Essays · Movies

The Evolution of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Over 75 Years

Many people know it began as a flop and became a classic, but there is much more to the story of Frank Capra’s holiday staple.
Its A Wonderful Life Stewart
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on December 7th, 2021

For millions of people, It’s a Wonderful Life is not just a movie, it’s a tradition. Every year around Christmastime, we return to reexperience George Bailey’s emotional story no matter how many times we’ve seen it before. In the decades since its release, Frank Capra‘s 1946 feature has grown into something that feels permanent in our culture. But as we look back at how it got there, and at the work needed to restore the movie for its 75th anniversary, it’s clear that time can both make a classic and contribute to its deterioration.

It’s a Wonderful Life notoriously performed poorly at the box office during its initial theatrical run. The movie also lost every Oscar it was nominated for — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, and Best Actor, for James Stewart (though the RKO Effects Department received a Technical Achievement Oscar for developing a new kind of fake snow). At the time, it seemed like a movie that would fade into oblivion for everyone but die-hard movie fans. Thanks to its interesting preservation story, though, it became something much more.

The movie fell into the public domain in the 1970s thanks to a clerical error. Back then, television stations capitalized on films being in the public domain to fill programming time, which resulted in renewed interest in many classic movies. People of all generations began to watch It’s a Wonderful Life regularly because it was on all the time. This kept the cultural knowledge of the movie alive. With each year, more and more viewers would tune in, and more stations began to play it. People began to appreciate the movie and develop a real love for it.

The public domain allowed for widespread exposure to It’s a Wonderful Life, but it almost ruined the reputation that it had gained over the previous 30 years. In 1986, colorization became the en vogue way of cashing in on nostalgia for Old Hollywood films while keeping up with audiences’ desire for color movies. It also was a way for companies to then own the color version of the film without needing to buy any rights to use the black & white original.

Frank Capra was originally on board with the colorization of his films as long as he had a say in how it was done. He signed on to help finance the colorization of It’s a Wonderful Life with Colorization Inc., but once the company realized the movie was considered to be in the public domain at the time, they ultimately refused to allow Capra any artistic control over the process and returned his investment money.

Outraged, Capra began campaigning against the colorization of It’s a Wonderful Life. This did not result in preventing color versions from being made, however. Hal Roach Studios released the first color version of the movie in 1986. For a moment in time, it seemed like the version that people watched more frequently and remembered, as years went by, was the poorly colorized variant and not the original version that Capra worked so hard to make.

Others soon opposed the colorization of classic films. Several legendary filmmakers, performers, and critics began to campaign against commercial giants like Ted Turner and their ability to cheaply colorize films for profit. It’s a Wonderful Life ended up being a large part of this campaign, bringing in the involvement of its star, James Stewart. The actor spoke on television throughout the late 1980s about how upset it made him that they were colorizing the movie. He was even one of several people to speak in front of Congress about the issue of colorization, saying that he tried to watch the colorized version on It’s a Wonderful Life but had to turn it off because it made him feel sick.

Stewart and other advocates for protecting the originals of classic movies ended up bringing about the National Film Preservation Board, a government-funded board of archivists, filmmakers, and historians that works to preserve American films they recognize as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” In 1989, the first National Film Registry list was announced.

Every year since, this program names around 25 film titles that are guaranteed to be preserved in the Library of Congress in their original form, preventing a subsequent colorized version from being the only version left for audiences to remember. The second list announced, in 1990, included It’s a Wonderful Life. Stewart and his Christmas classic helped America change the way they thought about movies. They aren’t just purely for making money. They are an art form that should be preserved like any other historical artifact.

Now, the original black and white version remains the one that plays every single Christmas Eve on NBC. When theaters across the country screen the movie for the holidays, it is always the black and white version. To many people, it seems like the original version of It’s a Wonderful Life is a permanent staple of the holiday. It gives the false sense that it will be around forever now that it is protected in the Library of Congress.

Paramount’s 75th Anniversary edition of It’s a Wonderful Life shows that even the most classic of films are not exempt from degradation, however. In a fascinating special feature titled “Restoring a Beloved Classic,” the archivists that restored this new 4K Ultra-HD version from the original nitrate negative talk about just how much it is deteriorating. Nitrate is one of the most fragile art mediums to ever exist, and despite Paramount preserving the original negative in perfect archival conditions, it is still beginning to fall apart. The image is fading, shrinking, and flaking. One reel of the original 14 is gone, and the ends of the reels the studio does have are disappearing. The archivists needed to take certain images from other sources, including prints made not long after the original.

The difference between this form of restoration and the colorization of It’s a Wonderful Life is in its purpose. Archivists are trying to keep the integrity of the original with the help of modern technology, not trying to make something new that they believe is more sellable. Ironically, the anniversary edition does feature a color version. While it may seem blasphemous to want to preserve that version after knowing how it came about, it does help preserve the turbulent but historical journey this movie has gone on throughout its 75 years of existence.

From flop to classic to a work of art in danger, It’s a Wonderful Life has evolved into something much more than just a movie. Knowing the effort that goes into keeping this holiday tradition alive for so many fans helps us appreciate just how lucky we are that it is still around today and that more and more people see it for the first time every year.

Related Topics:

Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_