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"It's a Wonderful Life" continues to inspire 75 years after its debut: "It's magical"

The history behind “It’s a Wonderful Life”
The history behind “It’s a Wonderful Life” and why it continues to be a Christmas classic 07:31

"It's a Wonderful Life" has stood the test of time, becoming a Christmas classic for viewers young and old.

The black-and-white film debuted 75 years ago this week. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, but it wasn't an instant commercial success.

Yet over the decades, with a big boost from television, "It's a Wonderful Life" has captured the hearts of generations — even a clear-eyed movie critic like David Edelstein.

"I was re-watching this film last night. And I was kind of laughing at it, kind of rolling my eyes. And then all of a sudden I noticed my eyes were wet. And then I noticed that tears were coming down my face. I was like, what, what is happening? What is happening to me?" Edelstein told "CBS Saturday Morning" co-host Dana Jacobson.

That emotional reaction has been shared by countless fans watching Jimmy Stewart play George Bailey, who gave up his own dreams to help others. 

The film was directed by Frank Capra, who was able to bring to life both joy and sadness.

"I think the combination of Capra's camera, of Jimmy Stewart's elation of how deep and dark it has gotten, and then the joy at the end. Who could resist that? It's magical," said Edelstein. 

The film takes place in the fictional town of Bedford Falls and shows how Bailey has touched the lives of others in his community while making personal sacrifices.

"Even as a child, he has big dreams, he wants to build cities, he wants to become a master of the universe. And again and again, we will see George forced, following his better instincts but against his will, to put others before him," Edelstein said.

Distraught one Christmas Eve, Bailey questions whether his life has mattered at all. That's when a guardian angel named Clarence steps in.

Film historian Jeanine Basinger wrote "The 'It's a Wonderful Life' Book," which digs into the stories behind the film.

"It's a very American story — quite a success. How do you define it? And If you don't become rich and famous, does that mean you're nothing or nobody?" Basinger said.

She's also the keeper of Capra's archives. She said "a lot of things" surprised her when it came to the movie and Capra.

"The main surprise, I think, is that it was never intended to be a Christmas movie because he was always aware that this movie has a real downer section and it just didn't feel like a Christmas movie in that regard," she said. "It was turned into a Christmas movie, of course, by television."

"Was Frank [Capra] aware of what it became?" Jacobson asked

"Frank was more than aware of what it became because as he once said to me, 'I got a letter from somebody who saw it on TV. I sat down in a chair to write an answer to that letter. It's been 20 years now, Jeanine and I'm still in that chair writing letters.' And he said it was exactly that," Basinger added.

The film was shot in Los Angeles, and Capra never revealed the inspiration for Bedford Falls, but some believe it is Seneca Falls, New York, which has laid claim to the distinction.

There you'll find the "It's a Wonderful Life" museum. For almost two decades, Seneca Falls has transformed itself into Bedford Falls, hosting an annual festival. Earlier this month, surviving actors from the movie gathered there — including the Bailey kids. 

Karolyn Grimes was just 6 years old when she played Zuzu, George's youngest daughter, who delivers one of the film's unforgettable lines.

"Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings," Zuzu said in the film.

Grimes said fans' faces "light up" when they see her.

"It's like I'm some kind of an angel from heaven. Always the little girl they see, when they see me. So you know, she was beloved," said Grimes. 

The movie has found its way to the hearts of every generation, including millennials like Ashley Burton.

Last year, Burton watched it for her "Millennial Monday" YouTube series and reacted in real-time before giving her review.

"From a millennial standpoint, of course, it's in black and white, and I was like, 'Oh lord, this is — we are throwing it way back.' But for the most part, it's a great story about family that even on the days where you feel like you maybe don't matter or you didn't make any big decisions, your life adds up and means something," Burton said.

To David Edelstein, the redemption in the last 40 minutes isn't just for George Bailey — it's also for the movie itself.

"It's not his sadness that makes you cry, it's his joy," Edelstein said. "And who could resist this." 

"The last line of the film, the last spoken line, is 'Atta boy, Clarence,' who has gotten his wings, and all is right in the world and the world on high," he added.

That feeling of hope, that all can be right in the world, brings us back year after year. 

"I think really the last part is what assures this film a place in the history of not just Christmas movies but of American movies," Edelstein said. "It's why people see this film again and again, in dark times and in bright times."

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