It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Frank Capra
Produced by Frank Capra
Screenplay by
Based on "The Greatest Gift"
by Philip Van Doren Stern
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Edited by William Hornbeck
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures1
Release dates
  • December 20, 1946 (1946-12-20) (USA)
Running time
130 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3.18 million[N 1]
Box office $3.3 million (US rentals)[2][3]

It's a Wonderful Life is a 1946 American Christmas fantasy drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra, based on the short story "The Greatest Gift", which Philip Van Doren Stern wrote in 1939 and published privately in 1945.[4] The film is now among the most popular in American cinema and because of numerous television showings in the 1980s has become traditional viewing during the Christmas season.

The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be had he never been born.

Despite initially performing poorly financially because of high production costs and stiff competition at the time of its release, the film has come to be regarded as a classic.[5][6] Theatrically, the film's break-even point was $6.3 million, approximately twice the production cost, a figure it never came close to achieving in its initial release. An appraisal in 2006 reported: "Although it was not the complete box office failure that today everyone believes ... it was initially a major disappointment and confirmed, at least to the studios, that Capra was no longer capable of turning out the populist features that made his films the must-see, money-making events they once were."[7]

It's a Wonderful Life is one of the most acclaimed films ever made, praised particularly for its writing. It was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made,[4] placing number 11 on its initial 1998 greatest movie list, and number one on AFI's list of the most inspirational American films of all time.[8] Capra revealed that the film was his personal favorite among those he directed, adding that he screened it for his family every Christmas season.[9]


Donna Reed as Mary Bailey and James Stewart as George Bailey

On Christmas Eve 1945, in Bedford Falls, George Bailey is suicidal. Prayers for him reach Heaven, where Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to save George in order to earn his angel wings. To prepare, Clarence is shown flashbacks of George's life. The first is in 1919, when 12-year-old George saves his younger brother Harry, who falls through the ice on a frozen pond, from drowning; George loses his hearing in one ear as a result. While working after school at the local drug store, George sees that his employer, Mr. Gower, distraught over his son's death, has accidentally added poison to a prescription drug, and intervenes to stop it from causing harm.

On Harry's graduation night in 1928, George talks to Mary Hatch, who has had a crush on him from an early age. They are interrupted by news of his father's death. George postpones his travel plans in order to sort out the family business, Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan, a longtime competitor to Henry F. Potter, the local banker and the richest man in town. Potter wishes to dissolve the Building and Loan to take over its business. George convinces the board of directors to vote against Potter. They agree, on condition that George runs the business, along with his absent-minded uncle Billy. George and Mary get married. On their way to their honeymoon, they witness a run on the bank and use their honeymoon savings to lend financial support at the Building and Loan until the bank reopens.

Over time George establishes Bailey Park, a housing development with small houses financed by loans from Bailey Building and Loan, which allows people to own their own homes rather than pay rent to live in Potter's overpriced slums. Potter, frustrated at losing control of the housing market, attempts to lure George into becoming his assistant; George is momentarily tempted, but rejects the offer.

During World War II, George is ineligible for service because of his bad ear. Harry becomes a Navy pilot and shoots down a kamikaze plane that would have bombed an amphibious transport; he is awarded the Medal of Honor. On Christmas Eve morning 1945, the town prepares a hero's welcome for Harry. Uncle Billy goes to Potter's bank to deposit $8,000 for the Building and Loan. He brags to Potter about Harry; the banker angrily grabs the newspaper, inside of which is the $8,000 — unbeknownst to Uncle Billy. Realizing the potential scandal would lead to the Building and Loan's downfall, Potter secretly hides the money, knowing its loss will lead to severe financial problems for the Building and Loan. When Uncle Billy cannot find the money, he and George frantically search for it. When the bank examiner arrives to review their records, George berates his uncle for endangering the Building and Loan, goes home and takes out his frustration on his family. He apologizes to his wife and children, then leaves.

George with his guardian angel Clarence

George desperately appeals to Potter for a loan. When George offers his life insurance policy as collateral, Potter says George is worth more dead than alive and phones the police to have him arrested. George gets drunk at a local bar and is involved in a fight, before he leaves and goes to a nearby bridge, thinking of suicide. The film's narrative catches up to the time of the opening scene. Before he can jump, Clarence dives into the river just before George does, causing George to rescue Clarence rather than killing himself. George does not believe Clarence's subsequent claim to be his guardian angel.

When George says he wishes he had never been born, Clarence decides to grant his wish and show George an alternate timeline in which he never existed. Bedford Falls is named Pottersville and is a less congenial place. Mr. Gower has recently been released from prison for manslaughter, because George was not there to stop him from putting poison in the pills. The Building and Loan has closed down, as George never took over after Mr. Bailey's passing.

George's mother does not recognize him; she reveals that Uncle Billy was institutionalized after the collapse of the Building and Loan. In the cemetery where Bailey Park would have been, George discovers the grave of his brother. Clarence tells him all the soldiers on the transport died, as Harry was never there to save them, because George had never saved Harry from drowning. Mary never married; when George says he is her husband, she screams for the police, causing George to flee and the local policeman to give chase.

George, now convinced that Clarence is really his guardian angel, runs back to the bridge and begs for his life back; the alternate timeline changes back to the original reality. George runs home to await his arrest. Mary and Uncle Billy arrive, having rallied the townspeople, who donate more than enough to cover the missing $8,000 and for Potter's warrant to be torn up. Harry arrives and toasts George. A bell on the Christmas tree rings, and his daughter recalls a story that says the sound means that an angel has just earned his wings, signifying Clarence's promotion.


George Bailey (James Stewart), Mary Bailey (Donna Reed), and their youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes)



Director Frank Capra

The original story "The Greatest Gift" was written by Philip Van Doren Stern in November 1939. After being unsuccessful in getting the story published, he decided to make it into a Christmas card, and mailed 200 copies to family and friends in December 1943.[10][N 2] The story came to the attention of RKO producer David Hempstead, who showed it to Cary Grant's Hollywood agent, and in April 1944, RKO Pictures bought the rights to the story for $10,000, hoping to turn the story into a vehicle for Grant.[12] RKO created three unsatisfactory scripts before shelving the planned movie, and Grant went on to make another Christmas movie staple, The Bishop's Wife.[N 3][14]

At the suggestion of RKO studio chief Charles Koerner, Frank Capra read "The Greatest Gift" and immediately saw its potential. RKO, anxious to unload the project, in 1945 sold the rights to Capra's production company, Liberty Films, which had a nine-film distribution agreement with RKO, for $10,000,[N 4] and threw in the three scripts for free.[10] Capra, along with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker brought in to "polish" the script,[16] turned the story and what was worth using from the three scripts into a screenplay that Capra would rename It's a Wonderful Life.[10] The script underwent many revisions throughout pre-production and during filming.[17] Final screenplay credit went to Goodrich, Hackett and Capra, with "additional scenes" by Jo Swerling.

Seneca Falls, New York claims that when Frank Capra visited their town in 1945, he was inspired to model Bedford Falls after it. The town has an annual It's a Wonderful Life festival in December.[18] In mid-2009, The Hotel Clarence opened in Seneca Falls, named for George Bailey's guardian angel. On December 10, 2010, the "It's a Wonderful Life" Museum opened in Seneca Falls, with Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the movie, cutting the ribbon.[19]

Both James Stewart (from Indiana, Pennsylvania) and Donna Reed (from Denison, Iowa) came from small towns. Stewart's father ran a small hardware store where James worked for years. Reed demonstrated her rural roots by winning an impromptu bet with Lionel Barrymore when he challenged her to milk a cow on set.[20]


The contention that James Stewart is often referred to as Capra's only choice to play George Bailey is disputed by film historian Stephen Cox, who claims that "Henry Fonda was in the running."[21][22]

Although it was stated that Jean Arthur, Ann Dvorak, and Ginger Rogers were all considered for the role of Mary before Donna Reed won the part, this list is also disputed by Cox, who states that Jean Arthur was first offered the part, but had to turn it down for a prior commitment to star in the Broadway play Born Yesterday, before Capra turned to Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott, Laraine Day, and Dvorak. Rogers was offered the female lead, but she considered it "too bland". In chapter 26 of her autobiography, Ginger: My Story, she questioned her decision by asking her readers: "Foolish, you say?"

A long list of actors were considered for the role of Potter (originally named Herbert Potter): Edward Arnold, Charles Bickford, Edgar Buchanan, Louis Calhern, Victor Jory, Raymond Massey, Vincent Price, and even Thomas Mitchell.[22] However, Lionel Barrymore, who eventually won the role, was a famous Ebenezer Scrooge in radio dramatizations of A Christmas Carol at the time and was a natural choice for the role. Barrymore had also worked with Capra on his 1938 Best Picture Oscar winner, You Can't Take It with You.

H.B. Warner, who was cast as the drugstore owner Mr. Gower, actually studied medicine before going into acting. He was also in some of Capra's other films, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can't Take It with You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.[23] The name Gower came from Capra's employer, Columbia Pictures, which had been located on Gower Street for many years. Also on Gower Street was a drugstore that was a favorite for the studio's employees.[24] James Stewart says in the film that he wants to build skyscrapers; he had studied and graduated in architecture before his acting career.

Jimmy the raven (Uncle Billy's pet) appeared in You Can't Take It with You and each subsequent Capra film.[21][25]


Capra produced the film with his independent but ephemeral motion picture production company Liberty Films.

It's a Wonderful Life was shot at RKO Radio Pictures Studio in Culver City, California, and the 89-acre RKO movie ranch in Encino,[26] where "Bedford Falls" consisted of Art Director Max Ree's Oscar-winning sets originally designed for the 1931 epic film Cimarron that covered 4 acres (1.6 ha), assembled from three separate parts, with a main street stretching 300 yards (three city blocks), with 75 stores and buildings, and a residential neighborhood.[27] For It's a Wonderful Life Capra built a working bank set, added a tree-lined center parkway, and planted 20 full-grown oak trees on existing sets.[28]

Pigeons, cats, and dogs were allowed to roam the mammoth set in order to give the "town" a lived-in feel.[25] Due to the requirement to film in an "alternate universe" setting as well as during different seasons, the set was extremely adaptable. RKO created "chemical snow" for the film in order to avoid the need for dubbed dialogue when actors walked across the earlier type of movie snow, made up of crushed cornflakes.[29] Filming started on April 15, 1946 and ended on July 27, 1946, exactly on deadline for the 90-day principal photography schedule.[13]

RKO's movie ranch in Encino, a filming location of "Bedford Falls", was razed in 1954.[N 5] There are only two surviving locations from the film. The first is the swimming pool that was unveiled during the famous dance scene where George courts Mary. It is located in the gymnasium at Beverly Hills High School and is still in operation as of 2014. The second is the "Martini home", in La Cañada Flintridge, California.[31]

During filming, in the scene where Uncle Billy gets drunk at Harry and Ruth's welcome home/newlyweds' party, George points him in the right direction home. As the camera focuses on George, smiling at his uncle staggering away, a crash is heard in the distance and Uncle Billy yells, "I'm all right! I'm all right!" Equipment on the set had actually been accidentally knocked over; Capra left in Thomas Mitchell's impromptu ad lib (although the "crashing" noise was augmented with added sound effects).

Dimitri Tiomkin had written "Death Telegram" and "Gower's Deliverance" for the drugstore scenes, but in the editing room, Capra elected to go with no music for those scenes. Those changes, along with others, led to a falling out between Tiomkin and Capra. Tiomkin had worked on several of Capra's previous films, and was saddened that Capra decided to have the music pared or toned down, moved, or cut entirely. He felt as though his work was being seen as a mere suggestion. In his autobiography Please Don't Hate Me, he said of the incident, "an all around scissors job".[32]

Young George (Bobby Anderson) with Mary and Violet in Mr. Gower's drugstore

The products and advertisements featured in Mr. Gower's drugstore include Coca-Cola, Peterson tobacco pipes, La Unica cigars, Camel cigarettes, Lucky Strike cigarettes, Chesterfield cigarettes, Sweet Caporal cigarettes (with a sign that says "Ask Dad, he knows", which plays a role in the plot), Vaseline hair tonic, Penetro cough syrup, Pepto-Bismol, Bayer Aspirin ("for colds and influenza"), and The Saturday Evening Post.[33]

In an earlier draft of the script, the scene where George saves his brother Harry as a child was different. The scene had the boys playing ice hockey on the river (which is on Potter's property) as Potter watches with disdain. George shoots the puck, but it goes astray and breaks the "No Trespassing" sign and lands in Potter's yard. Potter becomes irate, and the gardener releases the attack dogs, which causes the boys to flee. Harry falls through the ice, and George saves him with the same results.[34] In the alternate scenario, Clarence erred by saying that Harry drowned at the age of nine, whereas Harry's grave was marked 1911–1919, indicating Harry's age at death as only seven or eight, depending on his birth and death dates.

Another scene that was in an earlier version of the script had young George visiting his father at his work. After George tells off Mr. Potter and closes the door, he considers asking Uncle Billy about his drugstore dilemma. Billy is talking on the phone to the bank examiner, and lights his cigar and throws his match in the wastebasket. This scene explains that Tilly (short for Matilda) and Eustace are both his cousins (not Billy's kids, though), and Tilly is on the phone with her friend Martha and says, "Potter's here, the bank examiner's coming. It's a day of judgment." As George is about to interrupt Tilly on the phone, Billy cries for help and Tilly runs in and puts the fire out with a pot of coffee. George decides he is probably better off dealing with the situation by himself.[32]

Capra had filmed a number of sequences that were subsequently cut, the only remnants remaining being rare stills that have been unearthed.[35] A number of alternative endings were considered, with Capra's first script having Bailey falling to his knees reciting "The Lord's Prayer" (the script also called for an opening scene with the townspeople in prayer). Feeling that an overtly religious tone did not have the emotional impact of the family and friends rushing to rescue George Bailey, the closing scenes were rewritten.[36][37][38]


George and Mary dancing at the Bedford Falls High graduation party, unaware that the gymnasium's floor covering the swimming pool is slowly opening behind them

It's a Wonderful Life premiered at the Globe Theatre in New York on December 20, 1946, to mixed reviews.[13] While Capra considered the contemporary critical reviews to be either universally negative or at best dismissive,[39] Time said, "It's a Wonderful Life is a pretty wonderful movie. It has only one formidable rival (Goldwyn's The Best Years of Our Lives) as Hollywood's best picture of the year. Director Capra's inventiveness, humor and affection for human beings keep it glowing with life and excitement."[40] Variety also praised the film, writing: "Capra brought back to 'Life' all his oldtime craft, delicate devotion to detail and character delineation as well as his sure-footed feeling for true dramatic impact, as well as his deft method of leavening humor into right spots at right times. He again proves he can fashion what ordinarily would be homilizing hokum into gleaming, engaging entertainment for all brows—high, low or beetle."[41]

Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, complimented some of the actors, including Stewart and Reed, but concluded that "the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer's point of view, is the sentimentality of it—its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra's nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities."[42] John McCarten of The New Yorker panned the film along the same grounds, calling it "chock-full of whimsey, and in his discretion Mr. Capra has seen to it that almost all the actors involved behave as cutely as pixies ... Every now and then, James Stewart, who heads the cast, manages to escape from the sticky confines of the script with a bit of honest acting, but he breaks loose too seldom to pull the picture out of its doldrums."[43]

The film, which went into general release on January 7, 1947, placed 26th ($3.3 million) in box office revenues for 1947[2] (out of more than 400 features released),[44] one place ahead of another Christmas film, Miracle on 34th Street. The film was supposed to be released in January 1947, but was moved up to December 1946 to make it eligible for the 1946 Academy Awards. This move was seen as worse for the film, as 1947 did not have quite the stiff competition as 1946. If it had entered the 1947 Awards, its biggest competition would have been Miracle on 34th Street. The number one grossing movie of 1947, The Best Years of Our Lives, made $11.5 million.[2]

The film recorded a loss of $525,000 at the box office for RKO.[45]

On May 26, 1947, the FBI issued a memo stating "With regard to the picture 'It's a Wonderful Life', [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists. [In] addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters."[46][47]

The film's elevation to the status of a beloved classic came decades after its initial release, when it became a television staple during Christmas season in the late 1970s. This came as a welcome surprise to Frank Capra and others involved with its production. "It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen," Capra told The Wall Street Journal in 1984. "The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I'm proud ... but it's the kid who did the work. I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."[48] In a 1946 interview, Capra described the film's theme as "the individual's belief in himself" and that he made it "to combat a modern trend toward atheism".[48] In an interview with Michael Parkinson in 1973, James Stewart declared that out of all the movies he had made, It's a Wonderful Life was his favorite.[49]

Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) was placed in AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains as No. 6 of villains, while George Bailey was voted No. 9 of heroes.

Somewhat more iconoclastic views of the film and its content are occasionally expressed. Wendell Jamieson, in a 2008 essay for The New York Times which was generally positive in its analysis of the film, interpreted it as "a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife."[50]

In a 2010 Salon piece, Richard Cohen described It's a Wonderful Life as "the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made". In the "Pottersville" sequence, he wrote, George is not "seeing the world that would exist had he never been born", but rather "the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own."[51] Nine years earlier, another Salon writer, Gary Kamiya, had expressed the opposing view that "Pottersville rocks!", adding, "The gauzy, Currier-and-Ives veil Capra drapes over Bedford Falls has prevented viewers from grasping what a tiresome and, frankly, toxic environment it is... We all live in Pottersville now."[52]

George and Mary at "the old Granville house" that one day will be their home

In 1990, It's a Wonderful Life was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry.

In 2002, Britain's Channel 4 ranked It's a Wonderful Life as the seventh greatest film ever made in its poll "The 100 Greatest Films" and in 2006, the film reached No. 37 in the same channel's "100 Greatest Family Films".

In June 2008, AFI revealed its 10 Top 10, the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres, after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. It's a Wonderful Life was acknowledged as the third-best film in the fantasy genre.[53][54]

The film's popularity continues, and it currently holds 94% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.


In a 1997 review, film historian James Berardinelli commented on the parallels between this film and the classic Charles Dickens tale A Christmas Carol. In both stories, a man revisits his life and potential death (or non-existence) with the help of supernatural agents, culminating in a joyous epiphany and a renewed view of his life.[55]

Awards and honors

Prior to the Los Angeles release of It's a Wonderful Life, Liberty Films mounted an extensive promotional campaign that included a daily advertisement highlighting one of the film's players, along with comments from reviewers. Jimmy Starr wrote, "If I were an Oscar, I'd elope with It's a Wonderful Life lock, stock and barrel on the night of the Academy Awards". The New York Daily Times offered an editorial in which it declared the film and James Stewart's performance to be worthy of Academy Award consideration.[56]

It's a Wonderful Life received six Academy Award nominations:[57]

Category Result Nominee / winner
Best Picture Nominated Frank Capra | Winner: Samuel GoldwynThe Best Years of Our Lives
Best Director Nominated Frank Capra | Winner: William WylerThe Best Years of Our Lives
Best Actor Nominated James Stewart | Winner: Fredric MarchThe Best Years of Our Lives
Best Film Editing Nominated William Hornbeck | Winner: Daniel MandellThe Best Years of Our Lives
Best Sound Recording Nominated John Aalberg | Winner: John P. LivadaryThe Jolson Story
Technical Achievement Award Won Russell Shearman and RKO Radio Studio Special Effects Dept. for the development of a new method of simulating falling snow on motion picture sets

The Academy Award win in the Technical Achievement category was for developing a new method of creating artificial snow.[58] Before this, fake movie snow was mostly made from cornflakes painted white. And it was so loud when stepped on that any snow filled scenes with dialogue had to be re-dubbed afterwards. RKO studio's head of special effects, Russell Sherman, developed a new compound, utilizing water, soap flakes, foamite and sugar.[59]

The Best Years of Our Lives, a drama about servicemen attempting to return to their pre-World War II lives, won most of the awards that year, including four of the six for which It's a Wonderful Life was nominated. (The award for "Best Sound Recording" was won by The Jolson Story.) The Best Years of Our Lives was also an outstanding commercial success, ultimately becoming the highest-grossing film of the decade, in contrast to the more modest initial box office returns of It's a Wonderful Life.[60]

Frank Capra received a Golden Globe Award for Best Director and a "CEC Award" from the Cinema Writers Circle in Spain, for Mejor Película Extranjera (Best Foreign Film). Jimmy Hawkins won a "Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Young Artist Awards in 1994; the award recognized his role as Tommy Bailey as igniting his career, which lasted until the mid-1960s.[61]

American Film Institute lists:


Ownership and copyright issues

Ancillary rights

George with Mary in It's a Wonderful Life

Liberty Films was purchased by Paramount Pictures, and remained a subsidiary until 1951. In 1955, M. & A. Alexander purchased the movie. This included key rights to the original television syndication, the original nitrate film elements, the music score, and the film rights to the story on which the film is based, "The Greatest Gift".[N 6] National Telefilm Associates (NTA) took over the rights to the film soon thereafter.

A clerical error at NTA prevented the copyright from being renewed properly in 1974.[63][64] Despite the lapsed copyright, television stations that aired the film (after 1993) were still required to pay royalties. Although the film's images had entered the public domain, the film's story was still protected by virtue of it being a derivative work of the published story "The Greatest Gift", whose copyright was properly renewed by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1971.[65][66][N 7] The film became a perennial holiday favorite in the 1980s, possibly due to its repeated showings each holiday season on hundreds of local television stations. It was mentioned during the deliberations on the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.[65][67]

In 1993, Republic Pictures, which was the successor to NTA, relied on the 1990 US Supreme Court ruling in Stewart v. Abend (which involved another Stewart film, Rear Window) to enforce its claim to the copyright. While the film's copyright had not been renewed, Republic still owned the film rights to "The Greatest Gift"; thus the plaintiffs were able to argue its status as a derivative work of a work still under copyright.[65][68] NBC is licensed to show the film on US network television, and traditionally shows it twice during the holidays, with one showing on Christmas Eve. Paramount (via parent company Viacom's 1998 acquisition of Republic's then-parent, Spelling Entertainment) once again has distribution rights for the first time since 1955.[65][69]

Due to all the above actions, this is one of the few RKO films not controlled by Turner Entertainment/Warner Bros. in the US. It is also one of two Capra films which Paramount owns despite not having originally released it—the other is Broadway Bill (originally from Columbia, remade by Paramount as Riding High in 1950).[65]


Director Capra met with Wilson Markle about having Colorization, Inc., colorize It's a Wonderful Life based on an enthusiastic response to the colorization of Topper from actor Cary Grant.[70] The company's art director Brian Holmes prepared 10 minutes of colorized footage from It's a Wonderful Life for Capra to view, which resulted in Capra signing a contract with Colorization, Inc., and his "enthusiastic agree[ment] to pay half the $260,000 cost of colorizing the movie and to share any profits" and giving "preliminary approval to making similar color versions of two of his other black-and-white films, Meet John Doe (1941) and Lady for a Day (1933)".[70] However, the film was believed to be in the public domain at the time, and as a result Markle and Holmes responded by returning Capra's initial investment, eliminating his financial participation, and refusing outright to allow the director to exercise artistic control over the colorization of his films, leading Capra to join in the campaign against the process.[70]

Three colorized versions have been produced. The first was released by Hal Roach Studios in 1986. The second was authorized and produced by the film's permanent owner, Republic Pictures, in 1989. Both Capra and Stewart took a critical stand on the colorized editions.[71] The Hal Roach color version was re-released in 1989 to VHS through the cooperation of Video Treasures. A third colorized version was produced by Legend Films and released on DVD in 2007 with the approval of Capra's estate.

Home media

VHS and LaserDisc

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when the film was still under public domain status, It's a Wonderful Life was released on VHS by a variety of home video companies. Among the companies that released the film on home video before Republic Pictures stepped in were Meda Video (which would later become Media Home Entertainment), Kartes Video Communications (under its Video Film Classics label), GoodTimes Home Video and Video Treasures (now Anchor Bay Entertainment). The film was also issued on LaserDisc by The Criterion Collection.

After Republic reclaimed the rights to the film, all unofficial VHS copies of the film in print were destroyed.[68] Artisan Entertainment (under license from Republic) took over home video rights in the mid-1990s. Artisan was later sold to Lions Gate Entertainment, which continued to hold US home video rights until late 2005 when they reverted to Paramount, who also owns video rights throughout Region 4 (Latin America and Australia) and in France. Video rights in the rest of the world are held by different companies; for example, the UK rights are with Universal Studios.

Technological first: CD-ROM

In 1993, due in part to the confusion of the ownership and copyright issues, Kinesoft Development, with the support of Republic Pictures, released It's a Wonderful Life as one of the first commercial feature-length films on CD-ROM for the Windows PC (Windows 3.1). Predating commercial DVDs by several years, it included such features as the ability to follow along with the complete shooting script as the film was playing.[72] [N 8]

Given the state of video playback on the PC at the time of its release, It's a Wonderful Life for Windows represented another first, as the longest running video on a computer. Prior to its release, Windows could only play back approx. 32,000 frames of video, or about 35 minutes at 15 frames per second. Working with Microsoft, Kinesoft was able to enhance the video features of Windows to allow for the complete playback of the entire film — all of this on a PC with a 486SX processor and only 8 MB of RAM.[73]

DVD and Blu-ray Disc

Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu Bailey

The film has seen multiple releases in the DVD format. In the autumn of 2001, Republic issued the movie twice, once in August, and again with different packaging in September of that same year. On October 31, 2006, Paramount Home Media Distribution released a newly restored "60th Anniversary Edition", while also pairing this holiday film with White Christmas as part of the "Classic Christmas Collection" two-disc set released on that same day. Paramount released a two-disc "special edition" DVD of the film that contained both the original theatrical black-and-white version, and a new, third colorized version, produced by Legend Films using the latest colorization technology on November 13, 2007. This was followed by a DVD version with a "Collector's Edition Ornament", and a Blu-ray Disc edition on November 3, 2009.

Adaptations in other media

The film was thrice adapted for radio in 1947, first on Lux Radio Theater (March 10) and then on The Screen Guild Theater (December 29), then again on the Screen Guild Theater broadcast of March 15, 1951. James Stewart and Donna Reed reprised their roles for all three radio productions. Stewart also starred in the May 8, 1949 radio adaptation presented on the Screen Director's Playhouse.

A musical stage adaptation of the film, titled A Wonderful Life, was written by Sheldon Harnick and Joe Raposo. This version was first performed at the University of Michigan in 1986, but a planned professional production was stalled by legal wrangling with the estate of Philip Van Doren Stern. It was eventually performed in Washington, D.C. by Arena Stage in 1991, and had revivals in the 21st century, including a staged concert version in New York City in 2005 and several productions by regional theatres.

Another musical stage adaptation of the film, titled It's a Wonderful Life – The Musical, was written by Bruce Greer and Keith Ferguson. This version premiered at the Majestic Theatre, Dallas, Texas in 1998. It was an annual Christmas show at the theatre for five years. It has since been performed at venues all around the United States.[74]

The film was also adapted into a play in two acts by James W. Rodgers. It was first performed on December 15, 1993 at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. The play opens with George Bailey contemplating suicide and then goes back through major moments in his life. Many of the scenes from the movie are only alluded to or mentioned in the play rather than actually dramatized. For example, in the opening scene Clarence just mentions George having saved his brother Harry after the latter had fallen through the ice.[75]

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, a stage adaptation presented as a 1940s radio show, was adapted by Joe Landry and has been produced around the United States since 1997. The script is published by Playscripts, Inc.

In 1997, PBS aired Merry Christmas, George Bailey, taped from a live performance of the 1947 Lux Radio Theatre script at the Pasadena Playhouse. The presentation, which benefited the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, featured an all-star cast including Bill Pullman as George, Nathan Lane as Clarence, Martin Landau as Mr. Potter, Penelope Ann Miller as Mary, and Sally Field as Mother Bailey.[76]

Philip Grecian's 2006 radio play based on the film It's a Wonderful Life is a faithful adaptation, now in its third incarnation, that has been performed numerous times by local theatres in Canada.[77]

In a June 2011 interview, John McDaniel told Saint Louis Magazine, "I'm in the throes of writing a musical version ... right now, working with Kathie Lee Gifford, who's doing the lyrics. I find we're mostly writing to character: Is it George, or the old guy who runs the bank? What do they want, what are they trying to do, what is the mood of that — is it staccato, are they agitated, is it a ballad?"[78]

The Last Temptation of Clarence Odbody is a novel written by John Pierson. The novel imagines the future lives of various characters if George had not survived his jump into the river.[79]

An opera version of "It's A Wonderful Life" composed by Jake Heggie with a libretto by Gene Scheer will premier at the Houston Grand Opera December 2, 2016[80]


The film was remade as the 1977 television movie It Happened One Christmas. Lionel Chetwynd based the screenplay on the original Van Doren Stern short story and the 1946 screenplay. This remake employed gender-reversal, with Marlo Thomas as the protagonist Mary Bailey, Wayne Rogers as George Hatch, and Cloris Leachman as the angel Clara Oddbody.[N 9] Leachman received her second Emmy nomination for this role. In a significant departure from his earlier roles, Orson Welles was cast as Mr. Potter.[N 10] Following initial positive reviews, the made-for-television film was rebroadcast twice in 1978 and 1979, but has not been shown since on national re-broadcasts, nor issued in home media.[N 11][81]

Attempted unauthorized sequel

A sequel aimed for 2015 release was in development, to be called It's a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story. It was to be written by Bob Farnsworth and Martha Bolton and would have followed the angel of George Bailey's daughter Zuzu (played once again by Karolyn Grimes), as she teaches Bailey's evil grandson how different the world would have been if he had never been born. Producers were originally looking for directors in hopes to shoot the film with a $25–$35 million budget in Louisiana early in 2014.[82] The film had been announced in November 2013 as being produced by Star Partners and Hummingbird Productions, neither of which are affiliated with Paramount, owners of the original film (Farnsworth claimed that It's a Wonderful Life was in the public domain). Days later, a Paramount spokesperson claimed that they were not granted permission to make the film, and it cannot be made without the necessary paperwork. "To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights," the spokesperson said.[83] This seems to be the final word on the project, since, as of March 2016, no further attempts to make this sequel have happened.


In 1990, another made-for-television film called Clarence starred Robert Carradine in a new tale of the helpful angel.[84][85]

Popular culture

It's a Wonderful Life has been popularized in modern cultural references in many of the mainstream media. Due to the proliferation of these references, a few examples will suffice to illustrate the film's impact.

Its story has been parodied in episodes of American television series such as Married... with Children, Mork & Mindy, The Facts of Life, Moonlighting, Night Court, Rugrats, Tiny Toon Adventures, Beavis and Butthead, That '70s Show and Dallas, as well as the television film It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. The town of Kingston Falls in the 1984 film Gremlins is laid out to look like Bedford Falls, and clips from It's A Wonderful Life also appear within the film.[86]

The Sesame Street Muppets characters Bert and Ernie share their names with the cop and the taxicab driver in the film. Longtime Muppets writer and puppeteer Jerry Juhl said he believed there was no connection and that this was a coincidence.[87] The episode Elmo Saves Christmas (1996), which featured a clip from the film, pokes fun at the persistent reports of a connection, having them look at each other in disbelief as George calls Bert and Ernie by name.[87]

Stephen Jay Gould's book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History takes its main title from the film. The book proposes that the evolution of life, rewound and replayed multiple times, would yield a different world each time, just as life without George Bailey is Pottersville, not Bedford Falls.

See also


  1. The original budget had been set at $3 million.[1]
  2. It was not a true "Christmas card" but rather, a 24-page pamphlet.[11]
  3. The project went through many hands, including Howard Hughes', who reportedly was interested.[13]
  4. Capra claimed the script was purchased for $50,000.00.[15]
  5. Photographs of parts of the RKO set can be seen on[30]
  6. Capra's re-editing of the original score by Dimitri Tiomkin was restored to the Tiomkin version by Willard Carroll in the 1980s and released on a CD in 1988.[62]
  7. The United States copyright of "The Greatest Gift" will expire in 2038, 95 years after its publication.
  8. Voyager Company's Hard Day's Night, released in May 1993, slightly predated the Kinesoft product. It was originally advertised as an Audio CD.
  9. Note the spelling difference for "Oddbody".
  10. Welles signed on for projects like this in the 1970s so he could fund his own projects including F for Fake, the unfinished The Other Side of the Wind and his documentary, Filming Othello.[81]
  11. Local televisions stations do occasionally replay the movie.


  1. ^ The film's distribution rights were transferred to Paramount Pictures in 1998. See the ownership and copyright issues for more information.



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