After 75 years, this Wonderful film is no longer Christmas No.1

Has our love affair with the 1946 film 'It's A Wonderful Life' begun to wane? So asks John Dolan in his weekly column
After 75 years, this Wonderful film is no longer Christmas No.1

It's a Wonderful Life is a 1946 American film produced and directed by Frank Capra and loosely based on the short story "The Greatest Gift" written by Philip Van Doren Stern. 

ALL good things come to an end... even classic films eventually fade away into stardust.

Seventy-five years ago on Monday, a film was released which would become a perennial favourite at Christmas.

Both its director, Frank Capra, and its star, James Stewart, later declared that It’s A Wonderful Life was the finest work of their respective, incredibly illustrious careers.

Although it fared poorly upon its release on December 20, 1946, the film grew legs and, by the end of the 20th century, it was regularly being cited as not just the finest Christmas film ever made, but the finest of any genre.

An (ultimately) feelgood fantasy drama about a family man, George Bailey, who is contemplating suicide, but who is steered back to life by his guardian angel, It’s A Wonderful Life has topped poll after poll, both here, in the UK and the U.S, for decades as the best festive film ever.

The competition may have often changed - in a 2011 poll, The Muppet Christmas Carol was in second place, in 2013 it was Love Actually, in 2018 it was Elf, and in 2020 it was Die Hard - but the 1946 classic has long been assured of its Christmas No.1 status.

It’s a superb film, but proof also that we can be a right old bunch of sentimental suckers at this time of year! What harm?

Then, last week, while I was contemplating the looming 75th anniversary of It’s A Wonderful Life, something strange happened.

I noticed another poll on the favourite festive film, this time by, and for the first time in eons, James Stewart was no longer top dog.

Macauley Culkin in Home Alone.
Macauley Culkin in Home Alone.

Instead, Home Alone had taken the No.1 spot - and there were three other movies - Elf, The Grinch, and Love Actually - before we got to It’s A Wonderful Life.

Surely not?!

Now, this was hardly a seminal cultural moment - what is Voucher Codes when it’s at home anyway? - but perhaps a signal that the changing sands of public opinion are forever churning, and that our love affair with the 1946 film may, just may, be starting to wane.

Sure, there will always be room for it on at least one of our hundreds of TV channels and platforms every Christmas, but its place at the top table is now up for debate; nudged aside by a mischievous boy called Kevin, a human raised by elves, and Hugh Grant shaking his booty around No.10 Downing Street. (A Christmas party in No.10? Surely not!)

In keeping with the ethos of the film, we should be feeling sentimental about this changing of the tectonic movie plates, but I’d prefer to celebrate the enduring success it has had, and then put forward my own choice as best Christmas film, rather than wallow in nostalgia.

First, let’s celebrate It’s A Wonderful Life... because its history really does contain a message of hope to us all at Christmastime - not just in the content of the film, but in the way it triumphed over adversity.

It was originally intended that the film would be released in the U.S in January, 1947, but its premiere was brought forward by a month so it would be eligible for Oscar nominations (it received five, but true to form on its release, it lost in all five categories).

Cinema crowds were initially lukewarm too, and the film actually lost more than half a million dollars for its studio.

Capra even claimed that the film that became his seminal work, and which he adored the most, cut short his career and left him a dead man walking in Hollywood.

Even worse, It’s A Wonderful Life got caught up in the paranoid American politics of the age.

The FBI and the ‘House Un-American Activities Committee’ (yes, really - there’s one for Donald Trump to resurrect if he regains power) investigated complaints that the film had communist leanings, and one philosopher even claimed it contained “pernicious threats to Americanism”, while it was accused of demonising capitalist bankers (poor souls), and attempting to instigate class warfare. Yikes!

The film didn’t even make it to Cork cinemas until well into 1947 - long after the Christmas decorations had come down.

In fact, the first mention of It’s A Wonderful Life here came around the longest day of the year, June 21, 1947. A few months later, in the Examiner in September, 1947, it was showing at the Savoy, with “George Rothwell at the organ”.

From this slow start, the film snowballed over time. A bizarre decision by the studios not to copyright it meant it became cheap for TV stations to show it at Christmas, and that, along with the film’s heart of gold, steered it towards movie immortality.

The fictional place where the film is set is based on real-life Seneca Falls, which opened an It’s A Wonderful Life Museum in 2010.

Visitors are encouraged to take an extensive walking tour of the town, there’s an annual It’s A Wonderful Life Festival in the first week of every December, and in 2009, The Hotel Clarence opened there, named after George Bailey’s guardian angel.

In recent years, a few critics have even tried to impose their cancel culture on the movie, claiming its portrayal of a suicidal man is, in the modern parlance, problematic.

Perhaps we should be thankful that the film’s apparent impending fall from grace is merely to do with the fact it is quaintly old-fashioned (not to mention shot in “boring” black and white), rather than it falling foul of modern sensibilities, in the way Fairytale Of New York seems to now offend so many.


Die Hard, featuring Bruce Willis.
Die Hard, featuring Bruce Willis.

So, which is your favourite Christmas film?

Aside from those contenders already mentioned, Miracle on 34th Street, The Snowman, White Christmas, The Santa Clause, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and The Polar Express often get a mention.

However, ever since I went to see it as a teenager in 1988, I have been obsessed with the brilliance that is Die Hard.

Now, some people might say it is not really a Christmas film, merely set at that time of year, but the same observation could be levelled at It’s A Wonderful Life.

No matter. It works for me.

We couldn’t begin to imagine James Stewart shouting “Yippie ki yay, motherf....” but as a natural successor to the genial star’s masterpiece, it will do for me.

You can catch Die Hard on RTÉ2 tonight (Saturday, December 18) at 9,10pm, while It’s A Wonderful Life is on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve at 2pm.

Don’t miss Tuesday’s edition of The Echo, for your FREE 32-page guide to all the Christmas and New Year TV, including TV previews, a guide to soaps, sports and films over the festive period, and 11 days of TV listings.

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