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How ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ went from box office flop to Christmas classic

James Stewart and Donna Reed star in It's a Wonderful Life
James Stewart and Donna Reed star in "It's a Wonderful Life" Wednesday on NBC.

Every holiday season since it reopened in 2009, the Strand Theater in Zelienople has run a series of holiday movies and shows throughout late November and December. As usual, on that list is the 1947 film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which can be seen at the Strand Dec. 7 to 10.

This gives Butler County residents the chance to experience the film in a way that only a tiny fraction of its viewers ever did — in the theater, on the silver screen.

Based on the Philip Van Doren Stern short story “The Greatest Gift,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” centers around George Bailey, a selfless family man who finds himself trapped in an unfulfilling life in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls, and ultimately wishes he was never born. Toward the end of the film, an angel shows him a vision of how much worse off his family and the rest of Bedford Falls would have been if he hadn’t been born.

On paper, the film should have been a smash hit at the box office. It had heavyweight names all over the credits, including director Frank Capra and stars Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

Although it did receive moderate praise in the press, that did not amount to big numbers at the box office, as it ended up losing $525,000 for distributor RKO. It didn’t help that the film’s full nationwide release came after Christmas — Jan. 4, 1947.

“Capra’s film was just sort of unlucky in the sense that it's one of those films, and there are many of them, that just didn't capture the imagination of the moviegoing population in its own day,” said Timothy Ruppert, a teacher of Cinema Studies at Slippery Rock University. “But over time, it developed a following, and then it developed a kind of loyalty among general viewers.”

It wasn’t until 1974 when history began to look more favorably upon “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That year, due to a clerical error, National Telefilm Associates — who, by then, had inherited the rights — failed to renew their copyright for the film, essentially putting it in the public domain.

Around that time, “It’s a Wonderful Life” became a holiday staple for television stations, as it cost almost nothing to air. With each passing holiday season, a growing audience finally began to see the film’s value as both a Christmas movie and as a movie in its own right, something that went almost unnoticed upon its original release.

“The availability of the film to large audiences helped to make it a part of Christmas traditions and rituals,” Ruppert said.

Ruppert believes that the film continues to resonate with audiences nearly 80 years later because of its raw emotion and sincerity.

“Because of the essential quality of the drama and the way that it shows a transformation and a redemption for the Jimmy Stewart character, I believe that all of those things, combined, helped to make it a film that some people may or may not love, but certainly, you have to respond to it,” Ruppert said.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Republic Pictures — the successor to National Telefilm Associates — asserted some control over the rights for “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They successfully argued that, although they failed to renew the copyright for the film itself, they technically still owned the rights to adapt “The Greatest Gift,“ the story on which the film was based. Since then, NBCUniversal and its networks have had exclusive television rights for the film.

If, for whatever reason, you miss the showings at the Strand — NBC will show the film on Christmas Eve at 8 p.m.

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