University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Have yourself a (not quite so) very merry Christmas film

In this blog, UoP Senior Lecturer Rob James reflects on the changing popularity of the, now well-regarded, festive classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Rob tells us that the film’s success was not predetermined, and that it took a mixture of chance and luck, along with a well-told story of course, for the film to achieve its status as a seasonal favourite. Rob’s research covers society’s leisure activities and this feeds into a number of optional and specialist modules he teaches in the second and third year.

Final scene from It's a Wonderful Life showing everyone celebrating Christmas.

Final scene from It’s a Wonderful Life.

In a recent poll featured in The Independent newspaper of the ‘Best Christmas Movies’, the 1946 Hollywood-produced film It’s a Wonderful Life came in at number one, followed by Home Alone (1990) at number two, Elf (2003) at number three, and The Snowman (1982) and Love Actually (2003), at numbers four and five respectively, making up the rest of the top five most highly-rated Christmas films.[1]

It’s a Wonderful Life is, by far, the oldest film featured in the top 5, and is the second oldest film in the twenty-film list – the oldest being the 1944 wartime hit Meet Me in St Louis, featuring Judy Garland, who sang the tear-jerking, pathos-filled song Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas at a time when many people could certainly not look forward to having a very merry Christmas at all.

Despite being released in 1946 – and filmed in black-and-white – It’s a Wonderful Life maintains a particular resonance with contemporary audiences.  The film often sits atop these types of seasonal all-time Christmas movie lists, keeping all other films, even popular newcomers, at bay. In fact, It’s a Wonderful Life has, for some time now, been recognised, and frequently-voted as, the favourite Christmas film by both film critics and the film-loving public. Indeed, in a Radio Times poll in 2018 the film came top having received just under 10% of the overall votes.[2] As James Munby has rightly noted, It’s a Wonderful Life has ‘assumed the status of the Christmas movie’.[3]

Cinema poster showing how the film was advertised when first released.

Cinema poster showing how the film was advertised when first released.

However, its popularity has not always been so failsafe. Despite America’s Variety magazine heaping praise on the film upon its release, describing it as ‘gleaming, engaging entertainment’, it generally received mixed reviews, and didn’t perform at all well at the box-office.[4] In fact, it lost money – some half a million dollars; a considerable sum now, let alone in the austerity-ridden post-war years. This came as something of a surprise considering it was directed by the renowned Hollywood producer Frank Capra, whose films had usually struck gold.[5]

It was the film’s bleak subject matter that caused alarm among its critics. Contemporaries were often left feeling rather nonplussed after watching the tale of wholesome family man George Bailey, played by the popular film star James Stewart, contemplating suicide and only accepting his life had meaning – and was worth living – after the timely intervention of guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers). One contributor to the British film fan magazine Picturegoer, for example, thought the film was ‘well handled’, but showed ‘signs of being too well worn’.[6] More acerbically, a The New York Times writer criticised its tendency to put a positive spin on its subject matter, describing it as ‘a figment of Pollyanna platitudes’.[7]

Nevertheless, despite this rather inauspicious start, It’s a Wonderful Life continues to appeal to generations of film lovers, offering something as warm and cosy as a comfortable pair of slippers. What caused this revival? Partly it is the film’s subject matter. As The Guardian‘s Lucinda Everett has noted, it’s the film’s message that ‘we are loved, and our lives matter more that we could imagine’ that cements it as one of the festive season’s best offerings.[8]

However, the story hasn’t changed – it’s still very bleak – it’s just that the context has. At the time of its release in 1946 audiences didn’t really want to watch a film that reminded them of the struggles facing the American ‘Everyman’. They demanded something more upbeat.[9] So, it’s not just the subject-matter that helps to create popularity, it’s also a matter of timing.

There’s even more to it than this, though. The film also owes its modern-day success to chance. Having been sold to television when its releasing company RKO collapsed in the mid-1950s, and then falling out of copyright in the 1970s after its license wasn’t renewed, It’s a Wonderful Life became free to broadcast, leading more cash-strapped TV companies to show it as competition against other big holiday specials scheduled by the larger stations.[10] As film critic Peter Bradshaw has noted, ‘a seasonal tradition was invented and this little-regarded film began to grow inexorably in popularity and retrospective importance’. [11]

Ever since then, this festive fantasy comedy drama has grown in the public’s affections and featured high in the Christmas movie popularity stakes. So, while It’s a Wonderful Life has not always been viewed as capturing the spirit of this festive time of year, and while its subject matter may not be as reassuringly comfortable as the fluffy dressing-gown worn as we settle down to watch it with a glass of port or brandy-infused Christmas pudding, it nonetheless serves as a reminder that a film’s popularity fluctuates, that successful films are often the result of luck or happenchance, not just a darn good story, and that these things are always historically contingent. Perhaps, then, to repurpose (and mangle) the film’s closing lines, it’s not every time a bell rings that an angel manages to get its wings. Or perhaps it is, judging by the film’s current day ubiquity. I’ll leave that for you to decide. Merry Christmas.

[1] Alexandra Pollard, ‘The 20 greatest Christmas movies, from Home Alone to The Muppets Christmas Carol’, The Independent, 8 December 2020. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/best-christmas-movies-films-ranked-b1765604.html. Accessed 8 December 2020.

[2] Radio Times Staff, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life named Britain’s favourite Christmas film’, Radio Times, 19 December 2018.

[3] James Munby, ‘A Hollywood Carol’s Wonderful Life’, in Mark Connelly ed. Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European cinema, (London: I.B Tauris, 2010), 39-57; 39.

[4] Bert, ‘Film Reviews’, Variety, 26 December 1946, 12.

[5] Munby, ‘A Hollywood Carol’s Wonderful Life’, 39.

[6] M.W., ‘A wonderful life for Donna’, Picturegoer, 7 June 1947, 8.

[7] Cited in Munby, ‘A Hollywood Carol’s Wonderful Life’, 46.

[8] Lucinda Everett, ‘What is the best Christmas movie? You asked Google – here’s the answer’, The Guardian, 27 December 2017.

[9] Munby, ‘A Hollywood Carol’s Wonderful Life’, 46.

[10] Munby, ‘A Hollywood Carol’s Wonderful Life’, 39-40.

[11] Peter Bradshaw, ‘The Santa supremacy: Peter Bradshaw’s top Christmas movies’, The Guardian, 15 December 2010.

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