'It's a Wonderful Life' was Made to Combat Atheism

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ did not fare well at the box office, and it was given poor reviews by cynical movie critics at the time. So what happened?

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.

Scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life”

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 ”” 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.

Renee Nal

Renee Nal is an investigative journalist and documentary film producer.


  • If that movie was made to combat atheism
    one would think that God might have been
    mentioned. While it’s entirely possible
    the author’s claim is accurate (and while
    admitting their are many excellent life
    lessons in IAWL) I don’t see that as one
    of them.I think this is wishful thinking.

  • You won’t find God mentioned in the book of Ruth either . But just like the book of Ruth is filled with the Presence of God so is this film. That’s why it’s so hated by those critics and so many others, they hate God. IAWL is probably one of the best movies ever made.

  • As to the mention of God, when George was being abusive at home to his wife, the 3 children who were downstairs, and the woman & her husband on the phone (from stress of $$$ missing) one daughter then asks Mom, “ Is Daddy in trouble?” Donna Reed answers “yes.” “Should I pray for Daddy?” “Yes, pray very hard.” Then Mom sends them all off to pray for Daddy. Twice when George prays, he says “God.”

    Communists were then and still are atheists.
    The growth of communism meant that atheism would also spread. Disdain for private property ownership, any capitalism, and utter contempt for the worth of the individual are all lesser evils than the Godlessness of Communism, which was & is the root of all its evil. I believe the growth of atheism today has its roots in the Communist Revolution. It is more harmful to American society today than in 1946.

    From the movie and from average American families (not Hollyweird or NYTimes) prayer for Daddy was normal, common in 1946. Given this stated goal to counter atheism, the movie accomplishes its goal albeit in a mild manner with childlike understanding of guardian angels. It is wholesome…. still edifying.

    • The mention of the working of angels in the earth is a major truth in judaism. Frank Capra, being of jewish heritage, clearly made the story about how God works in man’s existence.
      As Clarence stated the theme which was also the title of the original story the movie is based on, > George was intending to throw away “God’s Greatest Gift”. Capra’s direction to keep God and heavenly intervetion front and center shows us that the value of each man’s life is designed by The Creator and given to us.
      This goes far deeper than the sung carols, the prayers and even the love stories intwined in the movement of regular American life as depicted.

      Because there are more suicides around the holidays, I love that this movie exists as a reminder of these truths we ponder, albeit schmaltzy. It is actually deep-thinking rendition of the truth of what life is about and what could happen if we took control and redesigned it without our individual, inherant value as God made us: what we’re made for.

      • Greetings All !
        @Spencer & Amy,
        Spencer ” The culture of the late 1940s was still untouched by what we see today. ” In one way that’s correct, but probably, because the Corruption & Evil was confined to a relatively small club ? The ‘ undefiled ‘ culture, was because God was large in Peoples lives. However, the (D)Evil certainly WAS there, unseen.

        btw, lets give credit to James Perloff !

        ” albeit schmaltzy. ” I Love Sentimentality !

        First time I heard Capra intended to show people the Dark side of Life’s Struggles caused by Bad & Evil People, can be defeated with Love, for Fellow Man and God…

        I wonder if the White Hat’s commissioned the Film ? The story of how the short story came to Play-script is itself intriguing ?

        I’m thinking it is a White Hats commission, to, Not only remind People God is there for us , but also to subtly show the Symbolism,
        it IS all throughout the Film !!

        I’m NOT going to spoil it here for you, have pleasure in discovering for yourselves ! ps, Senaca Falls was the Town they modeled it on !

  • “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a great movie because it tries to show us that there is hope when things get bad. God is there to help us. The culture of the late 1940s was still untouched by what we see today. I think there was a optimism and decency that pervaded society. The movie shows us that goodness wins in the end. It is a spectacular movie.

  • just saw this film again last night, and am finally old enough to appreciate it’s depth. In our age of toxic masculinity and white male privilege, it’s refreshing to see the portrayal of a real, flawed, frustrated family man who is self sacrificing; out of a sense of duty, maybe , but ultimately out of love. I agree with Richard Cohen’s analysis, that Pottersville is the world as it is; except (my analysis) for the presence of God in the world. In this film George, as a Christian, represents God’s self sacrificial love in this broken world. Transformative! Merry Christmas!

  • In atheism there is no God therefore man came through an evolutionary process instead of from a creator. To an atheist the value of an individual life is not really celebrated. A person is born, lives, dies and ceases to exist. This movie has a God who sent the angel. Each life impacts the lives of many others and has a purpose and value.
    In the world we live in now the sanctity of life is under attack from the womb to those with mental and or physical limitations to the elderly. It is atheism with a focus on eugenics.


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