It's a Wonderful Life has an odd place in the American canon: Well-known but half-remembered; dismissed as mawkish but revered as moving. It may be one of those dream-films we only recall as images -- the haunted stumble into Pottersville, the exultant return to Bedford Falls, a small, ringing bell -- but it's worth watching with your mind as well as your heart. Here are seven things you may not know about the Frank Capra / Jimmy Stewart classic, from where it began to its reverberations in the here and now.
1) Familiarity Breeds Content
Contrary to popular belief, It's a Wonderful Life didn't enter the public domain in 1974; rather, it fell out of copyright -- a subtle distinction, but regardless, it certainly wasn't expensive to show on TV for a span of several years -- during which it attained cultural ubiquity. (In fact, the legal status of It's a Wonderful Life meant that at one point, a po-mo variation on What's Up Tiger Lilly was planned by The Upright Citizen's Brigade.) A mix of re-asserted copyrights and a weird kind of veneration mean that these days it's only shown on network TV on a limited basis -- but it's made it's way into the Christmastime zeitgeist nonetheless, thanks to years of the kinds of repeat airing where, as a pre-semi-stardom Woody Harrelson put it on Cheers, "From now until Christmas, It's a Wonderful month. ..."
2) The Premise Works
And does it ever -- you can click yourself stupid doing on-line research on pop-culture re-iterations of George's guided tour of a George-less universe. (And researching how George Bailey and Mr. Potter both owe a debt to a Mr. Crachit and a Mr. Scrooge can take the same amount of time.) There's an entire essay in parsing whether the easier question would be 'What bad sitcoms have done It's a Wonderful Life episodes?' or 'What bad sitcoms haven't?" When a movie influences high and low art, that's a kind of eternity in and of itself -- even if one of your standard-bearers is MST3K.
3) George Bailey, Father to Madness
This is pretty much a continuation of point #2 -- but, still. Film Critic David Thompson's little-known narrative experiment Suspects re-imagines movie history -- and American history -- as a series of linked biographies, a continuity where Body Heat's Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) learns deceit as the mistress to Chinatown's Noah Cross. The film --- and the narrator -- Thompson chose as the nucleus of Suspects is It's a Wonderful Life and George Bailey -- and as George relates what happened to his life, and his children, it's explained that the youngest Bailey boy left home, went to Vietnam, came back to New York, changed his name to Travis and started driving a cab. ... Suspects is out-of-print, but it's very much worth tracking down as a fresh and brilliant meditation on American movies and America itself. ...
4) Multiple Marys
It's a Wonderful Life didn't exactly launch then-24 year-old Donna Reed's career -- but it very much defined it, and in many ways made her a star. Reed would go on to a 1954 Oscar and eight years of sitcom stardom as a can-do mom on The Donna Reed Show -- both of which can be seen starting with the dark-yet-domestic journey of Mary Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. The real shocker is that Reed was the sixth actress offered the role. According to Marc Eliot's recent Jimmy Stewart, Capra's leading lady choices began with Jean Arthur, then Ginger Rogers, then Olivia de Havilland, then Ann Dvorak and finally Martha Scott before Reed was offered the part.
5) Clarence the Angel: America's Most Wanted
It's a Wonderful Life actually wound up on a FBI report as a "subversive" film. Professor John Noakes tracked down '40s-era files on the FBI's domestic surveillance of Hollywood and found It's a Wonderful Life on a watchlist. Apparently, The FBI were looking at every film for Communist-influenced elements -- namely, smearing American values, glorifying anti-American values and belittling current political institutions; by the FBI's standards, the portrait of Mr. Potter as a bad guy met the first condition -- and George's common-man triumph apparently satisfied the second. Considering that Capra was one of the directors most directly engaged in World War II on a hand-on basis, the idea that Capra wound up on a FBI watchlist just two years after making the "Why We Fight" series under Government orders is both amusing and sad.
6) Neither a Hit Nor a Flop
It's a Wonderful Life earned five Oscar nominations -- a Best Actor nod for Stewart, a Best Editing nom for William Hornbeck, a nomination for John Aalberg's Sound and two nominations in Capra's name for Best Director and Best Picture; It's A Wonderful life was the flagship film for Capra's post-war semi-dependent studio Liberty Films. (For more on Capra's career, read The Name Above the Title, Capra's autoibiography -- it's as good a read as Hollywood books offer us.) It was also Stewart's first film after returning from active duty in the European theater as an Air Force Major -- where he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. But It's a Wonderful Life only won one Oscar -- for it's pioneering breakthroughs in artificial snow -- and only made $3.3 million in initial release, despite a $3.7 million budget.
7) It Makes Me Cry Every Time I See It
And no, this isn't a fact per se -- but it's still true. Frank Capra may be dismissed as a cheap corn-merchant by sneering sophisticates, but Capra knew one thing too many modern film-makers don't: Any hack can tack a happy ending on a film, but it takes craft to earn one. We see George go through hell, and it's worth nothing that Clarence's magic doesn't erase George's problems or regrets -- it simply reminds him that, yes, while there's life, there's hope. When George runs back to his home, he's facing ruin; he's facing jail; he's facing people he's hurt and wounded through lashing out in his frustration. But he's alive, and he can try to fix it. It's a pretty good message for the holidays; it's a pretty good message any day of the year, in fact. Now and then, it isn't a wonderful life. But that doesn't mean it can't be, as long as there's life.