“It’s a Wonderful Life” @ 75: Why We Still Watch an Underperforming Movie Made by a Failed Company About a Failed Man

It’s been 75 years since “It’s a Wonderful Life” debuted – a black and white Christmas film starring everyman Jimmy Stewart that opened in December of 1946 to mixed reviews and a poor showing at the box office. 

It would take decades, but the story about a lost soul who discovers on Christmas Eve that his ordinary life is actually quite extraordinary – and a major determining influence on others – eventually aged into a beloved classic, now considered one of the best movies ever made. 

Not only didn’t the movie do well, but Liberty Films, the company behind it, faced bank foreclosure less than a year after it hit the screen and was sold to Paramount Pictures in May of 1947. The brainchild of army veterans Frank Capra, Samuel J. Briskin, William Wyler and George Stevens, the company was unable to cover the cost of the $2.3 million production based in fictional Bedford Falls.

Why we continue to watch and re-watch some films and not others is something of a mystery. If it could be distilled into a formula, every Hollywood producer would use it. As it is, many think they know what it takes – and fail miserably in the process.

Based on Charles Dickens’ book “A Christmas Carol” (1843) and Philip Van Doren’s novella, “The Greatest Gift” (1943), Stewart’s George Bailey character comes to appreciate, and in the nick of time, that his one seemingly ordinary life is actually quite extraordinary – and a major determining influence on many other people both near and far. 

“It’s a Wonderful Life” wasn’t Stewart’s breakout movie. At 38 years of age, the Pennsylvania native had already starred in dozens of films, even winning an Academy Award for Best Actor in “The Philadelphia Story” in 1940. After the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Stewart would forgo acting and enlist in the Army Air Corps. He became a pilot, rose to the rank of colonel and flew 20 combat missions over Germany as a squadron leader of B-24s.

Some might suggest we return to Bedford Falls and “It’s a Wonderful Life” each year to watch the endearing Stewart, a legendary actor whose laconic and stuttering speaking style, coupled with his lanky carriage, endeared him to legions of fans.

But it’s more than good acting – it’s the story, and how one man’s dreams and frustrations collide on a snowy Christmas Eve on a bridge over icy waters.

We resonate 75 years later because we’ve all been there – if not on the bridge, then the obstacles standing in the way of our hopes and dreams. We were all boys or girls once with the prospects of a great life out ahead of us.

But then tragedy or a turn – the boss who is a jerk, the business partner who disappoints, the spouse who lets us down throws us for a loop.  We’re distracted by a mortgage, tuition, braces or an illness that threatens (or does) upend our plans and fog our purpose.

We see ourselves in George Bailey at the bar or on the bridge and we wonder: would anyone really miss us if we were gone? Or even more jarring – have we made any difference? Would the world be the same had we never been born?

My Christian faith answers all of those questions quite efficiently and in a life-affirming way, but in an increasingly secular world, the stock of “It’s a Wonderful Life” rises higher still because it reminds people their lives matter in ways big and small.

Christmas is a wonderful time to remember no man is a failure who has friends – and no failure is ever final. Though times have changed over the course of the last three quarters of a century, our challenges remain more or less the same. No matter what you’re going through, keep going. Don’t throw away your greatest gift. Your life matters.

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