Let’s dispense, once and for all, with the notion that It’s A Wonderful Life was not recognized as a hit movie until many years after it’s release, and that it gained it’s great fame only because of tv.
Frank Capra‘s first film after World War II received excellent reviews, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (for Jimmy Stewart).
One problem: It’s A Wonderful Life was released in December 1946, and the box office competition that year had been fierce. Consider that Gilda, The Big Sleep, Notorious, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Stranger and My Darling Clementine were just some of the year’s commercial releases.
Had the release date of It’s A Wonderful Life held up a bit, (the general release WAS 1947) the box office might well have fared much better.
Out of 400 releases that year, the movie grossed over $3.3 million dollars and placed 26th, a slot above the other hit Christmas feature, Miracle on 34th St. The other problem was that the Capra classic had cost a bundle to produce, almost $3.1 million.
And so as far as RKO was concerned it lost money.
Suddenly director Capra’s reputation for making hit movies was diminished. Of course, all those hits he made at Columbia were made for much less money!
Certainly no one can deny that tv distribution over the years of It’s A Wonderful Life has made it a classic. That, in part, is due to the fact that Capra’s company, Liberty Films, was sold to Paramount Pictures, which through some mix up lost the copyright to the film.
Once in public domain it was a sure fire vehicle for every tv station in America to program it without paying any residuals. In any case, It’s A Wonderful Life was — and is — a huge Christmas hit.