On December 21, 1946, Frank Capra and James Stewart held the world premiere for It’s a Wonderful Life in New York at the Globe Theater. The film, now a holiday classic and television staple, was nominated for five Oscars at the 19th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful title for a motion picture about which practically everyone who sees it will agree that it’s wonderful entertainment. The film marks Frank Capra’s first production since his return from distinguished war service, and he has invested it with the tremendous heart that always stamps his offerings as above average. This couldn’t be other than a Capra picture, the humanness of its story the dominant factor at every turn of situation. His direction of the individual characterizations delivered is also distinctively his, and the performances, from the starring roles of James Stewart and Donna Reed down to the smallest bit, are magnificent. When Capra is at his best, no one can top him.
The story opens imaginatively upon Heavenly constellations that are twinkling and conversing. They are talking about a fellow down on earth who requires some guidance. To provide him the help he needs, a neophyte angel, still in the process of earning his wings, is dispatched to take over the case of George Bailey. But before he starts he has to know considerable about George’s early life.
When he was merely a youth, George jumped into a lake to save his brother from drowning. This act brought partial deafness to George, a disability that kept him out of the army when World War II came along. Meanwhile, he had married his childhood sweetheart and was raising a little family of his own in a typically American small-town community called Bedford Hills. He had taken over the management of the building and loan association and was bucking a local Scrooge who had jockeyed him into a position where he could be dealt misery. All these troubles came to a head during a Christmas season.
It was then that George, in a moment of weakness, wished he had never been born. The fellow from Heaven, named Clarence, who was assigned to watch out for him, granted that wish. In the fantastic events that follow George is brought to a realization of how much his apparently aimless existence has meant to others and he retracts his wish. For showing him the futility of feeling futile, Clarence is rewarded with a beautiful pair of wings. Capra’s trick rests in the fulsome manner in which he allows a motion picture audience to share in the glory.
The musical score to accompany this story was written and directed by Dmitri Tiomkin and its value to the narrative is frequently out of this world. You will look far to find a finer score for a dramatic film. The photography by Joseph Walker, the credit for its completion shared by operative cameraman Joseph Biroc, is superior on all counts. So is the small-town atmosphere captured by the art direction and other technical aids. This is indeed a superb start for the company that calls itself Liberty Films and is headed by Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler and Samuel J. Briskin.
James Stewart is distinctively Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, his initial role in Hollywood after five years in the armed forces. He gives Capra everything that is asked for, and he does it with the real authority of understatement. Donna Reed lends lovable personality to the childhood sweetheart he marries, ever a typical American wife and mother. No one could have bettered Henry Travers in the richly amusing part of the angel Clarence.
Then there is Lionel Barrymore making the town banker even more of a Scrooge than anyone else could have. Thomas Mitchell is a splendid drunken Uncle Billy and Beulah Bondi a glorious mother for George. The kid brother is tellingly played by Todd Karns, of whom more will be heard, and the girl who is his romance is neatly portrayed by Virginia Patton. Performing the girl who has been given a bad name in town, Gloria Grahame will win a lot of personal attention.
Small-town characters are brought to vivid life by Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Charles Williams, Mary Treen and Sarah Edwards. A stunning gem is that of a bartender by Sheldon Leonard. The roles of the central characters as children are sharply done by Bobbie Anderson, Ronnie Ralph, Jean Gale and Jeanine Ann Roose. George Bailey’s children are respectively Carol Coomes, Karolyn Grimes, Larry Simms and Jimmy Hawkins, and are all excellent. — Jack D. Grant, originally published Dec. 19, 1946.