Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has been a beloved Christmas classic for many generations. The streets of Bedford Falls, the desperate travails of George Bailey, and the discovery of Zuzu’s petals have become traditional signatures of the holiday season. Yet when the film was released it was a box-office flop and was largely forgotten—until it was rediscovered through endless TV airings and on Christmas Eve broadcasts. Examine the movie, its surprisingly dark portrait of small-town life, and how it became the ultimate portrayal of holiday goodwill.

Brian Rose is a professor emeritus at Fordham University, where he taught for 38 years in the Department of Communication and Media Studies. He has written several books on television history and cultural programming, and conducted more than a hundred Q&A’s with leading directors, actors, and writers for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Screen Actors Guild, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.