It's A Wonderful Life (1946), originally made for Liberty Films, is one of the most popular and heartwarming films ever made by director Frank Capra. Frank Capra regarded this film as his own personal favorite - it was also James Stewart's favorite of all his feature films.
It was actually a box-office flop at the time of its release, and only became the Christmas movie classic in the 1970s due to repeated television showings at Christmas-time when its copyright protection slipped and it fell into the public domain in 1974 and TV stations could air it for free. [Republic Pictures restored its copyright claim to the film in 1993, with exclusive video rights to it. Currently, it can be shown only on the NBC-TV network, and its distribution rights belong to Paramount Pictures.]
The film's screenplay (credited as being written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra himself, with additional scenes by Jo Swerling) was based on "The Greatest Gift," an original short story first written on a Christmas card by Philip Van Doren Stern. Uncredited for their work on the script were Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets.
It is actually a dark, bittersweet post-war tale of a savings-and-loan manager who struggles against a greedy banker and his own self-doubting nature in a small town. Earnest do-gooder George Bailey (James Stewart) recognizes his life as wonderful and truly rich, even in its humdrum and bleak nature, only after suffering many hardships, mishaps and fateful trials (including compromised dreams of youth to leave the town and seek fame and fortune, other sacrifices, dismay, losses and the threat of financial ruin, and suicide). He is given encouragement by a whimsical, endearing, trainee-angel named Clarence (Henry Travers).
The story turns Dickensian (similar to A Christmas Carol, although told from Bob Cratchit's point-of-view rather than from Scrooge's) when the hysterical, despairing, and melancholy family man is shown what the small town (Bedford Falls, now renamed Pottersville after the town's evil tycoon) would be like without him. It's a frightening, nightmarish, noirish view of the world (at Christmas-time) that brings him back from self-destruction. He returns to the idyllic, small-town world that he left, with renewed faith and confidence in life itself. Hence, the film's title: It's a Wonderful Life.
The plot of the film was copied in the rags-to-riches fantasy storyline (also with a guardian angel played by Michael Caine) of Disney's Mr. Destiny (1990), starring James Belushi, and in Brett Ratner's The Family Man (2000) with Nicolas Cage. The famous "Pottersville" alternate reality scenes were also referenced in Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future Part II (1989), in which the small town of Hill Valley was transformed into a Las Vegas-like Babylon in 1985, with young Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in the role of George Bailey.
The picture earned five Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (James Stewart in his first film in almost six years), Best Director (Capra), Best Sound Recording and Best Film Editing, but won no Oscars. (It was eclipsed by William Wyler's award-winning The Best Years of Our Lives.)