“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. And when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
One of the biggest movies of all time got off to a very poor start. Upon release, its reviews were mediocre at best. One New York Times critic wrote, “the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it—its illusory concept of life. The people are charming, the small town is quite beguiling, and the pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow, they all resemble theatrical attitudes, rather than average realities.”
Box office numbers were no better, and the lack of ticket sales put the producer in a financial hole of over a half million dollars.
To make matters worse, the FBI even issued a memo about the film citing it as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” pointing to its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers” which they noted was “a common trick used by Communists.” In addition, it was stated that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”
History, however, has proven to be much kinder. In 1990, the film was named “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute listed it on its Top 10,”classic” American film genres in 2008. Across the pond in England, it was ranked in 2002 as the seventh greatest film ever made in its poll of the Top 100 Films of All Time.
The film, if you haven’t guessed, is the 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” directed by Frank Capra and starring Donna Reed and James “Jimmy” Stewart. Stewart had just returned from serving in the armed forces during World War II, being one of the first major American movie stars to enlist. After the war, he seriously considered returning to run his family’s store rather than going back to acting. However, he was approached by Capra to star in the film, and the rest, as they say, is history. Stewart went on to star in several successful films throughout the rest of his career.
Stewart passed away at the age of 89, at his home in Beverly Hills, on July 2, 1997. He is interred at Forest Lawn-Glendale near the Wee Kirk, one of Forest Lawn’s Distinguished Residents. Upon his passing, President Bill Clinton stated America had lost a “national treasure … a great actor, a gentleman, and a patriot.”