The lost Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” made an unlikely comeback in the 1970s and 1980s as it became a television staple in December, after underperforming at the box office and failing to win big at the Oscars at its beginnings in the 1940s.
Ubiquitous every December on the small screen, it has also become a staple over the past two decades in a select group of independent arts theaters across the United States aiming to provide moviegoers with the ultimate Christmas experience: watch George Bailey’s “crucial night” unfold in a theater not unlike the one seen in the film.
And there’s never been a better time to see it on the big screen. Indeed, while the film had a limited theatrical release in late 1946, the 75th anniversary of its wider release in 1947 is being celebrated with event screenings at over 1,000 theaters across the United States in December, as part of a collaboration with Turner Classic. Movies, Paramount Pictures and Fathom Events.
Screenings of the Frank Capra-directed feel-good film begin at these theaters on December 18.
But screenings have already started elsewhere in other locations like the IFC Center in Manhattan, one of the most faithful independent theaters to faithfully present the annual screenings of the film, which starred James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore .
Annual theater screenings of “It’s a Wonderful Life” have taken their place along with holiday shopping and cookie swapping as unmissable traditions, and they’re testament to the film’s enduring appeal, which tells the story of ‘a small town of savings and loans. director – George Bailey (Stewart) – who decides one fateful Christmas Eve that life is not worth living.
“There are people who have made it a key part of their holiday traditions,” said Toby Leonard, director of programming at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, which has shown the film every holiday season since 2001.
At Cinestudio, a home theater at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, patrons like to put annual screenings on their calendars in advance.
“It’s definitely a holiday tradition for patrons to come to Cinestudio to see the movie, and I get calls in early September from people asking, ‘What are your dates for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life?’ “Lew Michaels, the executive director, told CNN as he sat in the theater, a converted chemistry lecture hall.
Jessica Montano, a human resources manager who lives in Manchester, Connecticut, is one such patron. She attends a screening every year with her husband, and this year also plans to bring some friends. Montano, 48, said she started watching the film as a young girl on television, like most American fans. But she has been attending screenings at Cinestudio for five years and she said it made a big difference.
“You feel like you’re stepping back in time in the theater,” she told CNN. “I can enjoy the beauty of the theater, and I sit back, get away from it all, and take a moment out of the crazy Christmas season to enjoy it.”
Jennifer Eberle has been a fan for as long as she can remember and now watches the film at the Belcourt every year with a group of friends. They attend a late afternoon screening so they can have dinner after the film, shown in the original black and white, which Eberle, 46, says enhances the experience.
“It’s a story of loss and failure followed by joy and redemption,” Nashville’s trial attorney told CNN, explaining his appeal.
The film, which debuted shortly before Christmas in 1946 in order to qualify for the 1947 Oscars, has long had a cult following.
There are at least two “It’s A Wonderful Life” festivals – one in Seneca Falls, New York, site of a museum dedicated to the film, and the other in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Stewart’s hometown. actor who played George Bailey.
The Seneca Falls festival, which takes place this weekend and whose founders are planning the 76th anniversary of the film this year, brings together the actors who played the Bailey children and members of the Capra family.
Anwei Law, one of the museum’s founders, told CNN that Capra has always emphasized “the value of every individual,” which she says makes the film’s message infinitely relevant.
It is this timeless appeal that Fathom Events hopes to tap into with the two days of event screenings.
The company, which is owned by cinema chains Cinemark, AMC and Regal Cinemas, distributes content to theaters and hosts limited-engagement event screenings of older films.
Advanced ticket sales and the number of participating venues, including 300 venues not belonging to these three chains, indicate strong interest in screenings of the “It’s A Wonderful Life” event, spokeswoman Colette Carey said. at CNN. She said ticket sales for Capra’s classic exceeded the company’s next blockbuster holiday event projection by 60%.
Fathom has long wanted to revive screenings of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Carey said, noting that fans have been clamoring for it. The company already hopes to renew the promotion next year.
Such screenings attract customers to theaters, which see fewer films with theatrical releases in the post-pandemic era and pivot more quickly to streaming for films arriving in theaters, said Daniel Loria, editorial director of Box Office Pro, the official publication of the National Association of Theater Owners.
It’s no surprise that fans want to see the film – which celebrates the power of community – on the big screen.
“There’s a collective feeling that you don’t get on your couch at home,” said Michaels of Cinestudio in Hartford.
This month’s big rollout is likely to find one of the most loyal fanbases around. Leonard, at the Belcourt in Nashville, said that one year the theater had committed to showing other films on Christmas Eve, so there was one less screening of “It’s A Wonderful Life” that day. . Fans weren’t shy about expressing their disappointment, and the theater learned their lesson. This year, there are four performances on Christmas Eve at the Belcourt and two on Christmas Day.
“We don’t want to ruin anyone’s Christmas,” Leonard said, half-jokingly.
What has long delighted film historians is the fact that when “It’s a Wonderful Life” debuted, it was widely seen as a wash. The film, whose signature advice is the phrase “No man is a failure who has friends”, was initially more or less a failure.
Although it received good reviews, it was not a box office juggernaut and it did not win any major awards. The film rights changed hands several times and were not renewed in the 1970s, allowing the film to fall into the public domain.
This is characteristic of the entire film story. As film historian Jeanine Basinger writes in her compendium, “The It’s A Wonderful Life Book,” the original idea for the film languished for years before studio RKO sold it to Capra in 1945 for just $10. $000.
In a chapter titled “The Many Lives of It’s A Wonderful Life”, Basinger, professor emeritus at Wesleyan University, notes that “nobody seemed able to turn the bizarre story into a treatment that might work well on screen.” .
There was something special, however, about this “weird story”, as many quirky details and lines survived the jump to the big screen.
The original story was called “The Greatest Gift”, by Philip Van Doren Stern, and according to the text republished in Basinger’s book, this is where George first utters the immortal line, “I said that I wish I had never been born.”
It’s hard to imagine now that he didn’t emerge triumphant at the Oscars in 1947, where “The Best Years of Our Lives” won top prizes.
Capra had high hopes for the film. As Basinger notes, when the film lost the three Oscars Capra and Stewart coveted the most — best picture, best director, and best actor — it was a blow.
“(Capra’s) records reveal how he must have felt,” Basinger wrote of the collection of film material from the director’s career, now housed at Wesleyan. “There’s no coverage from Oscar night – not a single clipping, not a single photo or a single memento.”
And the albums he had kept on film, “stop abruptly.”
Although often seen as schmaltzy and sentimental fare, the film has a distinctly dark side. After all, Bailey goes to a bridge in her fictional small town, Bedford Falls, to end her life in one of the film’s most tragic scenes.
“At the end of the day, it’s really about the ongoing struggle,” Leonard at the Belcourt in Nashville told CNN.
For many fans, the film’s dark side enhances its appeal.
Montano, for example, likes Lionel Barrymore’s character, Henry F. Potter, “the richest man in town” as he’s portrayed in the movie, and the person who pockets $8,000 of his money. Bailey’s society, sending the main character into a suicidal downfall.
“I know he’s mean, but he adds depth to the movie,” she said.
Eberle, in Nashville, agrees. “It’s not necessarily a happy movie,” she said, adding that the film is captivating for the range of emotions it inspires in viewers.
Potter’s character actions also add a layer of realism. Some fans wanted a different ending so the movie’s villain would be punished. But in real life, sometimes the bad guys get away with it.
In a 1956 letter to a fan who said the film struck his heart, Capra said the film “probably touched… more people than any other I’ve made.”
“You see,” he wrote in the letter, which is reprinted in Basinger’s book, “we are all George Baileys in one form or another.”