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Philip Van Doren Stern's story, which, according to many contemporary and modern sources, was originally written in November 1939, was enclosed by him in his 1943 Christmas cards. Although it was privately published by the author and copyrighted in 1945, it was not published in book form until many years later. According to the film's pressbook, Cary Grant brought the story to the attention of RKO, to whom he was under contract. RKO then bought the screen rights, intending it as a starring property for him. In September 1945, Hollywood Reporter announced that Gary Cooper was set to co-star with Grant. According to a November 1945 news item, the story was then sold to Liberty Films as a vehicle for James Stewart.
It's a Wonderful Life was the first production of Liberty Films, a company started by Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and Samuel J. Briskin, shortly after their release from active service during World War II. The company, which released this film under an agreement with RKO, subsequently released films of the partners under agreements with Paramount. The company was dissolved in April 1951. According to Bank of America archival records, Liberty borrowed $1,540,000 from the bank to make It's a Wonderful Life.
It's a Wonderful Life was James Stewart's first film after four years of military service during World War II. It was also Frank Capra's first commercial film since Arsenic and Old Lace, released in 1944, but filmed in 1941. Just prior to the start of production, Todd Karns, the son of character actor Roscoe Karns, replaced David McKay in the role of "Harry Bailey" due to a change in McKay's draft status. Victor Milner was listed as sole cameraman on Hollywood Reporter production charts in April 1946, but was later replaced by Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc. According to news items in Hollywood Reporter and information in the pressbook, some scenes in the picture were filmed at the RKO Ranch in Encino, CA. A Hollywood Reporter article noted that location shooting lasted one month, during which the biggest snow storm in the history of movies was made, requiring 300 tons of limestone and fifty tons of white plaster after only two weeks of shooting the sequence. According to modern sources, RKO special effects expert Russell Shearman developed a new, more realistic looking snow especially for the picture. Capra's autobiography notes that the Charleston contest scene was shot at the newly built Beverly Hills High School gymnasium after he heard about the moving floor covering the swimming pool.
According to memos from RKO executive William Gordon to editor William Hornbeck, several items within the picture were considered problematic, among them references to real places and persons (most of which were deleted from the final film), and recitation of the Lord's Prayer during the scene in Martini's bar (which was re-written as an informal prayer). Capra's autobiography and other modern sources also mention the fact that the first kiss between characters "Mary" and "George" was considered too intense by the Breen Office. Although Stewart was the only name mentioned for the role of George after Liberty bought the story, several other actors and actresses were mentioned for other roles. In a modern source, documents in Capra's own hand mention numerous possibilities for various characters, the most prominent of which were Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott and Ann Dvorak for the role of Mary, and Dan Duryea and Charles Bickford for the role of "Potter." Other modern sources note that Jean Arthur, whom Capra reportedly wanted to play Mary, was unavailable because she wanted to do a Broadway play.
A private preview of the picture was held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on December 9, 1946. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, over 350 people attended, among them Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert and other celebrities, who were mobbed by so many fans that police had to be called in to control the crowd. One item also noted that a New York preview was even more enthusiastically attended by fans. Although many modern sources, including Capra himself in his autobiography, have commented that the film was not a critical or commercial success, this was not entirely the case. Most available reviews did praise the film, with comments ranging from "great" to "wonderful." Although the film May not have lived up to financial expectations of those involved, it did bring Capra a Golden Globe Award for Best Direction and an Oscar nomination in the same category. Additional Oscar nominations went to the film for Best Picture, James Stewart for Best Actor, William Hornbeck for Best Film Editing and RKO's sound department for Best Sound Recording. Newsweek for December 30, 1946 featured a scene from the picture on its cover and an article about Stewart and Capra's return to work after the war.
On March 10, 1947, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast a radio adaptation of the story, starring Stewart, Donna Reed and Victor Moore as "Clarence," and on May 8, 1949, the Hallmark Playhouse broadcast a version, also starring Stewart. The film was remade in 1977 as a television movie for the ABC television network under the title It Happened One Christmas, starring Marlo Thomas in a reworking of the George Bailey role. Although a Broadway musical version of the story was said to be in the works in 1986, hopefully to star James Stewart as Clarence, it was never produced. On December 8, 1997, a live performance of the 1947 radio script was taped at the Pasadena Playhouse as a tribute to the recently deceased Stewart. It's a Wonderful Life-The Radio Play starred Bill Pullman, Nathan Lane, Martin Landau and Minnie Driver, and was broadcast nationally on public television stations. The picture was colorized by Hal Roach Studios in 1986 and by American Film Technologies in 1988, provoking controversy among many of the surviving cast and crew and other fans of the picture. Capra himself was quoted in Newsweek as saying "They ruined it. They splashed it all over with Easter-egg colors and they ruined it. Even the villain looks pink and cheerful."
In 1974, the copyright on It's a Wonderful Life lapsed, and the film was generally assumed to be in the public domain-and therefore free to any company that wished to broadcast it or distribute it on video. Television and cable companies aired the film repeatedly during the Christmas season, and several decades after its release, It's a Wonderful Life became established as a holiday classic. It is often mentioned in lists of "most popular films" reprinted in modern magazines. An article in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" column in 1979 describing the author's annual It's a Wonderful Life screening party exemplifies the popularity of the film. In 1987, a Florida judge ordered a man to watch the film as part of his sentence for killing his ill wife, and then trying to kill himself. According to the judge, he wanted to show the man the value of life. That same year, former National Security Advisor Robert C. McFarlane told a New York Times interviewer that watching the movie gave him the inspiration to go on after his own failed suicide attempt in February 1987.
In June 1993, however, Republic Pictures Corp. announced that it held exclusive rights to the film. Citing a 1990 Supreme Court ruling involving the 1954 film Rear Window, Republic claimed that because it held the rights to both Van Doren Stern's short story and the music used in the film-and possessed the original negative-it effectively owned the picture. Unauthorized video copies of the film were destroyed, and the NBC network acquired exclusive television rights.
In November 1996, cable network Comedy Central announced plans to broadcast a satirical one-hour program titled Escape from a Wonderful Life, which was to incorporate footage from the original film. Comedy Central maintained that although Republic owned the underlying story and the musical score, the film's images were still in the public domain, and vowed to fight Republic in court if the studio attempted to interfere with the project. However, the dispute between Comedy Central and Republic ended when both parties realized they were at least partly owned by media conglomerate Viacom, Inc. Production on the spoof was then cancelled.
In December 2002, two NBC television network broadcasts of It's a Wonderful Life included a specially prepared narration by former president George Bush. His 130 minute-long narration was included on the separate audio program (SAP) for blind and visually impaired viewers.