The image of It's a Wonderful Life has undergone a complete transformation since its 1946 release. In its own time, Frank Capra's comedy-drama about the dark side of human nature was a modest failure, neither a box-office success nor a critical favorite, though it garnered some recognition in the form of 5 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. For the next 28 years, the movie remained a cult favorite among movie buffs and Capra fans. Then the movie's copyright was allowed to lapse and suddenly, during the early 1980s around Christmas (the season in which the film is set), it seemed possible to flip on the TV at random some nights and find the movie playing somewhere on the dial, and that went double for Christmas Day, Christmas Eve, and New Year's. The public came out regarding the film as a lost classic; Capra lived just long enough to reap some of the belated acclaim, and his estate later benefitted from the sales of the films that he owned outright, such as Broadway Bill and Lady For a Day. The movie is in fact a dark, disturbing look at small-town American life between the two world wars, rife with class envy and fears of modernity, and featuring a before-its-time portrayal of George Bailey's middle-aged sense of failure that seems more appropriate for an American film of the Seventies. It is at once nostalgic and angry, and its reputation as a holiday chestnut has been mercilessly parodied for its conclusion on good spirits and generosity; Saturday Night Live, in particular, had vicious fun with it in a post-end-credits parody in which the people of Bedford Falls lynch Mr. Potter when they realize that he has the money.
by Bruce Eder review