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.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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