‘It’s a Wonderful Life” is the champ. It maintained the lead throughout this month’s Christmas Movie Madness bracket, ultimately beating out “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966) 40 to 20; but both films were underdogs when they first appeared.
When “It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946 it bombed at the box office, leaving director Frank Capra $525,000 in the hole.
However, it found new life in 1974 as the copyright for the film lapsed. It entered public domain, and TV networks used it as a holiday special where it grew into the classic it is today. The film returned under copyright protection in 1994.
Based on the short story “The Greatest Gift,” by Philip Van Doren Stern, Capra said the film wasn’t intended to be a Christmas movie, he just liked the story. For Capra and star Jimmy Stewart, it was their first film after serving in World War II. Leading lady Donna Reed, Stewart and Capra all have named it as their favorite movie to make, and Capra called it the best film he ever made.
As for the Grinch, most everyone knows this story began as a Dr. Seuss book, written when author Theodore Geisel (aka Seuss) felt disenchanted with the holiday season.
While in the Army, Geisel worked with director Chuck Jones making instructional videos for the military. Later, Giesel was hesitant to give the rights of his stories away, but he had a relationship with Jones. He eventually entrusted the director with the story, and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was made into a television movie.
However, the project almost didn’t happen. Jones needed a sponsor to fund it, and no one was willing until the Foundation for Commercial Banks agreed. The film was expensive, costing $300,000 — 10 times more than the average price of a 30-minute animated film at the time.
Giesel wrote the song lyrics for the film, both “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and the song all the Whos sing, “Welcome Christmas.” The Who song sounded so much like Latin — which he intended — that people wrote the network to ask for a translation.
Boris Karloff (known for his role in the 1931 “Frankenstein,” among other horror films) provided the voice for the narrator and the Grinch. The singing voice for “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” however, was done by Thurl Ravenscroft (voice of Tony the Tiger). Viewers mistakenly attributed the singing to Karloff. Geisel personally apologized to Ravenscroft and wrote letters to newspapers asking them to publish a correction.
Though these two films barely got made and were financial losses, in true Christmas fashion they found their way into the hearts of audiences over the years to become the classics they are today.