Put it back in the box – The Ukiah Daily Journal
Frank Capra, born in 1897, emigrated to the United States as a small child and settled in Los Angeles. He started working for a studio during the silent film era and gradually worked his way up to start directing films in the 1920s. During the 1930s he created many films that are remembered for Him Today: It Happened One Night (1934); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Many of his films had a special feel, with a lonely idealist opposing larger forces but somehow overcoming them. The term “Capra-esque” was coined to describe his stubbornly positive outlook; less kindly, it was derided as “Capra-corn”.
When the attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War II, Capra enlisted in the military. Although too old to enlist, he had an immigrant’s love for his adopted country and wanted to demonstrate his patriotism, spending the war directing a series of information films for the military to explain to new recruits the geopolitical forces that dragged the United States into the war. . This series, known as “Why We Fight”, eventually earned Capra the Distinguished Service Medal.
With the end of the war, Capra and two other directors set up their own studio. He, George Stevens and William Wyler formed Liberty Films in 1945.
Unfortunately, Liberty Films would only produce two films: an adaptation of the play State of the Union, and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which was a box office flop. He actually made a significant amount of money, but his production expenses were so high that he still ended up in the red.
It’s a Wonderful Life, for anyone who has lived in a cave for the past half-century has all the characteristics that identify it as a Capra tale. It follows a man named George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) who grows up in an idyllic small town, but is constantly frustrated by outside events as he tries to leave to pursue his dreams. Instead, he stays to run the family building and lending business, enabling local residents to own their own homes. In doing so, Bailey is opposed by the wealthy but venal Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Potter puts Bailey in a bind on Christmas Eve when he discovers a large bank deposit that Bailey’s Uncle Billy has misplaced. Facing financial ruin, and even criminal prosecution, because of the loss of funds, Bailey contemplates suicide. But then, in typical Capraesque fashion, things start to turn around.
The plot of It’s a Wonderful Life closely follows its source, a 1939 short story called The Greatest Gift by writer and editor Philip Van Doren Stern. Unable to get it published, in 1943 Stern had 200 copies privately printed and given as Christmas presents. A copy made its way to Hollywood and Capra eventually acquired the rights.
After the film failed at the box office, Liberty Films was sold to Paramount Pictures. It’s a Wonderful Life would occasionally appear on television until the 1970s, when something remarkable happened.
Between 1909 and 1978, copyright was valid for 28 years and could be renewed once for another 28 years. As the film’s 28th year of distribution approached in 1974, the company charged with monitoring the film’s status, however, neglected to renew the copyright.
This meant that it had apparently fallen into the public domain, so anyone could exhibit it without paying a royalty. And, for about the next 20 years, many local television stations not only began to show him every Christmas, but to show him constantly, an exposure that contributed to the widespread popularity of his film in a way that otherwise would not. probably wouldn’t have happened.
But in 1993, Republic Films – which had taken over ownership of the film – adopted a new tactic. While the film’s copyright expired, Republic still owned the rights to the 1943 short story The Greatest Gift (whose copyright was duly renewed in 1971). Republic argued that it was still copyright infringement to show it without royalty payments because the film followed the original short story so closely. Building on a then-recent Supreme Court ruling, Republic began warning stations against airing the film without a licensing agreement or risk a potentially costly copyright lawsuit.
Thus, although the copyright of the film has expired, its projection is again subject to the payment of royalties. Under the Copyright Extension Act that Congress passed in 1998 (and assuming there are no more extensions), this will be the case until 2038. Currently, NBC has exclusive broadcasting rights.
So if you don’t see It’s a Wonderful Life everywhere on TV this Christmas, well, now you know why.
Frank Zotter, Jr. is an attorney from Ukiah.