances are that it is included. Indeed, few films define Christmas like Frank Capra’s fantasy which starred James Stewart as a despondent small-town citizen in Bedford Falls named George Bailey.
George is an all-round nice guy who has given up his dreams to help others before finding himself at the end of his tether, morally and financially. Thinking he has failed, there seems nothing left but suicide.
As he stands on the bridge and prepares to jump into the fast-flowing river on Christmas Eve, he meets his guardian angel Clarence Odbody.
A pixie-like fellow of sly humour played to the hilt by veteran character actor Henry Travers, Clarence gently and sympathetically shows George the true importance of his life. He points out how really worthwhile George’s life has been and that it would be crazy to end it all on a whim.
He has done wonderful work for the community, which would have been much different had George not been born. There were good things ahead so he has to shake off his despondency and pull himself together. There is no other way.
Unlike many other movies, It’s A Wonderful Life was not based on a book or a play or a real-life occurence. It was based on a few words written by Philip Van Doren Stern on a Christmas card in November 1939 and sent out to friends.
There was such a warm response from the simple message of good cheer that they encouraged Stern to expand it into a 24-page booklet which he mailed to 200 family members for the following Christmas. From there it became a short story and was taken up by a publisher. It was called The Greatest Gift and was an immediate success.
Someone showed it to an executive at RKO Radio Pictures and who, in turn, passed it on to Cary Grant’s agent. He liked the idea and encouraged the studio to buy the rights for $10,000 with the aim of developing it into a movie.
RKO chief executive Charles Koerner planned to star Grant in the film but the actor decided instead to accepted an offer to make The Bishop’s Wife, another Christmas movie. Independent director Frank Capra then got hold of the story, saw its potential and the rest is history.
Capra got together with two screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and enticed James Stewart to star. The result that the movie became one of the most beloved in cinema history and is now a staple of Christmas television around the world.