The great gift: The enduring story of It’s a Wonderful Life

When Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life first came out in theaters, it was not an immediate hit. Perhaps it was poor timing. It premiered in late December 1946 and was released nationwide in January 1947. By the time it came out, the holiday season was a recent memory and many people were already packing up their decorations.

But Capra had never intended it to be a holiday film. The timing of the release was to squeeze it in for the upcoming awards season; the studios played up the holiday themes in the film more than he’d cared for. Based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, it was the first film Capra made after returning home from World War II. To him, it was a universal story of the good in each of us, a celebration of the individual. That it happened to take place on Christmas Eve was coincidental.

When the film came out, the country was rebounding from the Great Depression and the war that had just recently ended. America was on the rise economically and had established itself as a world power. While many other movies of the time celebrated flawless heroes overcoming odds to achieve great triumphs, the small-town world of Bedford Falls and the hard-luck story of the central character George Bailey struck many as sentimental and naïve – some even complained it was depressing.

In its original release, the film did well but didn’t break box office records. It garnered five Academy Award nominations but didn’t win any. Though Capra claimed it was the most important story he’d ever told, It’s a Wonderful Life seemed destined to fade into obscurity. Because of its relatively low popularity, the company that owned the rights let the copyright expire in the mid-1970s. It was then that television stations looking for inexpensive holiday programming rediscovered the movie. Now in the public domain, It’s a Wonderful Life became a ubiquitous holiday tradition.

Some 40 years after its original release, It’s a Wonderful Life reached the level of popularity that has now caused it to be listed among the top 100 films of all time and cemented it in first place among beloved holiday films.

There is more to the connection people feel to this movie than the over saturation of viewings, and the affection it inspires cannot be dismissed as holiday spirit. The story is treasured across generations, among all religions and faiths, and can be enjoyed any time of the year. The universal message Capra intended comes through and resonates today as much as, or maybe more than, it did in the 1940s.

In George Bailey, we see a hero like us. He is a good man, though flawed and frustrated. He has dreams that go unfulfilled time and again as his life steers him away from the adventure he craves. His community relies on him so much it becomes oppressive. Though his life is not all bad, it never had the chance to become what he dreamed it would be. It’s just real life, full of surprises and compromises.

As a young man, George Bailey dreams of seeing the world, going to college, escaping small-town life and becoming more than his father. The American Dream teaches George, and us, that it is possible for everyone to lead an extraordinary life. We are encouraged to aim high and, if we work hard enough, we can accomplish anything. We’re taught to value success, achievement and greatness.

It is less often mentioned that sometimes, no matter how hard you work or how good your intentions, life might take you in a different direction than your dreams. It isn’t until George has grown disheartened by his circumstances and considers suicide that he is given a chance to change his perspective – by being shown that the value of a life can be measured in many ways besides money, fame or power.

By seeing what the world would have been like without his existence, George is given the chance to see all the small ways he has made a difference. He may not be the richest man or own his own company or have traveled to all the places he wanted to go, but the interactions he has with his family, his community and all the people he has helped over the years are valuable in their own right.

In this story, the hero doesn’t learn the truth and then go on achieve great things. The truth of his realization is that he has already achieved great things. For the first time in his life, George recognizes his worth as an individual and sees himself clearly. He is given the gift of knowing that as he has showed up in the lives of others, so will they show up for him in his in a time of need.

Our society rarely recognizes those who are morally rich or extraordinarily kind. We are distracted by measurable achievement – the hyperbole of best or most of anything. We often fail even (and maybe especially) to give ourselves credit for the things we do for our families or community. The enduring message of It’s a Wonderful Life is that, should you choose to see them, there are measures in life that show very clearly how each one of us is a great success.

And this may be the message that makes each telling of the story of It’s a Wonderful Life feel new. Great scholars encourage students to revisit their favorite stories repeatedly over their lifetimes because, as they say, “The stories don’t change, you do.” However you connect to the story, and regardless of how many times you’ve heard it, it is wonderful to know you matter.