It is impossible to not associate Christmas with "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946). They are so synonymous with each other that although there are other films which can be considered staples of the holiday season, none of them come quite as close as to "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946). Could you imagine Christmas without this wonderful classic?
It all started with a story by Philip Van Doren titled "The Greatest Gift" which follows George Pratt, a man about to commit suicide when he meets a stranger granting George's wish of never having been been born. While Doren was unable to find a publisher, he self-published the story as a Christmas card to send out to his friends and family. Eventually, the story made its way to the producers of RKO Studios.
After it was passed around for a few years, not being able to find a director or a writer to build on the short story, it came to director Frank Capra. Capra had just returned from serving in World War II and wanted to make a film which celebrated the ordinary life of the American citizen. According to the director himself, the film's theme was about "the individual's belief in himself." There were rigorous rewrites but "It's A Wonderful Life" finally emerged.
Originally, RKO wanted the film to be a vehicle for Cary Grant but he was preoccupied with another film, the soon-to-be Christmas staple, "The Bishop's Wife" (1946). Henry Fonda was also another strong candidate for the lead but of course, the role was given to Jimmy Stewart. Like Capra, Stewart also served in World War II and some historians believe the war changed his choices in acting roles, as they were more darkly-themed than the films he made before the war. "It's A Wonderful Life" was his first foray into the somewhat darker-themed films and it was his chance to show himself he still had what it takes to work in Hollywood again.
When the film was finished, the intended release date was to be some time in the Spring of 1947. But because RKO Studios original choice for a Christmas release was not ready yet, the studio bumped "It's A Wonderful Life" to a limited release on December 20, 1946. However for some unknown reason, it was marketed it as romantic comedy, clearly the complete opposite.
The original previews reportedly focused on the love story between George and Mary (Donna Reed) and little else.
Not surprisingly, "It's A Wonderful Life" opened to mixed reviews and was postponed for a general release until July the following year. The marketing could be blamed or it could be that another World War II film stole its thunder both financially and critically, "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946). "It's A Wonderful Life" was nominated for five Academy Awards including "Best Picture", "Best Director" and "Best Actor" but "The Best Years of Our Lives" swept four out of the five nominations.
Afterwards, "It's A Wonderful Life" quietly went away and eventually fell into public domain which is why it resurfaced on television during the Christmas season of 1970s. When Frank Capra, the director, was questioned about its renewed success, he said, ďItís the damndest thing Iíve ever seen...I didnít even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.Ē