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|It's a Wonderful Life|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Frank Capra|
|Produced by||Frank Capra|
|Screenplay by||Frances Goodrich|
|Based on||"The Greatest Gift" |
by Philip Van Doren Stern
|Music by||Dimitri Tiomkin|
|Edited by||William Hornbeck|
|Distributed by||RKO Radio Pictures|
|Running time||130 minutes|
|Budget||$3.18 million[N 1]|
|It's a Wonderful Life|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Frank Capra|
|Produced by||Frank Capra|
|Screenplay by||Frances Goodrich|
|Based on||"The Greatest Gift" |
by Philip Van Doren Stern
|Music by||Dimitri Tiomkin|
|Edited by||William Hornbeck|
|Distributed by||RKO Radio Pictures|
|Running time||130 minutes|
|Budget||$3.18 million[N 1]|
It's a Wonderful Life is a 1946 American Christmas fantasy comedy-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. The film is considered one of the most loved films in American cinema and 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 at the box office because of high production costs and stiff competition at the time of its release, the film has come to be regarded as a classic and is a staple of Christmas television around the world. 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."
It's a Wonderful Life is considered one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made. 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, placing number 11 on its initial 1998 greatest movie list, and would also place number one on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time. Capra revealed that this was his personal favorite among the films he directed and that he screened it for his family every Christmas season.
In Bedford Falls, New York,[N 2] on Christmas Eve, George Bailey is deeply troubled and suicidal. Prayers for his well-being from friends and family reach Heaven. Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to visit Earth to save George, thereby earning his wings. God the Father and St. Joseph review George's life with Clarence.
As a 12-year-old boy in 1919, George saved the life of his younger brother Harry, who had fallen through the ice on a frozen pond, and because of his heroic action, George lost the hearing in his left ear. Later, while working in the local pharmacy, George noticed that the druggist, Mr. Gower, despondent over receiving a telegram that his son had died in the war, had mistakenly filled a child's prescription with poison; George stopped Gower and saved him from killing the child and irrevocably ruining his own life.
George grows up and dreams of travelling the world. In 1928, he waits for Harry to graduate from high school and replace him at the Bailey Building and Loan Association, vital to the townspeople. On Harry's graduation night, George, now 21 and preparing to travel before attending college, discusses his future with Mary Hatch, who has long had a crush on him. Later that evening, George's absent-minded Uncle Billy interrupts them to tell George that his father has had a stroke, which proves fatal.
George gives up his summer travel plans to stay in Bedford Falls and sort out the firm's affairs, and a few months later, Mr. Henry F. Potter, a rapacious slumlord and a member of the Building and Loan Association board, tries to persuade the board of directors to dissolve the Building and Loan. His main objection is to their providing home loans for the working poor. George talks them into rejecting Potter's proposal, but they agree only on condition that George run the Building and Loan. Giving his college money to Harry, George delays his plans with the understanding that his younger brother, Harry, will take over upon graduation.
When Harry graduates from college, he unexpectedly brings home a wife, whose father has offered Harry an excellent job. Although Harry vows to decline the offer out of respect for his brother, George cannot deny Harry such a fine opportunity and decides to keep running the Building and Loan, knowing that this will kill his dream to travel the world.
George calls on Mary, who has recently returned home from college. After several arguments, they reveal their love for each other, and marry soon after. As they depart for their honeymoon, they witness a run on the bank that leaves the Building and Loan in danger of collapse. The couple quell the panic by using the $2,000 set aside for their honeymoon to satisfy the depositors' immediate needs. Mary enlists the help of George's two best friends, Bert, a policeman, and Ernie, a cab driver, to create a faux tropical setting for a substitute honeymoon. The newlywed couple embrace while Bert and Ernie sing in the background.
George never manages to leave Bedford Falls, but does start Bailey Park, an affordable housing project. With his own interests compromised, Potter tries to hire him away, offering him a $20,000 salary,[N 3] along with the promise of business trips to Europe, something that George always wanted to do. George, initially tempted, turns Potter down after realizing that Potter intends to close down the Building and Loan and take full control of Bedford Falls. He and Mary then raise four children: Pete, Janie, Tommy and Zuzu.
When World War II erupts, George is unable to enlist, because of his bad ear. Harry becomes a Navy fighter pilot and shoots down 15 enemy planes, two of which were targeting a ship full of troops in the Pacific. For his bravery, Harry is awarded the Medal of Honor.
On Christmas Eve morning, as the town prepares a hero's welcome for Harry, Uncle Billy is on his way to Potter's bank to deposit $8,000 of the Building and Loan's cash funds. He greets Potter (who has the newspaper reporting Harry's heroics) and taunts him by reading the headlines aloud. Potter angrily snatches the paper, but Billy inattentively allows the money to be snatched with it. Potter opens the paper, notices the money and keeps it, knowing that misplacement of bank money would result in bankruptcy for the Building and Loan and criminal charges for George. Uncle Billy can't remember what happened to the money, and with a bank examiner present, he and George frantically search the town which turns up nothing. George is devastated that he is apparently destined to face scandal and jail and takes his anger and frustrations out on his family.
A desperate George appeals to Potter for a loan. Potter sarcastically turns George down, and then swears out a warrant for his arrest for bank fraud. George, now completely depressed, gets drunk at the bar owned by his friend, Giuseppe Martini, where he silently prays for help. After crashing his car into a tree, George staggers to a bridge, intending to commit suicide, feeling he is "worth more dead than alive" because of a life insurance policy. Before he can leap, Clarence jumps in first and pretends to be drowning. After George rescues him, Clarence reveals himself to be George's guardian angel.
George does not believe him and bitterly wishes he had never been born. Inspired by this comment, Clarence shows George what the town would have been like without him. In this alternate scenario, Bedford Falls is instead named Pottersville, and is home to sleazy nightclubs, pawn shops, and immoral people. Bailey Park is never built, and is instead an old cemetery. George notices that he can now hear in his left ear, that his lip is not bleeding, his clothes are dry and that he does not have Zuzu's flower petals, as he never existed in the alternate reality.
Mr. Gower was sent to prison for poisoning the child and is despised and homeless. Martini does not own the bar, and is a recluse. Martini's bartender Nick owns the bar, and runs it in a more reckless manner. George's friend Violet Bick is a strip-dancer and gets arrested as a pickpocket. Ernie is helplessly poor, with his family having forsaken him. Uncle Billy has been in an insane asylum for many years since he lost his brother and the family business. Harry is dead as a result of George not being there to save him from drowning, and the servicemen he would have saved also died. George's mother is a bitter widow, and Mary is a shy, single spinster librarian. Clarence then explains how George single-handedly prevented this dire fate. He, and he alone, kept Potter in check, preventing the town from descending into squalor and vice.
George runs back to the bridge and begs to be allowed to live again. His prayer is answered, and he runs home joyously, where the authorities are waiting to arrest him. Mary, Uncle Billy, and a flood of townspeople arrive with more than enough donations to save George and the Building and Loan. George's friend Sam Wainwright sends him a $25,000 line of credit by telegram.
Harry also arrives to support his brother, and toasts George as "the richest man in town". In the pile of donated funds, George finds a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer inscribed, "Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends. P.S. Thanks for the wings! Love, Clarence." A bell on the Christmas tree rings, and his daughter, Zuzu, remembers aloud that it means an angel has just earned his wings. George realizes that he truly has a wonderful life.
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 indicates that "Henry Fonda was in the running."
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 as he indicates that Jean Arthur was first offered the part but had to turn it down for a prior commitment on Broadway before Capra turned to Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott and Ann Dvorak. Ginger Rogers was offered the female lead, but turned it down because 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. 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. In the silent era, he had played the role of Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1927). 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.
Charles Williams, who was cast as Eustace Bailey, and Mary Treen, who was cast as Matilda "Tilly" Bailey, were both B-list actors, as they both had appeared in 90 films each before filming It's a Wonderful Life.
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.[N 5] 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. 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 6]
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 7] and threw in the three scripts for free. Capra, along with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker brought in to "polish" the script, turned the story and what was worth using from the three scripts into a screenplay that Capra would rename It's a Wonderful Life. The script underwent many revisions throughout pre-production and during filming. 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. 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.
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.
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, 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. 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 to existing sets.
Pigeons, cats, and dogs were allowed to roam the mammoth set in order to give the "town" a lived-in feel. 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. Filming started on April 15, 1946 and ended on July 27, 1946, exactly on deadline for the 90-day principal photography schedule.
RKO's movie ranch in Encino, a filming location of "Bedford Falls", was razed in 1954.[N 8] 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 2013. The second is the "Martini home", in La Cañada Flintridge, California.
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 a lot 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".
The products and advertisements featured in Mr. Gower's drugstore include Coca-Cola, Paterson tobacco pipes, La Unica cigars, Camel cigarettes, Lucky Strike cigarettes, Chesterfield cigarettes, Sweet Caporal cigarettes (with a sign that says "Ask Dad he knows" that 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.
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 in the ice, and George saves him with the same results.
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.
Capra had filmed a number of sequences that were subsequently cut, the only remnants remaining being rare stills that have been unearthed. 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 overly religious tone did not have the emotional impact of the family and friends rushing to rescue George Bailey, the closing scenes were rewritten.
It's a Wonderful Life premiered at the Globe Theatre in New York on December 20, 1946, to mixed reviews. While Capra considered the contemporary critical reviews to be either universally negative or at best dismissive, 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."
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."
The film, which went into general release on January 7, 1947, placed 26th ($3.3 million) in box office revenues for 1947 (out of more than 400 features released), 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.
The film recorded a loss of $525,000 at the box office for RKO.
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."
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." 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". In an interview with Michael Parkinson in 1973, Jimmy Stewart declared that out of all the movies he had made, It's a Wonderful Life was his favorite.
Somewhat more iconoclastic views of the film and its content are occasionally expressed. In 1947, film critic Manny Farber wrote, "To make his points [Capra] always takes an easy, simple-minded path that doesn't give much credit to the intelligence of the audience", and adds that there are only a "few unsentimental moments here and there."[N 9] Wendell Jamieson, in a 2008 article for The New York Times which was generally positive in its analysis of the film, noted that far from being simply a sweet sentimental story, it "is 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."
In a 2010 Salon.com 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." 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."
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.
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.
|Award||Result||Nominee / Winner|
|Best Picture||Nominated||Frank Capra|
Winner was Samuel Goldwyn - The Best Years of Our Lives
|Best Director||Nominated||Frank Capra|
Winner was William Wyler - The Best Years of Our Lives
|Best Actor||Nominated||James Stewart|
Winner was Fredric March - The Best Years of Our Lives
|Best Film Editing||Nominated||William Hornbeck|
Winner was Daniel Mandell - The Best Years of Our Lives
|Best Sound Recording||Nominated||John Aalberg|
Winner was John P. Livadary - The 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.
It's a Wonderful Life won just the one Academy Award, in the Technical Achievement category for developing a new method of creating artificial snow. Before It's a Wonderful Life, 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.
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 five 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.
It's a Wonderful Life received a Golden Globe Award:
|Best Director||Won||Frank Capra|
Capra won the "Best Motion Picture Director" award from the Golden Globes, 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.
American Film Institute lists
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 10] 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. Despite the lapsed copyright, television stations that aired it still were 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.[N 11] 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.
In 1993, Republic Pictures, which was the successor to NTA, relied on the 1990 U.S. 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. NBC is licensed to show the film on U.S. 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.
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).
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. 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)". 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.
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. 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.
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). After Republic reclaimed the rights to the film, all unofficial VHS copies of the film in print were destroyed. 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.
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. [N 12]
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.
The film has seen multiple DVD releases since the availability of 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 released a newly restored "60th Anniversary Edition". On November 13, 2007, 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 3, 2009, Paramount released a DVD version with a "Collector's Edition Ornament", and a Blu-ray edition.
The film was twice 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
A sequel aimed for 2015 release is in development, to be called It's a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story. It will be written by Bob Farnsworth and Martha Bolton and follow 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 are looking for directors and hope to shoot the film with a $25–$35 million budget in Louisiana early in 2014.
The film has been announced 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.
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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.
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.
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 13] 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 14] 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 15]
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