The undeniable Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life is celebrating its diamond anniversary this season. Believe it or not, it has been 75 years since its release in December 1946.
Considering it has become the classic of classics for the yuletide season, this irresistible film starring James Stewart as George Bailey, a suicidal man who receives a visit from an angel to show him what life would have been like if he had never existed, was basically a box office flop upon its release after it was rushed into theaters to replace a film that wasn’t ready in time. Costing reportedly $3.7 million to make but only earning back $3.3 million, initially at least, it was the first significant return to acting for Stewart after serving in World War II, and originally planned at one time to star Cary Grant.
It was only many years later, thanks largely to television, that it found its true audience and now, quite frankly, it has outlived just about every other film released that year, or even most of the movies of that decade.
Critics warmed to it at the time, some predicting major Oscar attention; indeed, it did wind up with five nominations from the Academy including Best Picture, Actor for Stewart, director for Frank Capra (who considered it his favorite of all his films), Sound and Editing. However, Oscar night (March 13, 1947) was not kind to the film, the Christmas spirit of giving it any gifts of awards long past.
In fact, it was the only one of the five Best Picture nominees to receive zero wins on that night. The Best Years of Our Lives took Best Picture and six other competitive wins plus an honorary award for co-star Harold Russell, who also won for Best Supporting Actor. The Razor’s Edge landed Anne Baxter the Supporting Actress win. The Yearling took a child Oscar for Claude Jarman and Color Cinematography. And the fifth Best Pic nominee, Henry V, won an Honorary Oscar for its star, director and producer Laurence Olivier. Alas, it was not a “wonderful” evening for It’s A Wonderful Life. But Capra’s masterpiece would have the last laugh.
None of the above mentioned Oscar winners are getting any official recognition of their 75th anniversary, but the big loser of that night is seeing Paramount Home Entertainment release a lavish Blu-ray commemorating the occasion with both the restored original version and a, ahem, colorized edition of the black-and-white classic included, plus with them you get a series of collectible cards and detailed recipes for each item on the menu of “Bailey Family Holiday Recipes” (Pastry Snails, “He’s Bats” Minestrone, Home Blessing Salad, Corn Muffins, Glazed Holiday Ham, Classic Holiday Roast Turkey, Clarence’s Angel Food Cake, Vanilla Moonbeam Pies, Homemade Eggnog, Mama and Papa Dollar cocktails).
Further proof of it being the only 1946 Best Picture nominee still generating major merchandising opportunities: there is a new book out for the anniversary, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Official Bailey Family Cookbook. All this is designed for you to eat just like the Baileys did (“for anyone who has ever wanted to spend Christmas in Bedford Falls,” as the ad line says). Of course that Bailey family also includes Donna Reed, Stewart’s co-star, who would later win an Oscar for Supporting Actress in From Here to Eternity.
And if you think this is just a one-off repackaging of the movie, actually Paramount mistakenly sent everyone on its press list the 70th anniversary Blu-ray by mistake and had to resend the 75th. A look at the title on Amazon sees numerous video versions on the market over the years including a 4K restoration. I mean, how many copies of The Yearling or The Best Years of Our Lives are on Walmart shelves?
On top of all this, NBC is airing the film Saturday night, devoting the entire primetime schedule to the three-quarters-of-a-century-old black-and-white movie, with a promise to do it again later in the month. This is an annual tradition for the network, which acquired rights to it in the 1990s and has made it a holiday-season tradition. At best, those other 1946 Oscar nominees are seen on TCM occasionally and not given nearly the level of love this film has developed since its modest release.
It is comforting to know the Bailey family is still with us, even during a pandemic and dark times, spreading joys of the season and keeping us from jumping off the bridge.
Maybe it is a wonderful life after all — at least in the movies.