It's a Wonderful Life has an odd place in the American canon: Well-known but half-remembered; dismissed as mawkish but revered as moving. It may be one of those dream-films we only recall as images -- the haunted stumble into Pottersville, the exultant return to Bedford Falls, a small, ringing bell -- but it's worth watching with your mind as well as your heart. Here are seven things you may not know about the Frank Capra / Jimmy Stewart classic, from where it began to its reverberations in the here and now.
1) Familiarity Breeds Content
Contrary to popular belief, It's a Wonderful Lifedidn't enter the public domain in 1974; rather, it fell out of copyright -- a subtle distinction, but regardless, it certainly wasn't expensive to show on TV for a span of several years -- during which it attained cultural ubiquity. (In fact, the legal status of It's a Wonderful Life meant that at one point, a po-mo variation on What's Up Tiger Lilly was planned by The Upright Citizen's Brigade.) A mix of re-asserted copyrights and a weird kind of veneration mean that these days it's only shown on network TV on a limited basis -- but it's made it's way into the Christmastime zeitgeist nonetheless, thanks to years of the kinds of repeat airing where, as a pre-semi-stardom Woody Harrelson put it on Cheers, "From now until Christmas, It's a Wonderful month. ..."
2) The Premise Works
And does it ever -- you can click yourself stupid doing on-line research on pop-culture re-iterations of George's guided tour of a George-less universe. (And researching how George Bailey and Mr. Potter both owe a debt to a Mr. Crachit and a Mr. Scrooge can take the same amount of time.) There's an entire essay in parsing whether the easier question would be 'What bad sitcoms have done It's a Wonderful Life episodes?' or 'What bad sitcoms haven't?" When a movie influences high and low art, that's a kind of eternity in and of itself -- even if one of your standard-bearers is MST3K.