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Wealthy Theatre Presents History Rich Holiday Classic 'It's a Wonderful Life' in 16mm Film this December

Grand Rapids's Wealthy Theatre to play "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), for second annual holiday showing. Now considered a classic, the Frank Capra directed film once sprung controversial federal investigations and lengthy legal battles despite it's praise from American audiences.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Produced & Directed by Frank Capra

Written by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, with additional scenes by Jo Swerling

Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mithcell and Henry Travers

Orignally released by RKO Pictures 

Wealthy Theatre

Wealthy Theatre /Justin Mills

Frank Capra’s beloved classic, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is coming back to the big screen in Grand Rapids, just in time for the holidays.

The original black-and-white cut of the classic will be screened in a rare 16mm film print presentation at the Wealthy Theatre at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 17.

Once part of the public domain and now unanimous in its praise as a family holiday classic, the film featuring James Stewart and Donna Reed explores themes of self-worth, work-life imbalance and the greed of the banking industry. 

It's a Wonderful Life depicts the tumultuous highs and lows in the life of George Bailey, set in his hometown of Bedford Falls, New York, in the immediate years following World War II. George is struggling to keep his family’s local loan servicing company afloat, as the big bank in town attempts to buy out the company and effectively control the entire Bedford Falls housing market.

George struggles to maintain the balance of living a quality life with his family while attempting to uphold his father’s legacy of providing for the people of his town. 

The conflict drives him to the edge (literally), which sends him on a spiritual journey that allows him to reflect on his life and experience a world where his loved ones are without him.

Despite the Library of Congress having inducted the film into the National Film Registry in 1990, preserving its importance in American film history, It's a Wonderful Life managed to cook up an FBI investigation in the late 1940s for possibly presenting Communist propaganda.

Released in cinemas on Dec. 20, 1946 (Limited) and Jan. 7, 1947 (Wide), the film was not a financial success but was indeed considered a critic and audience darling—garnering five Oscar nominations including one for Best Picture.

It was the themes of the film and the social lives of the film’s writers that had the FBI dedicating its time and money to investigating the alleged Communist connections. 

At the time of the film’s release, the FBI was investigating hundreds of Hollywood writers, actors and producers, who were then blacklisted from working within the industry due to their alleged affiliations with known Communists or for their identification with the political party.

In an FBI memo written by an unnamed special agent out of the Los Angeles field office, a detailed investigation into the film is presented and names the film’s writers as the initial reason for the investigation. 

The memo claimed Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett "were very close to known Communists." In addition to this claim, the FBI memo argued that the film contained “anti-American propaganda” and was aiding the “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.” 

The FBI report targets the story’s treatment of the bankers, the upper class and the banks themselves, noting them as obvious attempts to discredit and tarnish their standing with the public.

The unnamed FBI author even provides alternative ways the film could have better represented the bankers and their approach to home loans. Even though the federal government's investigation into the film had the FBI ultimately siding and sympathizing with the antagonists of the story, no prosecutions or blacklisting came to fruition in the years following the release. 

A couple of years of copyright infighting and sales followed the theatrical run with Republic Pictures acquiring the rights to the soon-to-be holiday classic. 

Unfortunately for Republic Pictures, according to the Copyright Act of 1909, those U.S. copyright protections only last 28 years. Under the Act, Republic Pictures had the right to renew the protection for an additional 28 years by filing a renewal registration, which is exactly what they failed to do in 1974. 

When Republic Pictures neglected to fill out the copyright renewal application, It's a Wonderful Life was thrust into the public domain. Now widely accessible for television syndication on any channel, the film began its second life as an annual on-the-air viewing for many Americans during the holiday season. Once home video came to the market, the public domain status had copies of the film sold and distributed in numerous places, permanently cementing its prevalence.

Republic Pictures was eventually able to remedy their clerical error in 1993 when they purchased the rights to the original music in the film, effectively awarding them the royalties of all showings and handing them back the right to decide when and where it was to be played. Then, Republic exclusively licensed NBC to show the picture twice a season on television. 

While no longer part of the public domain for everyone and anyone to access, the film’s legacy remains a staple of American Cinema.

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