It’s a Wonderful Life

A timeless classic thanks to … copyright laws?

By Bradley Lane

Originally released in 1946, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple in houses across America and is widely celebrated as a classic. However, this was not always the case, in fact, when it originally released it only did moderately well, and did not garner much notice from critics of the time. So how did a supposedly mediocre film from the 1940s become a modern Christmas tradition? It all has to do with copyright laws.

In 1974, 25 years after it initially released, due to a paperwork error, the copyright of the film expired, and it entered the public domain. Effectively, this meant that anyone could distribute the film without having to pay royalties to the studio that produced the film. Instantly, television studios across the U.S. began broadcasting it every holiday season. It was this paperwork error that led to a disappointment of a film to becoming what it is today, a critical and audience darling that has bonified classic status.

For the uninitiated, It’s a Wonderful Life is a story about the life of George Bailey, played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart. George is a lifelong resident of Bedford Falls, and throughout the first and second acts he is introduced as consistently selfless. Even going so far as to give up on his own goals and dreams to help others in his community. However, this begins to wear on George in his middle age and he finds himself in a deep depression wishing to God that he’d never had been born. In response, an angel, played with timeless charm by Henry Travers, shows him what Bedford Falls would look like if he hadn’t been born.

It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas film of all time despite being released more than 50 years before I was born. The reason being is that, unlike the yearly hallmark Christmas films or even theatrically released holiday films, It’s a Wonderful Life goes beyond the platitudes and clichés that permeate the genre. The film explores themes of family, community, class struggle, and loss in a convincing and realistic way. The pacing of the film reinforces these ideas by using the majority of the film to tell the story of George’s life. We have a deep appreciation for George and have even been exposed to his flaws. This means we too experience the disorientation and terror George feels when he wakes up in Pottersville and he loses everything.

Ultimately, the film is about more than a season, it’s about the culmination of a life. The people we touch every day without even realizing it. So, remember this holiday season, “no man is a failure who has friends.” It’s a Wonderful Life is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

5/5 stars