Failogue: It’s a Wonderful Life Wasn’t Always So Wonderful

“Indeed, the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it—its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra’s nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities. And Mr. Capra’s “turkey dinners” philosophy, while emotionally gratifying, doesn’t fill the hungry paunch.” –The New York Times, December 23, 1946

“The picture would have been greatly improved by some judicious editing. It turns too long for its own good.” –New York Daily News, December 19, 1946

These are not the reviews that you’d expect to read for It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time. It’s a movie that you’ve probably seen at least once, if not a dozen, times. It’s a film that countless numbers of families watch together year after year, and one that will likely move into the next century as a beloved holiday classic.

But when it was released in the 1940s, the movie was a box office failure, resulting in a more than $500,000 loss for Liberty Films, a production company founded by Frank Capra, the director and producer of the film. The losses led to the bankruptcy of the company only two films into its existence, and Frank Capra, who was widely successful before World War II, saw his career decline.

The film received mixed reviews from critics, and although it was nominated for five Academy Awards, it received just one for Technical Achievement. The Academy Award went to Russell Shearman, someone we’ve never heard of, for developing a new method of simulating falling snow. This new method was preceded by crunchy and loud painted corn flakes which caused a dilemma since dialogue had to be dubbed afterwards. Oh, and here’s a completely irrelevant fact: Russell Shearman was eaten by a shark when he was 30 years old.

The film was quickly forgotten and sat in hibernation for over three decades. Then after a clerk forgot to renew its copyright, It’s a Wonderful Life grew a life of its own. After entering the public domain, the public’s admiration of the film grew with every free television broadcast until It’s a Wonderful Life became what it is today: a Christmas tradition.

So the next time you sit down with your family to watch this wonderful, sentimental movie that makes you cry, remember that it took Frank Capra decades of patience to see his film get the achievement it deserved.

And remember that failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure because “no man is a failure who has friends.”

. . .

Failogue is a series that brings you stories of failure. Failure from those who showed up. Failure from those who took risks. Failure from those who persevered.

Have a Failogue story? Contact us!

We learned about this story from one of our favorite podcasts, The Way I Heard It with Mike Rowe, Episode #86, “Francisco’s Flakes”. We highly recommend that you give it and Mike’s other stories a listen. We can’t get enough of his wonderful storytelling.

And we owe a particular debt of gratitude to “How It’s a Wonderful Life Went From Box Office Dud to Christmas Classic, a Screen Rant article by Jared Canfield published December 25, 2016.

Feature Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


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