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‘It’s a Wonderful Life’: Why the 1946 classic movie continues to inspire

Now Available!“It’s a Wonderful Life” is part of many families’ holiday traditions, but the 1946 Frank Capra movie starring James Stewart offers inspiration all year long. Order a paperback or download the ebook to “It’s a Wonderful Life: Quotes & Inspiration” – a collection of the best quotes, excerpts, scenes from the movie, posters and other material in a small volume, perfect for holiday gift-giving.

The plot is almost indescribable. The film’s structure defies most movie-making conventions. And for a movie that is perennially described as “heartwarming,” it is incredibly dark. “It’s a Wonderful Life” doesn’t fit into neat buckets, but maybe that is why it resonates – and continues to do so – for millions of people for generations. 

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is something different, something unique. And yet, the 1946 movie’s message is universal and timeless: That each person’s life touches so many others and no man is a failure who lives a life in service to his friends, family and community.

The movie’s place in pop culture is surrounded by as much myth as fact. Although it makes a great story to say it was a film no one knew about until decades later, that is stretching the truth a bit. It had limited box office business, and critics didn’t glow too brightly over it. But “It’s a Wonderful Life” was nominated for several Academy Awards in its day, including an Oscar nod for Frank Capra as Best Director, James Stewart for Best Actor and for the movie itself as Best Picture. So clearly, some people were paying some attention to it. 

But its place in the holiday pantheon and on top of “best of” lists of all time came slowly. So in that way, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a bit of a sleeper hit decades in the making. 

The legendary story is that the studio behind the movie let its copyright lapse in the 1970s. And because of that error, TV stations – especially PBS stations with little to no budgets – could play the movie for no licensing fees. And so they played it. And played it. And played it. To the extent it became a punchline. It also happened to expose the movie to millions of people over the years who would have never sought out that corner of movie history and they fell in love with it. The viewing now has become a part of many families’ holiday traditions. 

While key parts of the movie are set at Christmas Eve, “It’s a Wonderful Life” doesn’t follow a traditional “feel-good” holiday movie trope. 

James Stewart is George Bailey, an ambitious man who wants to leave Bedford Falls (“this crummy little town”) and see the world and build bridges and skyscrapers. Instead, he is met with obstacles at every turn that keeps him in his hometown, marrying and having kids, and helping fund and build modest houses and running the family’s “cheap, penny-ante” savings & loan business. He is frustrated by his duty and loyalty always at odds with his personal dreams. Mr. Potter, the richest man in town, is at odds with George’s duty and represents a beckoning to the other side. 

As the movie comes to present-day Christmas Eve, a financial mishap spurs potential scandal and ruin for George. This culminates in his moment of despair and thoughts of suicide. He has sacrificed his whole life, and it seems he is being punished for always taking the right path. Was it worth it? As an almost ultimate sacrifice, he thinks by killing himself, the insurance money would help cover the looming financial scandal. 

Instead, he is helped by Clarence the angel to see what life would have been like had George never been born. And it’s a bleak look for George – at himself, his family and Bedford Falls itself.

“The angel takes him back through his life to show how our ordinary everyday efforts are really big achievements,” Stewart wrote in his 1987 remembrance of the film for Guideposts magazine. “Clarence reveals how George Bailey’s loyalty to his job at the building-and-loan office has saved families and homes, how his little kindnesses have changed the lives of others and how the ripples of his love will spread through the world, helping make it a better place.”

George comes to see that he has indeed had a wonderful life and wants his life back. The town rallies behind George and he reunites with his family and community. 

The cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is dense with talent, like many classic movies of the Golden Age are. Along with Stewart (who had already won a best actor Oscar in 1939 and been nominated again in 1940), the film boasts Donna Reed (in her first starring role) playing teenager to adult woman; legendary curmudgeon character Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter; Henry Travers as the child-like angel Clarence; the always inimitable Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy; Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Bailey; Gloria Grahame as Violet; Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as Bert and Ernie; and so many more. 

More than 75 years later (and surely at its 100th anniversary and beyond as well), the audiences connect with the timeless themes: how one person can make a difference in the world, even with seemingly limited scope and resources. 

It was a theme director Capra intentionally sought out. It was the first movie made by Capra and star Stewart on returning from their World War II service and witnessing the horrors of war. Although Capra said he never intended it to be a “holiday” movie, he did want to remind the general public about the fundamental goodness of everyday ordinary people, a fact he was reminded of when he captured everyday heroes’ efforts and sacrifices on the battlefields in his documentary series during the war, “Why We Fight.”

“I didn’t give a film-clip whether critics hailed or hooted Wonderful Life. I thought it was the greatest film I had ever made,” Capra wrote in his 1971 autobiography, “Frank Capra: the Name Above the Title.” “It wasn’t made for the oh-so-bored critics, or the oh-so-jaded literati. A film to tell the weary, the disheartened, and the disillusioned … that no man is a failure! … that each man’s life touches so many other lives.”

Order your copy of "It's a Wonderful Life: Quotes and Inspiration," available as paperback or as a Kindle ebook at Amazon.