How It's a Wonderful Life went from box office failure to Christmas classic -The Independent
"Before James Stewart was sent off to fight in the Second World War, he was one of Hollywood's biggest movie stars. He'd appeared in 28 films, had been nominated for an Oscar for Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and even won one for Best Actor a year later for The Philadelphia Story. He was riding high.
But after spending three years fighting the Nazis in the US Air Force, the 37-year-old returned home in 1945 to find that everything had changed. His contract with MGM had run out, his agent had left the movie business, and he was suffering from what would later be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. Capra - who had directed Stewart twice before, including on Mr Smith Goes to Washington - wanted to pitch a film called It's a Wonderful Life....Stewart plays George Bailey, a young man with dreams of 'shaking off the dust of this crummy old town', becoming an architect, and traveling the world. But, gradually, he feels the walls of Bedford Falls closing in on him. Driven to the brink of suicide after a lifetime of sacrificing his own dreams for others, Bailey is visited by an angel called Clarence, who shows him what the world would have been like without him. 'Each man's life touches so many lives,' says Clarence. 'When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?'....'I'm not a praying man,' Stewart says, 'but if you're up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.' As he rubs a clenched, trembling hand against his mouth, he starts to cry. That moment, which actor Carol Burnett later described as 'one of the finest pieces of acting anyone has ever done on the screen', wasn’t in the script. 'As I said those words' Stewart said in 1977, 'I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. That was not planned at all.' By the time the film was complete, almost everyone involved was convinced of its inevitable success. 'I thought it was the greatest film I ever made,' said Capra. 'Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.' The world didn’t agree. When it opened in 1947, It's a Wonderful Life fell well short of breaking even....The film placed 26th in box office revenues for the year. 'By the end of 1947,' said Stewart, 'the film was quietly put on the shelf.' For a few decades, that's where it stayed. But then, slowly and surely, the film was reassessed....Republic Pictures, who owned the film's copyright, had such little faith in it that they failed to renew the rights for a second term in 1974. American television channels, grateful for the free content, started showing it on repeat...It's a Wonderful Life has hardly been off TV and film screens since, and has come to be considered one of the greatest films Capra ever made...'The movie simply refused to stay on the shelf,' Stewart said. 'Those who loved it, loved it a lot, and they must have told others. They wouldn’t let it die any more than the angel Clarence would let George Bailey die.'"