It's a Wonderful Life is not just one of the greteat holiday movies of all time - it is one of the all time best movies period!
The story behind It's a Wonderful Life begins when Frank Capra returned to Hollywood from his service in the Army during World War II, he was a colonel and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He had left Hollywood, one of its foremost directors, to make films at home and abroad for the War Department. He worked on all seven pictures in the Why We Fight series, including the Oscar-winning Prelude to War; another series beginning with Know Your Ally and Know Your Enemy; the Army-Navy Screen Magazine; The Negro Soldier in World War II; The Battle of Britain; Two Down and One to Go; and several other films which he codirected. Now, in the spring of 1945, he was a civilian once again, back in Hollywood looking for a new project. Together with three other colonels who had seen service in the war—William Wyler, George Stevens, and Samuel Briskin—he formed Liberty Films, of which he was President; and the company committed itself to make nine pictures for release through RKO/Radio.
As of yet, Capra had no film in mind to make as his first for Liberty Films.
One day Charles Koerner, head of production at RKO, came to his office to tell him about an original story, "The Greatest Gift," which he had purchased for RKO from Philip Van Doren Stern. It had been written as a Christmas card to be mailed to Stern's friends, but Koerner saw a full feature film in its few paragraphs, bought it, and had already spent a fortune hiring three writers—Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets—to make a screenplay of the story. So far none of their efforts had come to fruition, and Koerner wanted Capra to read the story and see what he thought. Capra read it and was overjoyed; it seemed to him to be the story he had been looking for all his life. Liberty bought "The Greatest Gift" for the fifty thousand dollars Koerner had paid for it, and Koerner threw in the three previous screenplays as part of the bargain. Capra, however, wanted a fresh start; he hired Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett as writers, and later wrote some scenes on his own. The new title for the venture was It's a Wonderful Life.
Seldom has a picture been produced with more love. Capra got his old friend James Stewart, who had also been a colonel in the Air Corps, to play the leading role and the rest of the cast fell easily into place. Three actors—Lionel Barrymore, Donna Reed, and Gloria Grahame—were borrowed from M-G-M; the others, for the most part, were enlisted from what Capra has called the Ford-Capra stock company: brilliant character actors such as Thomas Mitchell, H. B. Warner, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Frank Hagney, plus two talented additions to the ranks—Sheldon Leonard and Henry Travers.
The hero of Its a Wonderful Life is George Bailey (James Stewart), who never planned to be a hometown boy. Born, reared, and educated in the typical small American town of Bedford Falls, George is a victim of circumstances. He had always wanted to travel, to see the world and develop beyond Bedford Falls; but when his father died, George was committed to keeping alive the Bailey Building and Loan Company as the only alternative to allowing Bedford Falls to fall completely under the ownership of greedy and unscrupulous Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
George's sacrifices begin at once. He gives up a trip abroad for which his father had paid in order for his brother to go to college, while he himself goes to work for the Bailey Company. He falls in love with and marries Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), but when there is a run on the Bailey Building and Loan Company, fomented by Mr. Potter, Georg_e is forced to use his honeymoon money to bolster the dwindling assets. Ending the bank day with only one dollar left, George goes home to the dilapidated old mansion which Mary has taken over to begin their future life together.
George is doomed to stay in 'Bedford Falls, the best-liked man in town. He and his wife have children, and the machinations of Mr. Potter seem to have come to a halt. Then Mr. Potter, obsessed with the idea of owning the town, again starts trying to gain control of the Bailey Company. When George's partner Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses several thousand dollars, George is tempted to give up. It is the Christmas season, but there is no love and the spirit of giving is gone in George's soul.His town has become the wreck of an American dream, turned sour by one selfish, evil man. All George wants is out—for good.
While standing on the bridge over the river at Bedford Falls, George is thinking about something that Potter had said to him about being worth more dead than alive when a stranger calls out for help from the ice water below. George jumps to his rescue, forgetting for the moment that he had been thinking about killing himself just moments before. They are both pulled from the water by the tollhouse keeper, who takes them into the tollhouse to dry off. The stranger, whose name is Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) tells George that he is his guardian angel, but he is an angel who has not earned his wings, which he will get if he can keep George alive. George, however, wishes that he had never been born; so Mr. Oddbody describes how different life would have been in Bedford Falls had George never lived. For example, when George was young and worked in a drugstore, he averted a tragedy when the distracted pharmacist, Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner), accidentally put poison into a prescription he was preparing. George learns, thanks to Mr. Oddbody, that he has unknowingly become the town's most important citizen, and has been involved, directly or indirectly, in the fates of almost all the townspeople.
Later, Bert (Ward Bond) the policeman finds George on the bridge and demands to know where he has been, since the whole town is looking for him. George by now is glad to be alive. Meanwhile, the citizens of Bedford Falls, filled with good will and the Christmas spirit, want to prove their faith in George. They bring him all the cash they can scrape together so that once more George can defeat old Mr. Potter. The miracle of friendship allows him and his town to celebrate. Men who have real friends know the best there is in life. Good deeds, as Everyman learned in the old morality play, are all that follow each man beyond the span of his earthly days.
It's a Wonderful Life was Capra's own favorite film of all the features he directed, and it was James Stewart's favorite as well. It received a goodly share of praise from the critics, although some were unmoved by its moments of fantasy and earnest Americanism. The public, nevertheless, greatly admired the picture, which earned five Academy Award nominations, but no Oscar; the major share of the Oscars went to the superb The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler for Samuel Goldwyn as Wyler's last film before he joined Liberty Films.
As many times as a filmgoer sees It's a Wonderful Life, he cannot fail to be moved by certain sequences, in particular the scenes of the high school dance held iR the school gymnasium. The sequence was shot at Beverly Hills High School, and when somebody in the crew mentioned that the dance floorwas movable and that underneath it was a swimming pool, Capra could not resist taking advantage of the unique circumstance. Thus was born the gimmick of the Charleston contest: one of George's rivals pulls the switch which moves the floor apart, until George and Mary Hatch, performing a hectic Charleston on the very edge of the separating floor, finally tumble down into the water, followed by nearly everyone present, including the principal.
It's a Wonderful Life is still a much-loved film, with its theme that no man is a failure as long as he has one friend, and that every man's life touches everybody he knows, so that no man ever lives alone. Many fans have made a practice of viewing it on Christmas Eve, just as Capra himself still does in his own home. It is a true holiday film, intended to spread good will and cheer, which it does liberally; it is, in fact, a kind of modern morality movie, not unlike Dickens' A Christmas Carol, with James Stewart playing a character similar to Bob Cratchit, a worthy hero whose faith is put to the test, and Lionel Barrymore portraying a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge.