Inspirational Stories of Love, Faith & Family Set in 19th Century America

The Christmas Classic that Almost Wasn’t

I don’t know about you but I’m a HUGE fan of It’s a Wonderful Life. Every now and then I find someone who has never watched the movie or worse yet (she gasps in horror), doesn’t like it!

But few know the history behind the movie and how this much beloved Christmas classic was almost lost to modern fans!

Amazon.com: The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale (9781476778860): Van Doren Stern, Philip: BooksIt’s a Wonderful Life is based on the short story, The Greatest Gift, by Philip Van Doren Stern. After spending several years trying to sell his story to publishers with no success (boy, can I relate), Stern decided to have the story printed in pamphlet form and sent it as his Christmas card in 1939. Of the more than 200 cards sent that year, one found its way to RKO Pictures and into the hands of director Frank Capra who bought the rights to the story. Initially, Cary Grant had been tapped to play the beleaguered George Bailey but the project fell through and was shelved until  Capra revived it in 1945, this time with Jimmy Stewart in the starring role.

Although It’s a Wonderful Life was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor, it failed to win a single one. Not only that, but the Frank Capra film was not a favorite with the movie going public who was hungry for movies about the Allied victory in World War 2. The movie was a total box office flop and wasn’t even able to earn back its $3.7 million dollar production cost. However, of the 400 movies released in 1947, it placed 26th in box office revenue, one spot ahead of another Christmas-time favorite, Miracle on 34th Street.

So how did this classic film rise to the level of the most beloved Christmas film of all time?

In the years following its release, It’s a Wonderful Life was forgotten by moviegoers and Hollywoood alike. So much so that the film’s copyright was allowed to lapse in the 1970s. Once the movie had been declared in the public domain, network television stations jumped at the opportunity to air a Frank Capra holiday film at no cost to them.

And air it they did. In the 1970s and 80s you’d have been hard pressed to find a time when it wasn’t airing on one network or another. As film historian Leonard Maltin recalls, “we literally kept changing channels and came upon it in different stage of its progress. And you can’t not watch. You can’t turn it off.”

What followed was a rebirth of the film as it finally hit home with a new generation of Americans who could relate to the struggles of George Bailey and cheered him on as he struggled to discover the blessings in a life that seemed to have gone hopelessly off plan. In 1990, nearly 45 years after the film’s release, The Library of Congress deemed It’s a Wonderful Life as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

So there you have it. One of the most treasured Christmas classics of all time, was nearly lost forever in a Hollywood vault. I don’t know about you but our family watches this movie several times each holiday season. Even though my children are grown we gather around the TV and as the film reaches it’s denouemnt we begin shouting the lines along with Jimmy Stewart as he discovers his mouth is bleeding and ZuZu’s petals reappear in his pocket. We laugh and shout along with George as he rediscovers the gift of life and wishes every building in town a ‘Merry Christmas.’ And then we shed tears of joy as all of Bedford Falls shows up in celebration and support of the man who had touched all their lives in so many countless little ways that made a huge difference. I get goosies just thinking about it!

I think I’ll go make a cup of tea, snuggle under a blanket and watch It’s a Wonderful Life!

And in my best Jimmy Stewart imitation, I wish you all a Merry Christmas!


Giveaway**

This giveaway is now closed!

Congratulations to our winner, Tarissa!

I’m giving away a hardback copy of Philip Van Doren Stern’s, The Greatest Gift. To enter, share your favorite line or scene from It’s a Wonderful Life in the comments below.

**Giveaway ends, midnight, December 23rd.

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32 Comments

  1. I would love to read this book!! Looks great.

    One of my favorite quotes from the movie is: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Tarissa, That is a great quote! Thanks for stopping by and Merry Christmas!

  2. Janet Putney

    I love the line..Every time a bell rings, that means an angel is getting his wings.

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Janet, that has to be the quintessential line from the movie. We’re always cheering by that time of the movie and I usually have happy tears! Merry Christmas!

  3. One of my favorite parts is young George Not delivering the poison, saving both a life, his job, and his boss.

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Aryn, that is a great part of the story, isn’t it? Thanks for visiting! Merry Christmas!

  4. When you hear a bell ring it means an angel gets it’s wings. This is a very entertaining movie that hits home with many people. I enjoy watching every year.

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Rory, that is probably the best of all the great lines in this film! Thanks for visiting today! Merry Christmas!

  5. Renee

    “Every time abel, rings, an angel gets his wings.”

    We really emjoy this movie! It’s a favorite here.

  6. Susanne

    Love the scene of George’s happiness with his family.

  7. Kathy Johnson

    I’m like you and watch it several times during the Christmas season. My favorite line…”That’s a gift from a very dear friend of mine. Way to go, Clarence!” Going from irritation at the presence of Clarence to becoming a very dear friend is a lesson for us all – the little irksome things in life can bring the greatest reward and meaning into our lives if we but let them! Merry Christmas!

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Kathy, that’s a great point! I’d never thought of that!

  8. Linda Perry

    What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Linda, Oh boy, isn’t this a fun scene. Then, after George talks about the moonbeams shooting out the tips of hair and fingers, etc. the old man on the porch tells him to “kiss her and stop talking her to death!” LOL! So great!

  9. Duane

    “What do you mean… are you on the nest?” and “George Bailey lassos a stork.” are right up there in the top 1000 best lines.

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Duane, It’s really hard to find a line from this movie that isn’t noteworthy in my opinion!

  10. Thanks for sharing. I had no idea of the story. And I love the movie. Hard to believe it was originally unpopular!

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Carol, Right? My husband is the one who told me about it so my curious mind had to learn the whole story and thought why not blog about it? Thanks for visiting!

  11. Alison Boss

    Wow! Thank you for sharing the background story of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life! Such a bittersweet tale. We watch this movie every year. My favorite scene is at the end of the movie when the whole town rallies around George and the people give money to keep him from going to jail when Uncle Billy carelessly loses $8000 of bank funds. Because George had believed in and helped so many of the Bedford Falls people, they came to help him out in his greatest need…….And George learned his biggest lesson of how precious life is.

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Alison, I was surprised when I learned how this amazing movie was considered a flop by Hollywood and the movie going public as well! I love the ending scene and not just how the town comes with money to support him but the things they say as the add their cash to the fund. They already knew what an amazing man George Bailey is and now George was ready to see that his life did have purpose after all.

  12. Hi Kelly! It’s a Wonderful Life is my all-time favorite Christmas movie as well! My favorite line is when George is holding Mary’s robe for ransome, smiles and says, “This is a very interesting situation.” Love the entire cast of characters and storyline! We are definitely kindred spirits, my friend! =)

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Cynthia, Yeah, I love their little romance. Mike and I like it when she comes to the soda shop with violet and says, “Is this your good ear? George Bailey I’ll love you ’til the day I die.” Thanks for visiting today!

  13. Stacie

    Kelly – I love watching this each year on Christmas Eve. Especially love that every time a bell rings an angel gets their wings.

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Stacie, I just love Clarence. That is a great scene when he finally gets his wings! Thanks for visiting Romancing History!

    • Such a great film! In 2012, I got to see it in all its glory on the big screen at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood before they renovated the space. It was so nostalgic! I love the pool in the floor scene and soon after when George tells Mary he’ll lasso the moon for her.

      • romancinghistory

        Hi Mirachelle, Wow! That’s so cool! I’d have loved to have been able to do that! I love every aspect of the sweet romance between George and Mary!

  14. NNnRe9EC7Kathy+Bailey

    Kelly, this hit home and what a time and a year to remember that our lives DO matter. Even though George says he’s “not a praying man,” the story is rich with meaning for Christians. And I guess he was a “praying man” by the end.
    I once did a series of blog posts on IAWL, now lost to eternity through a computer crash, and I remember that Jimmy Stewart was just back from the war himself and poured a lot of his own angst into George. And those were real tears in his eyes.
    Kelly, I think the American public missed the boat on this one, at least when it first came out. Because people like George WERE the Allied victory. It wasn’t about tanks and planes, it was about stepping up to do what was right.
    There is one part of the film that always puzzles me. How could Mary go out and solicit help from their friends and neighbors and leave the children at home with the BANK EXAMINERS? A question lost to history…
    Kathy Bailey
    Asking stupid questions in New Hampshire

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Kathy, I loved your comments. I’m thinking next year to do one on the lessons I learned from It’s a Wonderful Life. That, too, could be an entire series, like you said. I always thought the kids were left alone and then the Bank Examiners showed up because they were still all up in their rooms. Back then, it wouldn’t have been scandalous to leave the kids alone with the oldest who was probably what, 10? IDK, my husband always says don’t interject reality but as a writer, I know I’d have to find another way. Get Ma Bailey over there or something! LOL! Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Kelly, I love the movie and didn’t know the background. Thanks for sharing.

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Kathleen, I love finding out the story behind the story! Thanks for stopping by!

    • Marta

      Kelly, I love the movie also and it’s hard to pick just “one” favorite line 🤔 … one of them is when at the soda shop and Mary says, I’ll love you till the day I die!

      • romancinghistory

        Hi Marta, I totally agree that it’s way too hard to pick just one but that is my favorite line, too!

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