That's when his guardian angel, Clarence comes down on Christmas Eve to show him what his community would be like without him. The angel takes him back through his life to show him how our ordinary, everyday efforts are really big achievements. Clarence reveals how George Bailey's loyalty to his job at the Building and Loan Office has saved families and homes, how his little kindnesses have changed the lives of others and how the ripples of his love will spread through the world helping make it a better place. Good as the script was, there was something else about the movie that made it different. It's hard to explain but I, for one, had things happen to me during the filming that never happened in any other picture I've made.
At the outing, Frank talked enthusiastically about the picture. He felt that the film as well as the actors would be up for Academy Awards. Both of us wanted it to win, not only because we believed in its message, but also for the reassurance we needed in this time of starting over. But life doesn't always work out the way we want it to.
The movie came out in December 1946, and from the beginning we could tell it was not going to be the success we'd hoped for. The critics had mixed reactions. Some liked it ("a human drama of essential truth"); others felt it "too sentimental ...a figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes."
As more reviews came out, our hopes sank lower and lower. During early February 1947, eight other current films including, Sinbad the Sailor and Betty Grable's The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, outranked it in box-office income. The postwar public seemed to prefer lighthearted fare. At the end of 1947 It's A Wonderful Life ranked 27th in earnings among the releases that season. And although it earned several Oscar nominations, despite our high hopes, it won nothing. Best Picture for 1946 went to The Best Years of Our Lives. By the end of 1947 the film was quietly put on the shelf.
But a curious thing happened. The movie simply refused to stay on the shelf. Those who loved it loved it a lot, and they must have told others. They wouldn't let it die any more than the angel Clarence would let George Bailey die. When it began to be shown on television, a whole new audience fell in love with it.
Today, after some forty years, I've heard the film called an American cultural phenomenon. Well, maybe so, but it seems to me there is nothing phenomenal about the movie itself. It's simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and a selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life.