The Bizarre Reason Its a Wonderful Life Became a Christmas Classic

The Bizarre Reason Its a Wonderful Life Became a Christmas Classic ...

Few films are as well seen, or as well known as Frank CaprasIts a Wonderful Life. Alongside its being a consensus choice for the most anticipated Christmas film in history, it was also inducted into the National Film Registry, which was voted the third-greatest fantasy film ever by the American Film Institute. For young people, it might seem like it always had.

In fact, it was only $3.3 million at the box office, without even recouping the $3.7 million budget. The film was directed by Philip Van Doren Stern, who supposedly wrote it in 1939 and placed copies of it insideof Christmas cards he sent to family and friends in 1943. As legend states, Cary Grant wanted the film to go mainstream. Later, the material was sold to Capras Liberty Films as a project for James Stewart.

Though some contemporary reviews of Its a Wonderful Life were positive, audiences were wary about a Christmas story steeped in so many darkness. Much of the plot focuses on Stewarts George Bailey, who has selflessly sacrificed throughout his life for the benefit of others. He finally sets a breaking point on Christmas Eve and contemplates suicide. He is saved by a guardian angel, who shows him how life in his little town would have been if he hadn''t been born.

Given the stuff audiences prefer to watch on Christmas sentimental romances, heartbreaking family adventures, and small children repeatedly hitting wet bandits in the groin, it''s not surprising that Its a Wonderful Life did not catch on with moviegoers in the 1940s, but it might never have caught on at all, if not for one of the strangest fears of fate in film history: it was forgotten to renew its copyright.

The author or their estate may renew their copyright for another 28 years, according to a copyright law in the United States. If the author fails, the copyright may lapse into the public domain at which point anyone may publish their own copies of them without having to pay the author. (William Shakespeare has been dead for centuries, for example, so if you want to publish your own volume ofRomeo & Juliet, you go ahead.)

It''s a Wonderful Lifes original copyright expired in 1974. For some reason nobody is entirely certain why, although the assumption is that it was a simple human error it was not renewed. That meant that a film with big actors like Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, directed by a major filmmaker like Frank Capra, was now in the public domain. That meant that anyone would film the film for free.

Every year around Christmas from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, television listings were filled with endless broadcasts ofIts a Wonderful Life. The more people watched it, the more they became thrilled by the films'' inspiring message about selflessness, generosity, and community. By the mid-1980s, the annual ritual ofIts a Wonderful Lifes television broadcasts had transformed the film from one of Capras forgotten gems to one of the most celebrated American films in history.

Despite the fact that the film had been in the public domain for 20 years, it became so popular in the 1990s, and it grewtoo valuable to remain in the public domain without the need of someone else to restore it. Sure enough, in1993 Republic Picturesannounced that it had exclusive rights toIts a Wonderful Life. How did they pull that off?TCM.com:

Republic claimed that because it had the rights to both Van Doren Stern''s short story and the original negative-it effective owned the film. Unauthorized video copies of the film were destroyed, and the NBC network acquired exclusive television rights.

NBC eventually became one of the first stations to airIts a Wonderful Life without a rights fee. And so dozens of broadcasts eventually became one on its own. By that point, however, it might never happen, even if it had been renewed in 1974.

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