How It's a Wonderful Life Went From Box Office Dud to Accidental Christmas Tradition

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Director Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life is sacred in the holiday movie pantheon. It's not as quotable as A Christmas Story (1983) or as lyrical as 1966's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, but the story of George Bailey has a universal message behind it that endures more than 70 years later. Though the movie is the quintessential Christmas tale today, when it was first released in 1946, audiences and critics were lukewarm toward the picture, resulting in a box office disappointment that killed Capra's nascent production company, Liberty Films. In a strange twist, decades after it was first released, an unlikely clerical screw-up managed to turn It's a Wonderful Life into the Christmastime staple we know today.

In the 1930s, Capra became a magnet for Academy Awards, directing movies like the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). After Pearl Harbor, Capra knew he could contribute something to the war effort, so he took a post in Washington overseeing the development of U.S. propaganda films for the government—most notably the award-winning Why We Fight series of documentaries.

Upon returning from Washington in 1945, Capra—along with other wartime directors William Wyler and George Stevens—helped finance Liberty Films, an independent production company poised to give filmmakers the one thing they all dreamed of: freedom. The company's first film would be an adaption of a short story titled "The Greatest Gift," which would also appear in Good Housekeeping under the title "The Man Who Was Never Born," and would be adapted for the screen as It's a Wonderful Life. It's one of the few movies Capra also received a screenwriting credit for, and with a proposed budget of $2 million, it was a huge gamble for Liberty.

In the book Five Came Back, writer Mark Harris describes It's a Wonderful Life's production process as something akin to a nightmare. Script rewrites, a bloated shooting schedule, and an ever-changing crew cost the studio nearly all of the original $2 million budget—well before filming was even wrapped. The spending became such a concern for Capra's partners at Liberty that George Stevens remarked, "Why the hell couldn't it be springtime?" when he saw how much it cost the production to produce fake snow for shots. Capra bet Liberty's future on audiences looking for some comforting nostalgia after the war, but he was about to see firsthand just how much the world had changed since he came back.

The original plan was to release It's a Wonderful Life in January 1947, after the Oscar deadlines, but when RKO—the film's distributor—needed a movie to release in time for Christmas, Capra's project was the easy solution. It opened just weeks after William Wyler's major studio film The Best Years of Our Lives, a hard-hitting drama about a U.S. soldier coming home after the war to pick up his life again. The two films couldn't be any more different, and the reviews reflected that.

Even at nearly three hours long, The Best Years of Our Lives was an absolute hit with critics and at the box office, recouping its budget multiple times over. It's a Wonderful Life, with its inflated budget and saccharine tale touting old-timey values, was met with a whimper, making only an estimated $3.3 million against a $3.7 million budget. Wyler beat Capra in every way: reviews, box office, and awards. The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, while It's a Wonderful Life received only a lone technical award—ironically for the fake snow Stevens loathed.

Liberty Films had borrowed more than $1.5 million to make the film, and with such a disappointing box office return, the production company was soon sold off to Paramount. Capra only directed five feature films afterwards, none of which ever reached the heights of his pre-war work. As unlikely as it seems today, It's a Wonderful Life was seen as a flat disappointment destined for anonymity—until a clerical error changed its fate.

In 1974, the movie entered the public domain after the film's copyright holder simply forgot to file for a renewal. This meant that TV stations everywhere could play It's a Wonderful Life all day and all night and not have to pay a cent for it. Networks aren't necessarily shy about exploiting free Christmas content, and the film's reemergence on television gave Capra's story new life. While a post-World War II crowd may have rejected the movie's sentiment, subsequent generations seem to revel in the opportunity to visit the nostalgic whimsy of it all.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra once told The Wall Street Journal about the film's revival. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud ... but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Legalities rewrote the history of It's a Wonderful Life yet again in 1993. The Supreme Court's previous ruling in Stewart v. Abend established a precedent that allowed the film's original copyright owner—Republic Pictures—to regain its ownership of the movie. The ruling claimed that since Republic owned the copyright on the original short story which the movie was based on, and the score for the film, they, in essence, still owned the movie. So what was once a near barrage of networks airing It's a Wonderful Life has since been pared down to just one: NBC.

The network paid for exclusive rights to air the movie, which is why you'll only see It's a Wonderful Life on TV once or twice during the holidays. But the movie's modern appeal exists because of that scarcity. The film that killed a production company 70 years ago is now an annual television event and part of countless family traditions around the globe. It turns out Capra always knew what audiences wanted, he just needed to wait for the right clerical error to prove it.

50 Fun Facts About Sesame Street

Getty Images
Getty Images

On November 10, 1969, television audiences were introduced to Sesame Street. In the 50 years since, the series has become one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids.

1. The idea for Sesame Street came from one very simple question.

Publicity still of the Sesame Street Muppets taken to promote their record album, 'Sesame Country,' July 1, 1981
Children's Television Workshop, Courtesy of Getty Images

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the original idea for Sesame Street came about during a 1966 dinner party hosted by Joan Ganz Cooney, who was a producer at New York City's Channel 13, a public television station. Lloyd Morrisett, an experimental educator at the Carnegie Corporation, was one of Cooney's guests and asked her the question: "Do you think [television] can teach anything?" That query was a all it took to get the ball rolling on what would become Sesame Street.

2. Sesame Street almost wasn't Sesame Street at all.

When the idea for Sesame Street was first being talked about, the original title being discussed was 123 Avenue B. Eventually, that title was nixed for both being a real location in New York City that would place the show right across from Tompkins Square Park, and also for being too specific to New York City.

3. Kermit the Frog was an original cast member.

Kermit the Frog
PictureLake/iStock via Getty Images

Before he became the star of The Muppet Show (and the various Muppet movies), Kermit the Frog got his start as a main character on Sesame Street.

4. Kermit was very similar to his creator.

Most people considered Kermit the Frog to be an alter ego of creator Jim Henson.

5. Carol Burnett appeared on Sesame Street's first episode.


BY CBS TELEVISION - EBAY, PUBLIC DOMAIN, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Guest stars have always been a part of the Sesame Street recipe, beginning with the very first episode. "I didn't know anything about [Sesame Street] when they asked me to be on," Carol Burnett told The Hollywood Reporter. "All I knew was that Jim Henson was involved and I thought he was a genius—I'd have gone skydiving with him if he'd asked. But it was a marvelous show. I kept going back for more. I think one time I was an asparagus."

6. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange.

Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two. How did the show explain the color change? Oscar said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

7. Cookie Monster isn't Cookie Monster's real name.

During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

8. C-3P0 and R2-D2 paid a memorable visit to Sesame Street.

In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

9. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name.

It's Aloysius. Aloysius Snuffleupagus.

10. Ralph Nader appeared in an episode.

Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

11. Oscar the Grouch is partly modeled after a taxi driver.

A scene from 'Sesame Street'
Zach Hyman, HBO

Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

12. In 1970, Ernie became a music star.

In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

13. Count von Count isn't the only Count on Sesame Street.

One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

14. Afghanistan has its own version of Sesame Street.

Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover, and Elmo are involved.

15. Cultural taboos prevented Oscar and the Count from being a major part of Baghch-e-Simsim.

According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

16. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul's Gus Fring played Big Bird's camp counselor.

Giancarlo Esposito in 'Breaking Bad'
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

17. The big in Bird Bird's name isn't a misnomer.

How big is Big Bird? 8'2".

18. Being that big of a bird requires a lot of feathers.

Sesame Street Characters (L-R) Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Abby Cadabby attend HBO Premiere of Sesame Street's The Magical Wand Chase at the Metrograph on November 9, 2017 in New York City
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images for HBO

In order to craft Big Bird's iconic yellow suit, approximately 4000 feathers are needed.

19. Cookie Monster has an British cousin.

His name, appropriately, is Biscuit Monster.

20. South Africa's version of Sesame Street features an HIV-positive Muppet.

In 2002, the South African version of Sesame Street (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

21. Kami has caused some political discord.

Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS's funding.

22. "Guy Smiley" is just a stage name.

Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

23. The Count is really, really old.

The Count was born on October 9, 1,830,653 BCE—making him nearly 2 million years old. Try putting that many candles on a birthday cake!

24. Bert and Ernie have spent years explaining, and defending, their relationship.

Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmire, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay."

A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

25. Sesame Street's first season had a few superhero guest stars.

In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what to watch on TV. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

26. Originally, only Big Bird could see Snuffy.

In Sesame Street's third season, audiences were introduced to Mr. Snuffleupagus, Big Bird's BFF. There was only one problem: Big Bird (and, by extension, the audience) were the only people who were able to see Snuffy, leading the show's human stars to believe that Snuffy was an imaginary friend. It was a running joke that went on for nearly 15 years.

27. The decision to stage an episode where everyone finally met Snuffy came from a somewhat dark place.


Sesame Workshop

After 14 years of nobody but Big Bird being able to see Snuffy, Sesame Street's producers were confronted with some rather surprising information: There was a growing concern that the adult humans on the show not believing Snuffy existed might lead some children to believe that adults, in general, didn't always believe kids. This was particularly concerning to the show's producers when it came to cases of child abuse, where kids might be afraid that telling their parents would solve nothing. And so, Snuffy was finally introduced to the world!

28. Telly wasn't always Telly.

Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

29. Sesame Street is home to the only non-human who has testified before Congress.

Photo of Elmo from 'Sesame Street'
iStock

According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

30. Rumors once circulated that Sesame Street was planning to kill off Ernie.

In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

31. The Count wasn't always so nice.

Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

32. Most Muppets only have four fingers.

According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

33. The episode featuring Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day for a very particular reason.

The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

34. Big Bird offered a gut-wrenching tribute to Jim Henson at the Sesame Street creator's memorial service.

Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

35. Israel's version of Sesame Street has its own version of Oscar the Grouch.

Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Cookie Monster evolved from a different snack-obsessed character.

Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

37. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster isn't into cookies at all.

Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

38. Roosevelt Franklin was disliked by some parents, so was fired from Sesame Street.

Sesame Street's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

39. Roosevelt Franklin wasn't the only Muppet to get the boot.

Roosevelt Franklin isn't the only Muppet living on Abandoned Muppet Island. Harvey Kneeslapper, Professor Hastings, Don Music, and Bruno the Trashman are a few of the others who didn't make the cut.

40. Don Music's head-banging tendencies led to some at-home injuries.

The aforementioned Don Music was a frustrated composer who never seemed satisfied with the tunes he composed. As such, his musical sessions often ended with him banging his head on his piano keys in frustration. "The character, played by Richard Hunt, was abandoned because of complaints about his alarming tendencies toward self-inflicted punishment," author David Borgenicht wrote in his book, Sesame Street Unpaved. "Apparently, kids were imitating his head-banging at home."

41. The puppeteers have a few standard rules.

Because Sesame Street's puppeteers work in very close quarters throughout much of the day, Carmen Osbahr—who operates Rosita—told The Hollywood Reporter that "We have a few rules here: Always deodorant, never onions."

42. Puppeteering can be a dangerous job.

Sesame Street puppeteer Caroll Spinney operates Big Bird
Robert Furhing, via Tribeca Film

Legendary puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who operated both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from 1969 to 2018, has shared a couple of war stories about what it's like for the folks standing behind the boards. In a 2015 interview with Bullseye, he revealed that he cannot see out of Big Bird's costume (he has a monitor he watches instead). He also shared some tales about the one time he almost caught on fire ... and the other time he did. He explained:

"Suddenly I'm looking down inside [the costume] and I said, 'Something feels hot!' I looked down and I see an orange flame and it started getting long enough to go inside the suit, and I was like, 'Oh, my God.' I said, 'Hey, I'm on fire' ... One of the cameramen, Richie King, he saved my life. He went over and he patted the flame out with his hand."

43. The show has regularly tackled some touchy issues.

While Mr. Hooper's death is probably the most memorable incident of Sesame Street tackling a challenging issue for kids, it's hardly the only time. Over the years, the series has taught kids about racism, AIDS, and 9/11.

44. Sesame Street has inspired a lot of bizarre fan theories.

Sesame Street Muppets.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Kids are a curious sort, so it was only a matter of time before they started to ask questions about their favorite Sesame Street residents—like what kind of bird is Big Bird anyway? The invention of the internet, of course, has helped some of the more bizarre fan theories gain widespread interest and popularity. Like the rumor that the Count likes to snack on children.

45. There were never any plans to turn Cookie Monster into Veggie Monster.

In 2005, Sesame Street made healthy eating one of its main themes for the season—which led to some speculation that Cookie Monster might be trading in his cookies for something a bit more green and healthy. But these rumors were just that: rumors!

46. The show has racked up a ton of awards over the years.

Given the show's half-century of popularity, it's hardly surprising to learn that Sesame Street has racked up dozens of awards over the years. So far, it has earned 193 Emmy Awards, 10 Grammy Awards, and five Peabody Awards—and shows no signs of stopping there.

47. It's one of the America's longest-running scripted series.


Children's Television Workshop, Getty Images

At 50 years old, Sesame Street is one of the longest-running scripted series on television. Its main competition comes from soap operas like Guiding Light (which ran for 57 years before calling it quits in 2009), General Hospital (which has been on the air for 56 years, and counting), Days of Our Lives (55 years so far), and As the World Turns (which ended its 54-year run in 2010)

48. There are versions of Sesame Street all over the world.

According to Sesame Workshop, there are currently more than 150 different version of Sesame Street—in 70 different languages—being produced around the world.

49. Sesame Street is about to make history at the Kennedy Center Honors.

In December 2019, Sesame Street will receive a Kennedy Center Honor—making it the first TV show ever to earn the distinction.

50. Sesame Street is now a real street in New York City.

'Sesame Street' Muppets under a street sign that reads '123 Sesame Street'
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

In early 2019, Sesame Street finally became a place in the real world. In honor of the show's 50th anniversary, and its impact on New York City in particular, the intersection of West 63rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan was rechristened as "Sesame Street."

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

David Hasselhoff's Strange Connection to the Fall of the Berlin Wall

re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Americans might know David Hasselhoff best as the star of pre-peak television series Knight Rider and Baywatch. But in Germany, he’s been a popular singing attraction since 1985, when his album Night Rocker became a sensation. In June 1989 Hasselhoff released Looking for Freedom, an album with a title track that seemed to speak directly to citizens in European countries seeking democracy. That track had been playing since 1988 in anticipation of the album’s release.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Was it coincidence, or did Hasselhoff help incite a revolution?

In a new interview with Time, Hasselhoff takes no credit for that seismic change in Germany, despite the fact that some of the actor's fans have knitted the two memories—his popularity and the dissolution of the wall—together, leading some to believe he was partly responsible. Some of the same people who began chipping away at the wall dividing East and West Germany had been humming the song for months prior. Some have even told Hasselhoff his music helped inspire change. Others held up signs thanking him for the fall of the wall.

“You’re the man who sings of freedom,” a woman once told Hasselhoff, before asking for his autograph.

The wall, of course, came down rather abruptly, shortly after a premature announcement that East Germans could take advantage of relaxed travel restrictions, and Hasselhoff demurs when asked if he played a role. “I never ever said I had anything to do with bringing down the wall,” he told Time. “I never ever said those words ... There was the guy from Knight Rider singing a song about freedom. Knight Rider was sacred to everyone and hopefully we’ll bring it back as a movie. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right song. I was just a man who sang a song about freedom.”

After the wall fell, Hasselhoff was invited to sing on a crane hovering over its remains on New Year’s Eve in 1989, which you can witness in the video above. Hasselhoff recently returned to Berlin for another series of concerts to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the wall being torn down.

[h/t Time]

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