The beloved holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released in 1946. Despite it’s popularity today, it did not fare well at the box office, and it was given poor reviews by cynical movie critics at the time.
Jimmy Stewart said that out of all the movies he had made, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was his favorite. The Director, Frank 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.”
But in the case of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” something magical happened almost 30 years after the movie was released. Because of a “clerical error” in 1974, the film’s copyright was mistakenly not renewed. Television stations were able to air the film at no cost.
So they did, and Americans fell in love.
But cynical critics hated the film.
Bosley Crowther from the New York Times concluded,
“the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of 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.”
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.”
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.”
How many other potential classics were squashed?
Of the newfound success of the film, Frank Capra said:
“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.