Few films have had experienced the pilgrimage toward becoming a beloved Christmas classic as peculiarly quirky as that undertaken by Frank Capra’s fantasy, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While some revisionists have overplayed the initial critical reaction to the film upon its release in order to heighten its contemporary standing as a classic, it is true that there was no consensus on the movie’s quality that indicated it would ever achieve its current standing. To those who have been informed that “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a total flop at first, it is worth mentioning the film received five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, picked up a Golden Globe for Best Director for Frank Capra and was named one of the ten best movies of the year by the National Board of Review.
Despite mixed critical reaction and nominations for major awards, one thing that is true is that “It’s a Wonderful Life” was most certainly not embraced to the collective bosom of moviegoers upon release in the way it has been since. The film lost money, but neither cost enough nor lost enough to place it alongside legendary flops. That public embrace would come about courtesy of repeated airings on nearly every TV station in America which was, in turn, the result of inexpensive broadcast rights due to film having falling into the public domain.
Or so it was thought. Part of the quirky pilgrimage toward Christmas mainstay that “It’s a Wonderful Life” undertook included a detour through the even stranger world of the American judicial system where it was determined that the copyright on the film had not actually lapsed into the public domain, after all. The effect of this decision put an end to the distribution of low quality VHS releases as well as the movie’s saturation on television. Unfortunately, the court’s ruling on the copyright status did not occur before the movie’s public domain status resulted in its being chosen as one of the first movies to undergo colorization.
The odyssey of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that saw it become the object of this most misguided of attempts to make black & white movies palatable to younger audiences famously included a near-deathbed critique of the technological tampering with the vision of a director from Frank Capra himself. Less famous is the fact that Capra was directly involved in the decision to colorize his own movie to the extent that he invested his own funds in the project with the intention of colorizing at least a few of his other black & white classics. Capra’s view on the matter changed significantly as a result of the film’s apparent public domain status. The company in which Capra invested decided it would be much easier to get the job done without Capra’s legally unnecessary demand for artistic control. The fact that Capra’s absence would require a greater upfront investment of their own was apparently more than offset by the excitement of not having to share any profits with him.
Perhaps the strangest element of the distinctly unconventional pilgrimage ending in perennial holiday classic is also the least well-known and the most unlikely of them all. You see, the National Board of Review was not the only organization that placed “It’s a Wonderful Life” on a list upon its initial release. The Federal Bureau of Investigation also saw fit to place “It’s a Wonderful Life” on a list of notable films. Believe it or not, but this most sentimental of all movies in which Christmas plays a significant role was placed on a very short and secretive list of movies that were deemed subversive to the American way of life by the FBI.