The Multiple Oscar Snubs of It’s a Wonderful Life

George Bailey (James Stewart) faces time in prison. Image:
Jimmy Stewart worries about going to the slammer. Image: WingClips

The first film Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart made when they returned from WWII was about a small-town finance manager contemplating suicide.

It’s a Wonderful Life, released in 1946, examines the life of a hard-working, self-sacrificing man who is framed for embezzlement. This in America, of all places, a country that went to war to fight tyranny.

Today, the film is revered by millions, including yours truly. But in 1946, the film was on few Top 10 Lists. Audiences, fresh from the war, weren’t in the mood to see Jimmy Stewart yelling at children or walking out on Donna Reed.

It’s a Wonderful Life ranks 30th on the list of top-grossing movies of 1946. It’s well behind the #2 movie on the list, The Best Years of Our Lives, a drama about WWII soldiers returning to civilian life in the U.S.

Both are excellent films, and both – rightly – were nominated for Academy Awards. In the end, Best Years won eight Oscars, including an Honorary Award for disabled war veteran-turned-actor Harold Russell.

Wonderful Life didn’t win anything. Not that it really matters, but this has always bothered us.

The law can't touch Lionel Barrymore (seated). Image: Daily Mail
The law can’t touch smirky Lionel Barrymore (seated). Image: Daily Mail

Look at some of the influential films released in 1946: My Darling Clementine, Notorious, Brief Encounter and The Killers. None of these won Oscars, either.

You could argue Best Years was the Academy’s safe, patriotic choice. After all, it’s a great film that honours soldiers who fought for their country. It certainly deserved to win Oscars – but not, in our opinion, at the expense of Wonderful Life.

Here are the five categories for which Wonderful Life was nominated, and lost.

 Best Picture   The Best Years of Our Lives
 Best Actor in a Leading Role   Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives
 Best Director   William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives
 Best Sound, Recording   John Livadary, The Jolson Story
 Best Film Editing   Daniel Mandell, The Best Years of Our Lives

We agree with the following awards from the above list:

  • Best Director  Some of William Wyler‘s images are the most powerful of the 1940s.
  • Best Sound, Recording  Admit it – Al Jolson has never sounded better.

However, in our opinion, Wonderful Life should have been given at least two of the following three awards.

Stewart threatens to assault Ward Bond (;eft). Image:
Stewart threatens to assault Ward Bond (left). Image: Inquisitr

Best Actor in a Leading Role  As much as we adore Fredric March, we feel Stewart’s performance of a trapped, frantic man is haunting. It’s unnerving to see Stewart like this; he’s the man who rescued the American political system in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for pete sake!

Best Film Editing  Film editing is hard (for us) to judge, so we turned to a cheat sheet: What Makes Good Editing?. “Even though each individual edit may be brilliantly executed,” it reads, “if you can’t tell a story well, you haven’t done your job.” We feel Wonderful Life editor William Hornbeck knew how to suck audiences into Stewart’s anguish.

Best Picture  You may disagree with us here, and that’s OK. After all, there are worse choices than Best Years, which is an insightful look at America rediscovering itself. However, Wonderful Life has a much larger scope; it speaks to everyone, not just post-war Americans.

Here’s the thing: Discussion about the Oscars is ultimately about what we want our “best” movies to say. Movies are like hieroglyphs, in a way; they’re messages about us and for us, but they’re also meant for future generations.

The next time you watch It’s a Wonderful Life, let us know if you agree.

Click HERE for the list of 1946 Academy Award-nominated films.

It’s a Wonderful Life: starring James Stewart. Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore. Directed by Frank Capra. Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra. RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., 1946, B&W, 132 mins.

This post is part of The Oscars Snubs Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and Silver Scenes. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.




  1. What now? This didn’t win ANY awards? The movie I watch 5 times (really, it’s way more) every December and still cry (one day I might stop that) did not win any awards? How is this possible? It’s brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re probably not surprised, I absolutely adore this movie. I had heard it wasn’t very popular at the time, and I never understood that. There is so much to love about this movie. I completely agree it should have won at least 2 of those categories. I really liked your thoughts on movies being like hieroglyphs, messages for future generations and the Oscars are about what we want our best movies to say. “It’s a Wonderful Life” communicates so many important truths about the value of each person, and it makes you just want to be a better person in general. That said, it is very scary which movies are nominated these days and what they are saying to our future generations. Thanks, Ruth, for a great post about a great movie. Sorry I rambled on so much! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shari, I completely agree with you. This movie really emphasizes the value of each person and how much each of our lives touches so many others. (For example, your fab website has provided some wonderful “food” memories for our family and friends. Speaking of which, it’s time to make more of that dee-lish granola you posted several months ago!)


      • You are so sweet, Ruth! You have no idea how happy that makes me that I can play any part in memories with family and friends. Thanks for being so encouraging!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree! And come on – at least editing…. Oscar can be so short-sighted some times. Time has proved the little golden fool wrong. And I completely agree about Stewart. He is the heart and soul of the film and gives a performance of great depth.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very good arguments. And I’ve still yet to see TBYOOL, so I can’t compare, but I think Thomas Mitchell should have at least got a nom for his role. But that wasn’t the point of the blogathon…:-) Thanks for entering it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Best Years of Our Lives is a fascinating film, and you’re iin for a real treat when you see it. As for Thomas Mitchell, yes he was terrific in Wonderful Life. Thanks for co-hosting this blogathon! Lots of thought-provoking discussion.


  5. I’m not a Capra fan in general, and I find a lot of flaws in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, but I can still appreciate many aspects of it, from Stewart’s performance to the evocative production design.

    I think the clearest reasons why it failed to win any Oscars are 1) the public didn’t take to it (Hollywood hates failure) and 2) Capra produced it independently which didn’t endear him to the “big boys”. Studio politics have always played a large role in Oscar races.

    BTW, there’s a fascinating article out on the web (unfortunately,I can’t locate it at the moment) whose author posits the intriguing & debatable idea that Capra intended “It’s a Wonderful Life” to have a simple, linear narrative without the flashback aspect. At some point he realized this wouldn’t work and the supernatural element just being “dropped into” the story would confuse audiences. Hence the rather choppy aspects of the film and the odd opening with voice overs. According to this theory, the iconic aerial shot of the Bailey house with the snow falling on it was supposed to be the final shot in the film.

    Another fun fact: the married couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who wrote the screenplay for “It’s a Wonderful Life” HATED it! They didn”t much care for Capra, either. They were interviewed to very amusing effect in the book “Backstory 1: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age” by Patrick McGilligan (1986)


  6. Much as I love “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I’d still have to give the Best Picture to “The Best Years of Our Lives”. It, to me, is an extraordinary examination of the effects of war, and has never been surpassed.


    • The Best Years of Our Lives is indeed an extraordinary film. I wouldn’t say it has never been surpassed in terms of examining the effects of war – there were some fascinating albeit low budget UK films during WWII, plus there have been some haunting films from Eastern Europe in the past few decades. However, these other films don’t take away from the outstanding qualities of Best Years. Thanks for dropping by! 🙂


  7. Great essay on a movie that was totally robbed of Oscar gold. I’m so upset that it did not win even one. In my opinion, this is Stewart’s best film and also Capra’s. I’m glad Jimmy did win one for Philadelphia Story, in which he was delightful, but George Bailey is his meatiest role ever, and makes you laugh and cry. That Oscar really, really should have been his.

    March was great, but I prefer him in other things to this old war picture. Since You Went Away is more my speed than Best Years of Our Lives.

    Love your awesome blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree. I feel it was robbed of “Oscar gold”, as you put it. Stewart is great in everything, but he’s especially so here.

      As for Since You Went Away, I still haven’t seen that film despite all the great things people say about it. (Sheesh!)

      Thanks for dropping by! 🙂


      • “Since You Went Away” makes a nice companion piece to “The Best Years of Our Lives”. It’s glossier, very long, and somewhat over-the-top (Producer David O. Selznick trying to top himself after “Gone With the Wind”) but it gives a vivid picture of the US home front during the war. And there’s some sharp acting and impressive imagery and production values in it.

        A smaller film, but equally compelling, is “Til the End of Time” (1946) a darker look at veterans trying to adjust to civilian life after the war, starring Robert Mitchum, Dorothy McGuire and Guy Madison. It has a sour undertone that might have put audiences off in its day but it bookends well with “The Best Years of Our Lives” and again boasts vivid performances from its stars.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. As much as I love “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Ruth, I just don’t see any way that “The Best Years of our Lives” was going to lose that Best Picture Oscar. It’s all about timing. “Our boys’ were coming home from WWII, many bearing wounds. This film resonated with so many. This is not to say that “The Best Years of our Lives” wasn’t a good film. It was a very good film but it was also the patriotic choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I know this is true, and “The Best Years of Our Lives” is a great film. It just bothers me that Wonderful Life ended up with nothing.

      Did you have any faves that won at the Oscars last night? I was so pleased to see “Spotlight” win Best Original Screenplay & Picture.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I so agree re: “Spotlight” and was glad to see DiCaprio get some Academy love. I’ve been a fan of his since Gilbert Grape. Those were the only 2 awards that I felt vested in. I think Brie Larson’s win was well-deserved and was surprised that the sentimental favorite, Sly, didn’t win. After Gaga’s performance, I wonder how many members wished they could have changed their votes?

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I also think Jimmy is very haunting in It’s a Wonderful Life – a powerful and desperate performance! Fredrich March’s win was more of a momentum thing.
    Frank Capra said that this film got a life of its own – he’d watch It’s a Wonderful Life and be mesmerized as if he wasn’t behind it. This is what makes a timeless classic!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I was going to say that it was understandable that audiences weren’t too keen on watching It’s a Wonderful Life ( not the happiest of films ) so soon after the war….but then Best Years of Our Lives was not the most cheerful post-war film either! You wrote a great debate here, and I would agree that of the Oscars given out that year, James Stewart should have walked away with Best Actor. Now the Best Picture category is a toughy for sure….both films were stellar.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True! Folks often say Wonderful Life was too depressing but, like you say, Best Years had some pretty sad scenes too. I agree that Best Picture was a tough call.

      Thanks for co-hosting the Blogathon! Some great arguments were presented.


  11. (I originally wrote the following in response to a similar question on Youtube. I think it is applicable here as well.)

    Interesting, I do like the concept of looking back on did the “Right One Win”. The question itself isn’t as simple as posed. Is it the “Right One” in 1946 (then) or is it the “Right One” as we look back 70+years ago (now)? Movies are a product of their time.
    Taking the “then” question first, TBYOOL was the biggest movie since Gone with the Wind, widely popular with critics and audiences (remains the 6th highest attended film in England). Production costs were $2-3 million, grossing around $23 million. It became the highest grossing film of the decade. It was truly a film of it’s time as thousands of soldiers and civilians adjusted to peace time after years at war.
    It’s a Wonderful Life’s retrospective holiday story struggled to find an audience when first released. Frank Capra’s fun, folksy populist pre-war style did not catch on with contemporary audiences. Production costs were around $3 million and grossed $3-7 million depending on who’s figures you go by. I won’t go into the Academy Award’s nominations. Both were well respected by the industry.
    The “now”. TBYOOL had another big resurgence after the Korean War & made another $1 million when re-released in 1954. After that, it has faded into background, but still appreciated by many classic film aficionados. It’s A Wonderful Life languished as forgotten film, then for one reason or another, falling into the realm of public domain. Although royalties on the films story were paid, for the most part, thousands of TV stations played the film ‘cause it was cheap holiday fare. This is when the films legacy and reputation grew. Repeated showings on TV in the 1980’s turned the film into a cult favorite and then into the bona-fide classic that it deserves to be. (Ironically, because the film did not do well at the box office, studios felt that Capra had lost his touch and was no longer a surefire moneymaker. It was the last of his films to win wide acclaim).
    So, interestingly these two great films have swapped places in the popularity of the public’s eye. Nostalgia during the holidays give us a reason to pull out It’s a Wonderful Life & enjoy. In comparison, while TBYOOL is fondly remembered during Veterans Day or Memorial Day, it does not have the same type of drive (Christmas!) as Capra’s film. It is no wonder that people today are puzzled why that dodgy old post-war drama could beat out such a fun holiday classic. Looking back, I can see why It’s a Wonderful Life has pulled equal or surpassed the TBYOOL in comparisons today.
    This leads me to one more question. Does a films popularity due to it’s heartwarming holiday message make it a better film than a serious human drama? Should this make us rethink whether one picture or the other should have won the Oscar in 1946? Is the TBYOOL irrelevant to today’s audiences? I don’t believe so. Our thousands of returning veterans and their family will still not find a better film to help them deal with the difficult issues of readjusting to a “normal” life. Maybe best said by this quote from “The Basement Tan”,
    “I chose The Best Years of Our Lives because there is so much to latch on to. If you’ve ever had a complicated marriage, or if you’ve ever felt out of place in your career, or if trauma has closed you off from the world, or even if you’ve ever just wanted to more fully understand a relative’s wartime experience, I think this movie has something for you in it. And that’s not to say that it casts its net broadly in hopes of finding an audience. What I mean is that its story is universal in the way that only a personal, well-told story can be.”
    I love both movies and understand the decision in 1946 as well as the public’s view today. I would just encourage folks to watch both, not so much as a comparison, but on their own merits. Both are great films! (Sorry for the rant, I am a historian and a huge film buff!)

    Liked by 1 person

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