Its A Wonderful Life (1946)

wonderful life
Donna Reed and James Stewart

'It's a Wonderful Life' is a dramatic comedy film made in 1946, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell. It was not a box-office success on first release but it has since come to be regarded as an indisputable classic and one of the most popular movies ever made. James Stewart considered the film his personal favorite of all his movies.

The movie received five Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Sound Recording and Best Film Editing, but did not win any, losing out to William Wyler's 'The Best Years of Our Lives' which won seven Oscars.

'It's a Wonderful Life' premiered in December, 1946, one month after 'The Best Years of Our Lives' and each film got a markedly different reception. The reviews for 'The Best Years of Our Lives' were universally ecstatic but for 'It's a Wonderful Life' were very mixed and the film fared poorly at the box-office. In addition, with the cold war Communist witch hunts just beginning, the FBI mounted an innuendo campaign against the movie, describing Barrymore's character as "subversive Bolshevik propoganda" and Stewart's Mr Everyman as a "common trick used by the Communists".

It was only when the initial 28 year copyright period ended in 1973 that the film suddenly exploded onto countless TV stations and quickly became a staple of American winter holiday TV programming and belatedly earned a place in the heart of American popular culture. The American Film Institute ranked the film at number one in its list of most inspirational movies of all time and on its 100 Years... 100 Movies list of the top American films it is ranked at number eleven.

In 1990, 'It's a Wonderful Life' was selected for preservation in National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress.


The plot is highly unusual in that it hinges on a failed suicide attempt interrupted by an angel sent down by God. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, is the nice family man, down-on-his-luck, who contemplates suicide because he thinks everyone will be better off without him. He is then taken on a journey by Clarence the Angel to see how his family and friends would have fared if he had never been born, like Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" in reverse.

Clarence shows him a nightmare vision and he begs Clarence to give him another chance. He gets it and the film ends happily on an upbeat note which brings us to the message of the film. George might not have lots of money, but he has countless friends and a family that loves him, and that makes him the richest man in town.


Frank Capra had spent World War II in uniform making military documentaries. He returned to a post-war world in which most studios were skeptical about his optimistic view of human nature. Their mistrust of "Capracorn" combined with his own inclination to bypass the control which the large studios always exerted on filmmakers, led him to form an independent production company, Liberty Films, together with fellow directors William Wyler and George Stevens. The new company found a home at RKO where they negotiated a nine-film distribution agreement.

Philip Van Doren wrote the original story "The Greatest Gift" in 1939 but was unable to find a publisher. In 1943 he decided to use it as a Christmas greetings message, and he mailed copies to family and friends at Christmas of that year.

In 1945 RKO bought the rights to the story for $10,000, as a vehicle for Cary Grant. After three unsatisfactory scripts, the project was shelved and Grant started work on another movie. Capra paid RKO $50,000 for the story together with the three scripts, and RKO retained distribution rights. Capra turned the story and the three scripts into a screenplay which he renamed "Its a Wonderful Life". The script underwent many revisions both before and during filming with the final screenplay credit going to Capra himself together with Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling.

Initial financing of $1.54 million was put forward by Bank of America and the final cost was $3.78 million, the most expensive film that Capra ever made. Filming began on April 15th, 1946 at the RKO-Pathé Studios in Culver City, Los Angeles. Location shots were made at the RKO ranch at Encino, California and the High School shots were made at the recently opened Beverly Hills High School gymnasium, with its unique "Swim Gym." Filming ended on July 27, 1946.

Main Cast

The main characters are all perfectly cast, which is one of the film's great strengths.
James Stewart ... George Bailey
Donna Reed ... Mary Hatch Bailey
Lionel Barrymore ... Henry F. Potter
Thomas Mitchell ... Uncle Billy
Henry Travers ... Clarence Odbody
Beulah Bondi ... Mrs. Bailey
Frank Faylen ... Ernie Bishop
Ward Bond ... Bert
Gloria Grahame ... Violet Bick
H. B. Warner ... Mr. Gower
Todd Karns ... Harry Bailey
Samuel S. Hinds ... Peter Bailey
Lillian Randolph ... Annie
Mary Treen ... Cousin Tilly
Frank Albertson ... Sam Wainwright
Virginia Patton ... Ruth Dakin Bailey
Charles Williams ... Cousin Eustace
Sarah Edwards ... Mrs.Hatch
William Edmunds ... Mr. Martini
Bobby Anderson ... Little George Bailey
Ronnie Ralph ... Little Sam Wainwright
Jean Gale ... Little Mary Bailey
Jeanine Ann Roose ... Little Violet Bick
George Nokes ... Little Harry Bailey
Danny Mummert ... Little Marty Hatch
Sheldon Leonard ... Nick, the bartender
Charles Lane ... The rent collector
Jimmy Hawkins ... Tommy Bailey
Karolyn Grimes ... Zuzu Bailey
Larry Simms ... Pete Bailey

James Stewart(1908-1997) Stewart gives a marvellous demonstration of naturalistic acting in one of the finest performance of his career, showing a man trying to find himself and work out his values. This was Stewart's first movie after returning from active duty in WWII. Already a major Hollywood star, he went on to become one of the all time greats.
Donna Reed (1921-1986) After a successful 40 film Hollywood career during which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the war drama 'From Here to Eternity' in 1953, Donna became a highly acclaimed television performer with her own sitcom, 'The Donna Reed Show' which ran for eight years from 1958.
Lionel Barrymore (1878- 1954) Unforgettable as the evil Mr Potter trying to take over the town, Barrymore came from one of America's most illustrious acting dynasties, the brother of John and Ethel Barrymore. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in 'A Free Soul' in 1931.
Thomas Mitchell (1892-1962) Thomas Mitchell plays the lovable Uncle Billy in one of his most memorable roles in a distinguished career. He appeared in many of the greatest Hollywood movies such as 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington', 'Gone with the Wind' and 'Stagecoach', all in the same year, 1939. For his role as the drunken Doc Boone in 'Stagecoach', Mitchell won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Henry Travers (1874-1965) After an early career on the stage in his native England, Travers emigrated to America in 1917, He appeared on Broadway for many years before starting his successful movie career in 1933. He appeared in 'High Sierra in 1941 and 'The Bells of St Mary's' in 1945 before his most famous role as Clarence Odbody, the angel trying to earn his wings.


Director ... Frank Capra
Producer ... Frank Capra
Screenplay ... Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, Frank Capra
Music ... Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography ... Joseph Walker
Format ... B & W
Distribution Company ... RKO Pictures
Release date ... December 20, 1946
Running time ... 130 minutes

Academy Awards

No Wins:
Five Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Frank Capra
Best Director ... Frank Capra
Best Actor ... James Stewart
Best Editing ... William Hornbeck
Best Sound Recording ... John Aalberg