Calhoun Times

Celebratin­g a ‘Wonderful’ 75th anniversar­y

- By Chris Hewitt

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a holiday fixture now but that was not true at first. Movie fans did not always think the classic — No. 20 on the American Film Institute’s list of the best movies ever made and 75 years old this week — was so wonderful.

Released five days before Christmas in 1946, “Wonderful Life” introduced us to George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who faces a personal and profession­al crisis on Christmas Eve of 1945 and only manages to turn his frown upside-down with the help of a klutzy angel (Henry Travers).

It did modestly in theaters, reportedly falling about $500,000 shy of earning the $6.3 million it would have needed to break even. It earned respectful reviews and was nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, best director Frank Capra and best actor Stewart, losing those three to “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Then, for years, it was barely thought of.

But a few things changed that. The biggie was that Republic Pictures neglected to renew the copyright on the film, so it entered the public domain in 1974, which is why you can find slipshod Blu-rays for $4 at gas stations every December and why it pops up on TV year after year. Then, in 1977,

Marlo Thomas, a big TV star at the time, produced and starred in a gender-flipped remake, “It Happened One Christmas,” which scored huge ratings and led many dads like mine to tell their kids, “You liked that thing? You should see the original.”

The main change, in terms of how we look at “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is us. It’s the same movie it was in 1946 but we come at it differentl­y now than we did then — when, for a variety of reasons, it must have startled audiences hoping for a “The Bells of St. Mary’s”-like burst of holiday cheer.


Then: One of the most genial of Hollywood stars, Stewart earned audiences’ trust playing uncomplica­ted good guys, including in Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and his Oscarwinni­ng role in “The Philadelph­ia Story.” It’s likely the Capra connection led Stewart to sign on to “Wonderful” as his first project after distinguis­hed service in the U.S.

Army, starting in 1941 (he remained in the Reserves).

If audiences were expecting another of those uncomplica­ted guys, they did not get it in “Wonderful,” where George spends a chunk of the movie contemplat­ing suicide. George is a hero but “Wonderful” examines what it costs him to be one for the town of Bedford Falls, New York, whose citizens he repeatedly puts ahead of himself.

Now: With his entire career available, not just those early years, “Wonderful” does not seem like an outlier. A pioneer in actors wresting control of their careers away from studios, Stewart began stretching what audiences expected of his characters, especially with Alfred Hitchcock, who seemed to delight in roughing up Stewart’s image. Hitchcock cast him as a dangerousl­y arrogant professor in “Rope,” a peeping Tom who somehow doesn’t know how incredible Grace Kelly is in “Rear Window” and a borderline necrophili­ac in “Vertigo.”

 ?? Hulton archive/Getty images/Tns ?? James Stewart as George Bailey, hugs actor Karolyn Grimes, who plays his daughter Zuzu, in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Hulton archive/Getty images/Tns James Stewart as George Bailey, hugs actor Karolyn Grimes, who plays his daughter Zuzu, in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

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