The film is regularly listed as one of the best movies ever made. George Bailey is up there on the list of best heroes, and Mr. Potter is often found to be one of the best (or worst?) villains. The list of AFI top movies initially placed “It’s a Wonderful Life” at number eight, behind such unstoppable films as “Gone with the Wind,” “The Godfather,” and, of course, “Citizen Kane.”
It dropped to number 20 in the 2007 re-ranking, but that’s still the twentieth-best movie in all of American filmmaking. Also on the list is another Capra/Stewart flick, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Stewart would later go on to say that this film was his favorite out of all the films that he appeared in.
How a Movie Becomes a Classic
As we said before, this film was a modest box-office success and got middling reviews – how come it is so fondly remembered now? Well, the fact of the matter is the movie was always good, people didn’t go to see it much. After a long, destructive war, going to see a sentimental movie wasn’t on a lot of people’s Christmas lists. The sentimentality seemed like an illusion already shattered by the horrors of World War II.
It faded from the public eye. Then, in 1974, a clerical error prevented the copyright from being renewed. Because of this lapse, television stations looking for a cheap Christmas movie snapped it up. After being added to the rotation of holiday films, people started to appreciate it more and more.
At the Top of the List
“It’s a Wonderful Life” took its time getting the attention it deserved, and nowadays, it’s seen as one of the finest films ever made. It was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1990. Even Channel 4 in the United Kingdom called it one of the best films ever made – seventh. Directors from Steven Spielberg to Akira Kurosawa and David Lynch love it. Even Orson Welles, who played Potter in a made-for-TV remake, said that there was no way to hate the movie.
The film had a tough time at the Oscars, losing most of the nominated categories to “The Best Days of Our Lives,” a film about servicemen attempting to return to life after World War II. “It’s a Wonderful Life” won one of them, however: a technical achievement award for the development of a new method of simulating falling snow.
Despite the amazing accolades that “It’s a Wonderful Life” would eventually accrue, the movie still wasn’t much of a success at the time. Capra’s production company fell into bankruptcy, and Stewart continued to doubt his acting abilities. The next wave of leading men, including Marlon Brando and James Dean, were starting to appear. They were destined to change Hollywood away from what Stewart had gotten used to.
He stuck with it, however, stepping into radio dramas and replacing original star Frank Fay on Broadway for the play “Harvey” during Fay’s vacation. Stewart excelled in the unconventional role of a wealthy eccentric whose friend is a man-sized rabbit and whose family is trying to get him committed. When Fay returned, it was decided that Stewart would again take his place the next summer during another break.
One Film a Year
Thanks to this other work, Stewart only released a single film in 1947, “Magic Town,” directed by William A. Wellman and with Jane Wyman alongside Stewart. It was a comedy film about, of all things, public opinion polling, inspired by the Middletown studies. Sadly, this single film for 1947 was received poorly both by the general public and by the critical audience.
Just like Stewart’s previous film, it was a flop upon release, but unlike “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there was no eventual public swing of affection for “Magic Town.” Sometimes, a bad movie is just that. It turns out that there’s no miracle formula for a movie, even if it has Jimmy Stewart in it.