“Merry Christmas, you beautiful old savings and loan! Merry Christmas, you beautiful beat-up old house!” So shouts George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who has just been saved from suicide by an apprentice angel who convinces him of the value that his life has had by showing what the town of Bedford Falls would have looked like without his influence.
This enormously popular Christmas-time movie was not a success when it was first released in 1946 and when its copyright expired in 1974 no one bothered to renew it, allowing television stations to broadcast it without charge. This allowed new generations to discover this finely-crafted Frank Capra film which also featured Donna Reed as Mary Bailey, Lionel Barrymore as nasty Mr. Potter and Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as the original Bert and Ernie. (Republic Entertainment assumed control of the copyright in 1993 and broadcast fees are once again in effect.)
There is another Christmas connection to It’s A Wonderful Life. Philip Van Doren Stern, the author of “The Greatest Gift”, the short story on which the movie was based, could not interest any publisher in his work so he printed up the story as a Christmas card and sent it to 200 friends. Among the recipients was a Hollywood agent who convinced RKO studio that it would make a great movie. And it did.
Remakes were, of course, in order, some successful, some not. Among the successes was “Merry Christmas, George Bailey”. In a 1997 post-modern twist, PBS, American public television, staged a TV production of a live radio play based on a movie that was based on a short story that was published as a Christmas card. Merry Christmas, George Bailey, starring Bill Pullman, Penelope Ann Miller, Nathan Lane, Sally Field and Martin Landau, was a reading of a 1947 Lux Radio script of the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life. (It was customary in the 1940s to stage radio plays as a means of promoting current movies.) Republic Entertainment, which assumed the copyright of the film in 1993, allowed the production to go ahead as a benefit for a pediatric AIDS foundation. The producer of the show was Jimmy Hawkins, who as a child had played Tommy, one of the Bailey kids, in the original It’s a Wonderful Life.