Blog Directory CineVerse: Why audiences were indifferent to "It's a Wonderful Life" in 1946

Why audiences were indifferent to "It's a Wonderful Life" in 1946

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Production for "It's a Wonderful Life" went smoothly for the most part, except for going over budget an extra $1.5 million (mostly due to Capra's insistence that the film be shot in sequence). The director felt confident, however, that IAWL would be the biggest box-office smash of 1947, as well as a complete critical success. The general release was set for January 30, 1947.

Suddenly, a serious problem arose. RKO, Liberty's official distributor, couldn't process Technicolor prints of their swashbuckler movie "Sinbad the Sailor" quickly enough for its scheduled Christmas release. Capra was informed that his film would have to be moved up for a Christmas Eve opening in 50 nationwide theaters to fill the gap. Labs worked round the clock to process prints of IAWL, barely finishing in time. But there were possible advantages to this move: it qualified IAWL for the 1946 Oscar races, as opposed to 1947; and it, being a Christmas movie at heart, would appeal to audiences as a seasonably-festive film.

A not so wonderful debut
However, several prominent factors surfaced that inhibited the movie's success. First, the film was marketed not as a Christmas picture, but rather as a romantic comedy, very similar to Capra's goofball comedies of the thirties. The lobby posters showcased Jimmy Stewart lifting up Donna Reed next to the captions, "It's a powerful love story", and "James Stewart..America's favorite feller.” There was no mention of the "man overcoming the odds" theme that the movie propagated, nor any serious or somber aspects whatsoever. Then there was the presence of a terrible snowstorm that chilled the eastern United States, plummeting ticket sales. The reviews of the film were mixed, although on the average positive, giving indications that most people liked the movie, some loved it, and others despised it. The latter critics struck IAWL a crippling blow, disheartening Capra's optimism.

Finally, and most importantly, the post-war audience of 1946 was simply not receptive to its implicit content. Americans, enjoying their holiday season in the first full year of peace, could have been disenchanted by the bleak, film noir-ish elements of IAWL. They simply were not ready for its theme depicting salvation preceded by a "dark night of the soul.” America's wanted escape pictures: westerns, intense realistic dramas, light comedies. Stewart recounts, "It took awhile for the country to sort of quiet down. Then we could start to think about family and community and responsibility.”

Capra's vision of the world had changed upon his return from the war to a more pessimistic, painful sensibility. He wanted to project some of these feelings onto the screen, and yet overcome these bleak themes with expressive optimism, humor and sentimentality--investing unlimited faith in the human spirit. The public, however, didn't seem to empathize with this antipodal struggle of the common man and his way of life. These were depression-era ideologies of reassurance to a beleaguered, individually-oriented public. But it was now post WWII, where group unity seemed to be the order of society and the economy was back on its feet. Depression-era consciousness where the individual questioned his own significance (as George Bailey does) was a thing of the past--better forgotten.

"Best" beats "Wonderful"
On the other hand, having been through an atrocious war, the public and critics alike craved a degree of credibility in Hollywood pictures--to put a name on it, realism. Probably for this reason was "The Best Years of Our Lives" IAWL's fiercest competitor, so overwhelmingly embraced by moviegoers and critics. True, it was in the same bleak vein as IAWL with its darker elements, but it was a film that didn't attempt to "rescue" the viewer from its pessimism with what might have been perceived as prudish optimism, or sappy sentimentality.
Not surprisingly, "Best Years" was one of ‘47's biggest box-office winners, and a shoe-in for the Academy Awards. It stole away every nominated category from IAWL, plunging Capra into the furthest pits of frustration over his much-toiled project. Indeed, "Best Years" seemed to swipe virtually everything away--it even beat IAWL's release by one month. Being a very controversial and thus talked-about movie, it commanded nearly all the attention (even gossip) that IAWL might have received. Ironically, it was a William Wyler film--Capra's partner at Liberty and one of his dearest friends (although it wasn't a Liberty film).

The final dagger came at the close of 1947 as the gross receipts were tallied: after a $2.7 million investment, IAWL lost more than $525,000. Liberty Films was liquidated as a result some two years later. Capra, formerly the proud papa of what he considered a landmark motion picture achievement, abandoned all admiration, conversation and loyalty he had previously invested in his brainchild. As far as he was concerned, he had shelved IAWL forever.

Assessing damage control

The initial failure of IAWL can reasonably be summed up by the master himself: "To stay in have to make pictures with universal appeal,” Capra said. “Unless a picture has tremendous initial impact upon the public, it quickly passes from the first run to lesser homes and exhausts its money potential. If it starts out slowly, its run is taken off at the end of the week...that's one of the big troubles. Pictures aren't given a chance to find their audience.”

But not everything was gloom and doom, and IAWL was far from an all-out loser. Capra was awarded the Hollywood Foreign Correspondent Association's "Golden Globe" award for best director of 1947 and IAWL was voted one of the ten best films of the year by the National Board of Review. It was nominated for five prestigious Oscars, and it had received critical acclaim by the majority of its reviewers (In December of 1946, Time and Life magazines covered the movie extensively in pictures and positive words, and Newsweek even put the film on its cover).

Furthermore, by 1954, RKO (Liberty's repossessor) announced an accumulated profit of over $3 million for IAWL. It was finally making some money, as it would continue to do when marketed for commercial television in the fifties and sixties by its numerous future owners (RKO sold IAWL to Paramount, who later dished it off to M & A Alexander Productions).

The film even enjoyed a short-lived popular recovery around Christmas seasons in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to annual viewings on television (it was, assumedly, probably shown only once on a single network each time of the year, thereby garnering only limited exposure).

Finally, in 1974, all passion for the film had fizzled out, and the economic market of TV could no longer be tapped. Republic Pictures didn't bother to renew its copyright on its critical 28th birthday (the year in which a work must be renewed, under the old 1909 law). IAWL entered the world of public domain, very unsure of itself and its future. Little did anyone know the incredible success this celluloid Lazarus would begin to enjoy after thirty years of relative public disregard. 

Tomorrow: A phoenix rises from the ashes 

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