It's a Wonderful Life is a 1946 American Christmas fantasy drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra, based on the short story and booklet The Greatest Gift, which Philip Van Doren Stern began to write in 1939 and published privately in 1943.
The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched, and how different life would be for his wife Mary and his community of Bedford Falls if he had never been born.
Despite it initially getting mixed reviews and being considered a box office flop, the film has become a classic and is a staple of Christmas television around the world. The change in reception was helped in part due to a clerical error which put the film into the public domain, allowing it to be freely shown anywhere without licensing or royalty fees.
Theatrically, the film's break-even point was $6.3 million, about twice the production cost, a figure it did not come close to achieving on its initial release. An appraisal in 2006 reported: "Although it was not the complete box-office failure that today everyone believes ... it was initially a major disappointment and confirmed, at least to the studios, that Capra was no longer capable of turning out the populist features that made his films the must-see, money-making events they once were."
It's a Wonderful Life is now considered one of the greatest films of all time. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, as number 11 on its initial 1998 greatest movie list, as number 20 on its revised 2007 greatest movie list, and as number one on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time. Capra revealed that it was his personal favorite among the films he directed and that he screened it for his family every Christmas season.
An angel is sent from Heaven to help a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed.