Capra Releases Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, was released to somewhat mixed reviews but later emerged as one of the most enduringly popular films of all time.

Summary of Event

Frank Capra had built a reputation as a top Hollywood director during the 1930’s with such populist films as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), as well as with adaptations of popular novels (including 1937’s Lost Horizon) and Broadway plays (such as 1938’s You Can’t Take It with You). Capra had discontinued the making of feature films for the duration of World War II, however, producing instead for the U.S. War Department an acclaimed series of documentaries collectively entitled Why We Fight. At war’s end, Capra was more than ready to return to commercial filmmaking, albeit on his own terms; together with fellow directors George Stevens and William Wyler, Capra had by early 1946 founded Liberty Films. He had also acquired rights to the material that he would fashion into It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and had chosen Jimmy Stewart to play the film’s lead role. [kw]Capra Releases It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 20, 1946) [kw]It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra Releases (Dec. 20, 1946)[Its a Wonderful Life, Capra Releases] It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra)[Its a Wonderful Life] It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra)[Its a Wonderful Life] [g]North America;Dec. 20, 1946: Capra Releases It’s a Wonderful Life[01930] [g]United States;Dec. 20, 1946: Capra Releases It’s a Wonderful Life[01930] [c]Motion pictures and video;Dec. 20, 1946: Capra Releases It’s a Wonderful Life[01930] Capra, Frank Stewart, Jimmy Reed, Donna Barrymore, Lionel

The film was based on a very short story, “The Greatest Gift,” "Greatest Gift, The" (Van Doren Stern)[Greatest Gift, The] prepared by the writer-publicist Philip Van Doren Stern as a Christmas card to be sent to his friends. By the time Capra bought the rights to the story for ten thousand dollars, “The Greatest Gift” was already secondhand and somewhat shopworn; acquired by Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Pictures at the request of screen star Cary Grant, the story had undergone several attempts at adaptation for the screen by accomplished scenarists and dramatists including Marc Connelly and Clifford Odets.

It is likely that Capra, his presumed optimism somewhat tempered by the experience of war and its aftermath, was less deterred than his predecessors by the curious mixture of life and death, light and darkness encompassed by Van Doren Stern’s tale. In it, George Bailey, an apparently successful businessman, husband, and father, is rescued from a sudden impulse toward suicide by an angelic presence who shows him what the world might be like had he never been born. From the start, Capra envisioned Stewart in the role of George, on the basis of the actor’s range of performance in previous Capra films. The rest of the casting was left more or less to chance, with a number of supporting actors appearing in roles other than those for which Capra originally considered them. Jean Arthur, Capra’s—and apparently Stewart’s—first choice to play George’s wife, Mary, was then committed to another production, so Capra decided to “borrow” the much younger Donna Reed—an inspired if unexpected choice—from the studio that held her contract.

Planned and promoted as a major Hollywood production, It’s a Wonderful Life nevertheless fell somewhat short of the rousing initial success that Capra had predicted for it. With filming completed in July, 1946, editing continued through the fall, and release was projected for the late winter of 1946 or early spring of 1947. No sooner was editing completed, however, than Capra was pressured by his partners and colleagues to release the film in time for Christmas, replacing other productions that had been slow to reach completion. Despite the film’s time-framing device of Christmas Eve and Christmas, Capra had never envisioned It’s a Wonderful Life as a “Christmas film” but rather as the portrayal of one man’s life in context, in all seasons.

Rushed into release, the film was promoted as a “Christmas comedy” to audiences that recalled only the lighter side of Capra’s prewar films. When confronted with the actual film, as much melodrama as comedy, the film’s earliest audiences were thrown somewhat off-balance, uncertain whether to laugh or to cry. It’s a Wonderful Life included a dark, nightmarish vision of small-town America, encompassed in the scenes depicting the extent to which George’s home town would have been ruined without him to guide it. Despite the fact that this was a fantasy sequence—the “reality” in the film was that the town was nearly idyllic through George’s efforts—audiences were not ready for even an imagined, alternative vision of darkness in middle America so soon after the end of World War II and its patriotic propaganda campaigns.

Close analysis of It’s a Wonderful Life reveals the depth and complexity often lurking within films from the heyday of Hollywood. George Bailey’s impulse toward suicide, although immediately triggered by the eight-thousand-dollar shortfall engineered by Potter, is in fact deeply rooted in George’s personal history of self-sacrifice and thwarted dreams. Running parallel to George’s life and often intersecting with it is a credible chronicle of American social history: Born around 1907, a year or so earlier than the actor who played him, George grows to manhood during the Roaring Twenties only to get sidetracked from his dreams by the Great Depression and its aftermath. Others, such as George’s younger brother Harry (whom George rescues from drowning after a daredevil trick on thin ice in 1919) and their friend Sam Wainwright, grow rich or famous, leaving George behind in Bedford Falls to tend the home fires or hold the bag, as need be. Disqualified from military service during World War II by a hearing impairment he had suffered when he rescued Harry, George fights “the battle of Bedford Falls” as an air-raid warden, once again denied the chance to leave the town and test his “wings.”

Two images predominate throughout the film: those of George’s “bad ear,” into which good news is always whispered, and of wings, both those on Harry’s plane and those sought by the second-class angel Clarence Odbody when he plunges into the river, confident that George will dive in to save him as he did Harry. Complementary to the images of hearing and flight is that of George “lassoing the moon” to court and please Mary; like the moon, George’s life has both a bright and a dark side. Conceivably, it was the dark side of George’s life, and nature, that helped keep at bay postwar audiences that sought only to be entertained; conversely, the same dark side has ensured the film’s longevity. Perhaps without knowing quite why, the audience that discovered It’s a Wonderful Life through the medium of television identified with George Bailey’s death wish.

Viewed in retrospect, George Bailey’s recovery is truly ambiguous; even as he recovers from his sudden urge toward suicide, George is “recovered,” taken back and covered over, by the same small-town society that had pushed him toward the bridge—and the brink. At the same time, the interlude with Clarence has caused him to discover, as if for the first time, the small wonders of participation in life, of give and take. Potter, George’s perennial antagonist and possibly his mirror image, his dark side, remains invulnerable to such recovery, having never learned to give.

Significantly, Bedford Falls without George’s birth, interaction, and intervention has become “Pottersville,” a town of honky-tonks and cheap thrills totally controlled by Potter, who knows how to release—and to profit from—those same human instincts that he has long suppressed in himself. The film’s nightmare sequence, in which the anonymous George roams Pottersville with Clarence at his side, might well have served, visually and conceptually, as a model for some of the soon-to-be-produced crime movies that would become known as film noir.

Superstitious observers might well have found a negative omen in the fact that commercial printing of the film began on Friday, December 13, 1946, one week to the day before the first prints were shown before audiences in selected markets such as New York City. In New York and other parts of the northeastern United States, a record snowfall kept many potential viewers at home; those few brave souls who did venture out to see the new film could hardly have been impressed with the new technique, developed at Capra’s request, for simulating snow and ice on film. Although It’s a Wonderful Life won none of the Academy Awards for which it was nominated during 1947, members of Capra’s “snow team” would in fact win a special-effects Oscar for 1948.

Nationwide, the general release of It’s a Wonderful Life proceeded on schedule late in January, 1947, and was followed by a promotional visit by Capra and Stewart to the “representative” American town of Beaumont, Texas, shortly before the Academy Awards ceremony in which the film failed to garner any honors. Not long thereafter, It’s a Wonderful Life was released in Great Britian to decidedly negative reviews, whereupon Capra began to lose faith in the film of which he had expected so much. Despite decent performance at the box office, more than returning the initial investment of three million dollars, the film tended to be dismissed as a relative failure both by Capra and by the film establishment at large. It was soon made available for late showing on the new medium of television Television;motion picture broadcasts , where it would proceed to reach a new, unforeseen, and largely invisible audience, particularly during the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As Capra would later recall, it was the television audience, unforeseen at the time of the film’s release, that would keep It’s a Wonderful Life “alive” throughout the succeeding decades, generating from the 1950’s onward a steady flow of correspondence that Capra took pains to answer personally. Spectators would ask, for example, where Capra had found the footage depicting Harry Bailey’s combat experience, or why the dastardly H. C. Potter, portrayed by Lionel Barrymore in a most memorable performance, remains apparently unpunished for the theft of eight thousand dollars. By the early 1970’s, the film had acquired a life of its own, sustained largely by word of mouth.

Nevertheless, most of the film’s lasting values remained locked in spectators’ minds until some time after 1974, when no one in charge bothered to renew the commercial copyright of It’s a Wonderful Life at the end of twenty-eight years. The film then passed into the public domain, available free of charge to television and other video markets. Before long, It’s a Wonderful Life was appearing at all hours of the day and night on public and private television throughout the Christmas season, attracting audiences unborn at the time of its release and emerging as a Christmas classic.


During the early years of its rediscovery in the mid-1970’s, It’s a Wonderful Life was seen primarily as an inspirational, sentimental Christmas film, having accumulated with age the value of nostalgia for a lost small-town America which, like that of the illustrator Norman Rockwell, might never have existed at all. Sentiment alone, however, could hardly account for the film’s continuing hold upon its viewers.

In the meantime, intertextual references to It’s a Wonderful Life had begun to surface throughout American popular and middlebrow culture, from the mention of “plastics” as the way to success in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967) (an echo of the words and deeds of George Bailey’s friend Sam Wainwright) to the naming of the most popular Muppets on the children’s television show Sesame Street: In the film, Bert and Ernie, respectively played by Ward Bond and Frank Faylen, are the police officer and cabdriver who grow up with George Bailey and who almost witness his suicide. By the middle 1980’s, at least one novel had been published featuring the film’s characters in later life, and professional critics had begun to examine the film in depth, seeking the source of its perennial appeal even to those who “ought to know better.”

Toward the end of Capra’s long life, critics began a serious assessment of his contribution to the vocabulary and history of film, finding in his work a progression and coherence equal, if not superior, to those of many European filmmakers already immortalized for their art. For a number of critics, It’s a Wonderful Life emerged, despite its popular appeal, as Capra’s most complex and aesthetically sophisticated film, completing the cinematic statement begun with his originally better-known films of the 1930’s. Ironically, the limited initial success of It’s a Wonderful Life led not only to the eventual buyout of Liberty Films but also to a scaling-down of Capra’s filmmaking ambitions. With the possible exception of State of the Union (1948), he would produce no truly significant films during the years to follow. Capra would, however, live to the ripe age of ninety-four, long enough to appreciate the recognition of his work in general and of It’s a Wonderful Life in particular. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra)[Its a Wonderful Life]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Basinger, Jeanine. The “It’s a Wonderful Life” Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. Includes full texts of the final shooting script and the Van Doren Stern short story, together with interviews with Jimmy Stewart and cinematographer Joseph Biroc by film critic Leonard Maltin. Basinger’s long, illustrated introductory essay, entitled “The Many Lives of It’s a Wonderful Life,” is informative, balanced, and perceptive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. Capra’s autobiography, well written if anecdotal, with useful information on It’s a Wonderful Life. Perceived errors of fact are discussed in the introductory essay to Basinger’s book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carney, Raymond. American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Carney’s exhaustive scholarly analysis seeks to situate Capra’s films within the context of American art and literature from the nineteenth century onward. Carney, well versed in structuralist, poststructuralist, and psychoanalytical theory, reveals codes and structures in It’s a Wonderful Life that show it to be the most complete expression of Capra’s developing vision.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glatzer, Richard, and John Raeburn, eds. Frank Capra: The Man and His Films. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975. Deceptively titled, Glatzer and Raeburn’s volume is little more than a compendium of reviews interspersed with occasional essays. Useful for reconstructing Capra’s checkered career; well illustrated with stills from major films, including It’s a Wonderful Life. Includes negative review by noted author James Agee.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poague, Leland. The Cinema of Frank Capra. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1975. Historical in aim and scope, Poague’s study traces Capra’s career from his earliest work in films. Includes one of the first full-scale analyses of It’s Wonderful Life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sklar, Robert, and Vito Zagarrio, eds. Frank Capra: Authorship and the Studio System. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. Compilation of essays analyzing Capra’s career as film maker and his relationship to the Hollywood studio system. Bibliographic references, index, and filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smoodin, Eric. Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies, 1930-1960. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. Traces the evolution of Capra’s reception by various audiences in order to discuss changes within the American film studies establishment. Bibliographic references and index.

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Categories: History