Did Jimmy Stewart Refuse To Work With Donna Reed After It's A Wonderful Life?

Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) is a monument of cinematic excellence. It was nominated for five Academy Awards after its release, and the American Film Institute regards it as one of the best 100 American films ever made (via Express U.K.). The prolific performances delivered by Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed meant the start of a whole new epoch in movie history, and the seasonal masterpiece that came to life through their characters has become a staple Christmas movie for many families, as NPR notes.

However, despite the film's underlying theme of joyous camaraderie and coming together through hardship, the aftermath of its release gave birth to a scornful schism between its two major stars. After the grandiose success of Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), Jimmy Stewart had high hopes for his next project with the famed director. Sadly, however, "It's a Wonderful Life" unexpectedly tanked in theaters, and Stewart blamed Donna Reed for the box office pitfall (per Express U.K.). 

Why Stewart blamed Reed

Prior to shooting "It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart had taken a hiatus from acting and became the first American film star to enlist in World War II. However, after much coaxing from studio executives, he returned to Hollywood for what would become his most defining project. Naturally, he had high expectations, but after the film tanked upon release, he fumbled to find a reason why. At the time, Donna Reed was not as well known as Stewart. Ergo, Stewart hastily resolved it was her fault that nobody turned out to see the film (via Express U.K.). 

Mary Anne Owen, the daughter of the late Reed, recalled her mother's experience, "She still didn't understand why there was so much insecurity and then Jimmy Stewart couldn't understand why the movie didn't do well, but that's why they never did another movie together. He blamed her, because she wasn't as well known," (per Showbiz CheatSheet). Nonetheless, the success of "It's a Wonderful Life" was never doomed, only delayed as it would re-emerge years later.

Why It's a Wonderful Life tanked

Following the long-awaited cessation of World War II, public cinema attendance was still down, so the lapse in trips to the movies likely had much to do with why "It's a Wonderful Life" didn't attain initial box office success. In fact, the turnout was so bad, Liberty Studios went bankrupt financing the $2.3 million project and was ultimately bought by Paramount Pictures. Liberty Studios was then dissolved in 1951 (per Screen Rant).

Then, in 1974, an administrative error resulted in the film's copyright expiring — landing it in the public domain — so TV stations around the country were able to air "It's a Wonderful Life" free of charge. Then, NBC bought the rights to the film in 1994 and broadcast it annually at Christmas. And so, eventually, the film was transformed from a flop, upon its initial release, to the titanic classic which is adored by millions today.