It’s a Wonderful Life has got to be the strangest Christmas movie tradition that has been or ever will be. After all, the movie did not even go into general release for most of American until early January. Considered a heartwarming family holiday classic today with enough clout to peak at number 11 on the AFI list of 100 greatest American films before slipping to number 20 in the revised list issued a decade later, the movie was not always so highly regarded. While nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor, the movie was just the 26th biggest box office hit of the year. Among the now-forgotten films that also were released widely (officially, It’s a Wonderful Life is considered 1946 film due to be released into theaters in New York and Los Angeles earlier than the rest of the country) in 1947 that collected more money at the box office are such less-than-classic offerings as Mother Wore Tights and The Shocking Miss Pilgrim.
It’s a Wonderful Life was considered not so wonderful itself to the point that in 1974 the copyright on it was allowed to lapse, allowing it to lapse into the public domain and thereby making it available to any TV station that wanted to air it without having to pay expensive licensing fees. Among those stations was WTCG, a struggling UHF station in Atlanta, which had made a habit of airing the movie on Christmas morning. When WTCG changed its call letters to WTBS and then became better known by cable subscribers as the SuperStation, that annual custom had the effect of transforming what had never been considered a Christmas movie before into one of the most cherished holiday TV special traditions in America.
This tradition was significantly helped along by the combination of the film being in the public domain and the rise of VHS. Fly-by-night companies were packaging It’s a Wonderful Life and capitalizing on the SuperStation’s insistence on pointing out the movie’s shockingly small amount of screen time devoted to anything having to do with Christmas by dressing it up in foil and marketing it along with other public domain holiday movies and specials. By the late 1980s, it was also almost impossible to surf through your cable channels by the middle of December without coming across two or more stations either airing it or airing a promo of when they planned to air it later. Suddenly, It’s a Wonderful Life was a pervasive in American society between Thanksgiving and New Year’s as mistletoe and the Grinch.
All that changed after a court battle in the 1990s when Republic Pictures regained exclusive rights based on ownership of the source material on which the movie was based. A deal was struck with NBC and overnight, It’s a Wonderful Life disappeared from television except for one (and occasionally a second encore performance a few days later) airing on NBC. That airing still coincides with Christmas, making It’s a Wonderful Life not only arguably the most beloved Christmas movie that has the least to do with Christmas, but also the only movie to make the list of things to watch during the holidays that also wound up on a list of movies deemed subversive to the American ideals by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.