Tonight: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell in the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

This is the favorite film of both its stars and its director. It is one of the greatest films ever made, but it wasn’t recognized, as such, at first.

Based on a short story titled The Greatest Gift, written by Philip Van Stern in 1939, and sent to friends, along with his Christmas card in 1943.

Cary Grant got one of those Christmas cards and brought the story to RKO. The studio purchased the rights for Cary.

In September of 1945, the Hollywood Reporter announced that Cary Grant would star in the film with Gary Cooper.

But in November, the property was sold to Frank Capra’s Liberty Films as a vehicle for Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart had starred in Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939. But neither the star or the director had made a movie since 1941.

They had both been away in service during World War II.

Stewart in the Air Corp and Capra in the Signal Corp, making a series of award winning documentaries titled, Why We Fight.

For the Donna Reed role, Capra initially considered Jean Arthur, Olivia De Havilland, Martha Scott and Ann Dvorak.

For the part that went to Lionel Barrymore, Dan Duryea and Charles Bickford were considered.

Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Gloria Graham were all borrowed from MGM for this picture.

Liberty Films borrowed $1,540,000 from the Bank of America to finance the production.

Shooting dates ran from April 15 through July 27, 1946 at RKO.

The Charleston contest was filmed at the newly constructed Beverly Hills High School gym. Capra liked the moving floor that covered the swimming pool.

The New York opening was December 20.

But RKO didn’t put the film onto general release until January 7, 1947.

Christmas was over and the film lost money in its initial release.

By contrast, The Miracle on 34th Street was released on May 2, 1947 and turned a tidy profit.

Budgeted for $2,361,427, It’s a Wonderful Life actually wound up costing $3,780,000. Way over budget. The first time around, the film lost $525,000.

The film was favorably reviewed. And there were Oscar nominations for Best Picture, for Capra as director, for Jimmy Stewart, for Editing and Sound.

But the Depression Era audience that had made such hits of the Capra classics It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington had changed.

Liberty Films went into bankruptcy in 1951. Film assets were sold to NTA, a TV distributor, which became part of the new incarnation of Republic Pictures in the 1980s.

But in 1974, NTA failed to renew the copyright on It’s a Wonderful Life.

And TV stations began running the film on a non-exclusive basis every Christmas, because it was public domain.

It was only then that the public discovered It’s a Wonderful Life and embraced it as a true classic.

In his autobiography, Frank Capra said, “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made. It wasn’t made for the oh-so-bored critics, or the oh-so-jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people.”

So now, from 1946, the Frank Capra classic–

It’s a Wonderful Life.