It might be hard to believe, but when this movie came out in December of 1946, it wasn’t a box office hit nor did the critics gush over it. Some critics said that it was proof that Capra was washed up and though it was nominated for five Academy Awards, it didn’t win any. It’s A Wonderful Life quickly faded into obscurity shortly after its short run in the theaters.
Suddenly in 1973, it seemed to reappear out of nowhere and was showing nearly marathon style during the holiday season. The reason was because a clerical error had allowed the film's copyright to elapse so television stations could then show it without paying a dime. Then just as though someone flipped a switch that all changed and now it’s shown only a few times a year. The reason for the change was that Republic Pictures, which had acquired the copyright to the rights to the movie many decades before, used a 1993 Supreme Court ruling that determined that the holder of a copyright to a story from which a movie was made also had certain property rights over the movie itself. It’s A Wonderful Life was based in the story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern and since Republic still owned the copyrighted story it was able to reacquire copyrights to It's a Wonderful Life and yank the movie out of the public domain. They then signed a long-term deal with NBC granting it exclusive rights to broadcast the movie, which they show occasionally each year.
Don’t expect It’s Wonderful Life to return to being public domain anytime soon. Congress has repeatedly expanded copyright protections and made them effective retroactively. Most recently, at the behest of Disney and other large media corporations with soon-to-expire copyrights, Congress added 20 years to all existing copyright claims. They now stand at 95 years for copyrights held by corporations. Because of Disney’s involvement, this legislation is often referred to as the Mickey Mouse Law.
Finally, a comment about the movie itself. While it has a reputation for be sentimental and innocent, It’s a Wonderful Life is actually quite political. For those of us on the political Left, it could be taken as an example of class struggle with George Bailey, the working poor, and the Bailey Building and Loan Association representing what today are often referred to as the 99% while the wealthy Henry F. Potter might be representative of the top 1%. However, political conservatives could point to the words of Frank Capra himself who in a 1946 interview said that the film’s theme was about "the individual's belief in himself" and that he made it "to combat a modern trend toward atheism".
Regardless of what It’s A Wonderful Life means to you, one cannot deny that it’s a great movie, which the critics finally agree, for the American Film Institute places it as number 11 on it lists of the best 100 movies ever made.