One of the many popular Christmas traditions consists of millions of families sitting down to watch a classic piece of celluloid magic in black and white. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the most popular, inspirational, and beloved films in the history of cinema. A 1946 fantasy drama produced, directed and co-written by Frank Capra, it has one of the best-known plots in movie history: James Stewart stars as George Bailey, a small-time local banker who has constantly sacrificed his personal dreams to help his family and his local community. One Christmas, the evil machinations of the diabolical rival banker, Henry Potter, provoke a potential crisis in Bailey’s bank. Our innocent hero decides that the only solution is suicide. On a mission which he hopes will give him his wings, Clarence Odbody, a befuddled Angel Second Class, intervenes and decides to show Bailey how he has touched other people’s lives, and what life in his home town, Bedford Falls, would be like if he had never been born.  

Box Office Loss

Although Capra’s classic is probably the most-watched film in movie history, it actually opened in 1946 to mixed reviews and made a loss at the box office. It was nominated for five Oscars but won only one for technical achievement. The film was declared a flop. Then, almost three decades later, a miracle occurred. In 1974, copyright of the film was not renewed, probably because of a clerical error, and the movie entered the public domain. TV stations all over the US were now able to show the film for free, and multiple showings at Christmas made the film a firm family favourite. Capra himself was astonished: “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story,” he said.  

communist propaganda

It’s a Wonderful Life is considered to be one of the most uplifting feel-good films of all time. James Stewart, the movie’s star and Hollywood’s everyman, and Frank Capra, one of cinema’s greatest directors, considered the film their favourite. However, the film was not a favourite with everyone. In an FBI memo of 1947, It’s a Wonderful Life was condemned as part of the “communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.” The film was “trying to discredit bankers, a common trick used by communists,” the memo continued, and it also “maligned the upper class, alleging that people with money were mean and detestable.” 

cornflakes not snowflakes

Bedford Falls was designed to represent the archetypal quiet, rural, all-American town. The film’s designers actually created one of the longest sets ever made for a movie: it was 300 metres long, the size of three city blocks, and covered four acres. Twenty oak trees were transplanted onto the set, which had 75 shops and buildings, including a bank with a marble front, a post office and a library. Cats and dogs and pigeons were allowed to roam the set. Capra’s designers even created a new type of snow, using water, soap flakes, foamite, sugar and the magic ingredient… asbestos! Previously, snow on the ground had been created by painting cornflakes white. It looked convincing, but the crackling sounds produced by people walking on the cornflakes meant that dialogue had to be added later in the recording studio.