Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Making of a Holiday Classic

By any standard, It's a Wonderful Life qualifies as a holiday classic. Frank Capra's 1946 film has earned its place in the pop culture pantheon, becoming a Christmas tradition for millions of viewers around the world.

But it wasn't always that way. In its initial, theatrical release, It's a Wonderful Life was a dud, despite the star power of Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Capra's presence behind the camera. While the film won five Academy Award nominations, it failed to break even at the box office and was quickly forgotten by RKO, the studio that released It's a Wonderful Life.

By the early 1950s, Capra's production--which retained the film's copyright--had been sold to Paramount. But the new studio showed little interest in the director's Christmas tale and over the decades that followed, rights to It's a Wonderful Life passed from Paramount to a series of syndication firms.

Two decades later, control of the film rested with a company called National Telefilm Associates. But a clerical error at NTA prevented the copyright from being properly renewed. And that allowed a movie that had been largely ignored to reach new audiences and secure its standing as a holiday classic.

Writing at, University of Mississippi Law Professor Ronald Rychalk explains how the lapsed copyright actually benefited the film:

The movie had not yet become a Christmas classic when, in 1974, its copyright protection was allowed to expire. That meant that television stations could air it over and over without paying full royalties. (There were still some smaller, derivative royalties due on the storyline, but it is not clear that they were always paid.) For a period of time from the mid-1970s into the 1990s, It's a Wonderful Life seemed to be on several stations, several times each week during the Christmas season. In fact, one episode of the old television series Cheers even dealt with the movie's frequent airings.

These repeated showings, made possible by the termination of copyright protection, turned It's a Wonderful Life into the Christmas tradition that it is today. That, in turn, sent people searching for ways to capitalize on the film.

As a result, there multiple videotape versions of the film--all released by different companies. Various "colorized" versions also appeared, to the consternation of critics and audiences alike.

But renewed interest--and profit potential--in the Capra production also spurred action by the original copyright holders. What followed was something of a miracle, not unlike Clarence the Angel earning his wings in the film.

You may have noticed that, in recent years, It's a Wonderful Life comes on only once or twice per Christmas season, and only on a major network (NBC). [That's because] The original copyright holders managed to reassert their rights, something that is virtually unheard of. But the rights associated with the background music, as well as the copyright protection stemming from the short story on which the movie was based, had not yet expired. That gave Republic Pictures the hook in needed to reassert its control of the film. (Apparently, there was some attempt by other groups to avoid paying royalties by running the film without music, but it was disallowed by the courts.)

As a result, one of the great Christmas films of all time is once again protected by the law -- ironic, considering that it became a classic in significant part because it was legally unprotected. But God works in mysterious ways -- and sometimes the law does, too.

Incidentally, It's a Wonderful Life represented Stewart and Capra's return to Hollywood after World War II, and both the actor and director considered it their favorite film. But while Stewart quickly reestablished himself as a major star, Capra's post-war career lagged, and as Roger Ebert observed, he never recaptured the magic of his 1930s films. His last production was released in 1961, only 15 years after It's a Wonderful Life.


Mrs. Davis said...

My daughter tells me, having been without cable my whole life, that Christmas Story is now on cable 24/7. I wondered if that was an effort by the copyright holder, who I am sure is secure, to turn Christmas Story into a later day Wonderful Life.

It would be interesting to see that happen. The two films, apparently focused on the materiality of the celebration of Christ's birth, provide an interesting contrast of the hopes and fears of those gripped in the Depression. Each resonates well with my family's recollection of the era.

Wonderful Life is clearly written from the perspective of an adult seeing the world collapse around him, unable to control events or even provide for his family. While a fantasy, it also presents a very gritty view of the reality of the times. It fits well with the life of my grandfather, though the real life ending was bitter sweet.

Christmas Story is written from the perspective of a child growing up in an environment where the adults are so preoccupied that the child has total freedom to explore life, when outside the house and classroom. Unaware of how events should be controlled, they learn the skills necessary to become the Greatest Generation. They learn to do whatever needs to be done and they don't learn that things can't be done because they adults say so. It was the life of my parents and it ended equally well.

Both films appear to accurately depict the Depression but from different perspectives. That they are so different should give us pause when interpreting the events of today from our individual perspectives.

Anonymous said...

Every Christmas I hear that It's a Wonderful Life is, or is just about, The Best Christmas Movie Ever. And every Christmas I am reminded of author Connie Willis's proof, in her Introduction to a collection of her short stories with Christmas themes called Miracle and other Christmas Stories, that such a claim is, patently, unfounded. I thought you might enjoy reading her argument, as well as her demonstration that a certain other movie has a far better claim to the title, even if reproducing it here is really too long for a comment (and possibly beggars Fair Use slightly -- but I did give her a link, so maybe she'll forgive me). Follow along and see if she doesn't convince you.

Merry Christmas!


I know, I know, It's a Wonderful Life is supposed to be The Best Christmas Movie Ever, with ten million showings and accompanying merchandising. (I saw an It's a Wonderful Life mouse pad this last Christmas.) And I'm not denying that there are some great scenes in it (see my story Miracle on this subject), but the movie has real problems. For one thing, the villainous Mr. Potter is still loose and unpunished at the end of the movie, something no good fairy tale ever permits. The dreadful little psychologist Miracle on 34th Street is summarily, and very appropriately, fired, and the DA, who after all was only doing his job, repents.

But in It's a Wonderful Life, not only is Mr. Potter free, with his villainy undetected, but he has already proved to be a vindictive and malicious villain. Since this didn't work, he'll obviously try something else. And poor George is still faced with embezzlement charges, which the last time I looked don't disappear just because you pay back the money, even if the cop is smiling in the last scene.

But the worst problem seems to me to be that the ending depends on the goodness of the people of Bedford Falls, something that (especially in light of previous events) seems like a dicey proposition.

Miracle on 34th Street, on the other hand, relies on no such thing. The irony of the miracle (and let's face it, maybe what really galls my soul is that It's a Wonderful Life is a work completely without irony) is that the miracle happens not because of people's behavior, but in spite of it.

Christmas is supposed to be based on selflessness and innocence, but until the very end of Miracle on 34th Street virtually no one except Kris Kringle exhibits these qualities. Quite the opposite. Everyone, even the hero and heroine, acts from a cynical, very modern self-interest. Macy's Santa goes on a binge right before Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Doris hires Kris to get herself out of a jam and save her job, John Payne invites the little girl Susan to watch the parade as a way to meet the mother.

And in spite of Kris Kringle's determined efforts to restore the true spirit of Christmas to the city, it continues. Macy's and then Gimbel's go along with the gag of recommending other stores, not because they believe in it, but because it means more money. The judge in Kris's sanity case case makes favorable rulings only because he wants to get re-elected. Even the postal workers who provide the denouement just want to get rid of stuff piling up in the dead-letter office.

But in spite of this (actually, in a delicious irony, because of it) and with only very faint glimmerings of humanity from the principals, and in spite of how hopeless it all seems, the miracle of Christmas occurs, right on schedule. Just as it does every year.

It's this layer of symbolism that makes Miracle on 34th Street such a satisfying movie. Also its script (by George Seaton) and perfect casting (especially Natalie Wood and Thelma Ritter) and any number of delightful moments (Santa's singing a Dutch carol to the little Dutch orphan and the disastrous bubble-gum episode and Natalie Wood's disgusted expression when she's told she has to have faith even when things don't work out). Plus, of course, the fact that Edmund Gwenn could make anyone believe in Santa Claus. All combine to make it The Best Christmas Movie Ever Made.


excerpt from Introduction to Miracle and other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis, pp. 5-7.