A couple of posts ago, I suggested that Brief Encounter may hold the record for being used in the most other movies. Ben Zimmer, whom I sometimes think of as my own personal fact-checker, begged to differ. He nominated Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as the record-holder, and while I’m not positive, I’m pretty sure Ben is right. The Films in Films blog lists fourteen separate movies containing IAWL clips, starting with Music of the Heart; Bruce Almighty; Gremlins; Android; The Big Picture; National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; Money Train; Look Who’s Talking; The Ref; Meet Dave; Menace II Society; Trauma; and Nuovo Cinema Paradiso. In Home Alone, the movie is dubbed into French.
The sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, in a callback, has a Spanish version of IAWL.
The IMDB “Connections” feature, unbelievably, lists fifteen more films in which It’s a Wonderful Life is shown, including Doc Hollywood, Deadly Obsession, and Same Kind of Different For Me. IMDB also says the Capra film is watched by characters in at least twenty television series, including My So-Called Life, Roseanne, Muppet Babies, Cheers, and, of course, The Sopranos.
Every single one of those movies and episodes was made after 1974, and ten of the fourteen movies on the Films in Films list came out between 1974 and 1993. Those dates are significant because during that twenty-year period, through a quirk in copyright law, It’s a Wonderful Life was in the public domain. As a result it aired repeatedly on TV during the Christmas season and came to be seen as the quintessential Christmas movie.
Thus a well-chosen and well-placed clip from the movie can make a potent counterpoint to the doings in any holiday-set film. And best of all, in the twenty-year public domain period, you didn’t have to pay for the rights! As Louisa Mellor wrote on Den of Geek!:
If [a TV] episode needs to quickly establish that it’s Christmas Eve, it’s as easy as inserting a few seconds of Clarence and George into a scene. If a film wants to evoke cynicism around the festive period, then its characters need simply complain, Al Bundy-style, that there’s never anything else on TV. When creatives want to piggyback on some ready-made sentiment or create unlikely juxtapositions then, copyright permitting, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are their guys.
Tom Shadyac directed Bruce Almighty in 2003, at which point It’s a Wonderful Life was no longer in the public domain, but Spyglass Entertainment and Universal Pictures evidently thought they could afford the licensing fee. The film is used not for cynicism, sentiment, or juxtaposition, but for some clever mirroring, similar to the way The Quiet Man is used in E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Despite temporarily becoming God, Bruce (Jim Carrey) is having romantic troubles with his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston), not so subtly named Grace. He’s at a party, and wants her to come, but she won’t pick up the phone when she calls. So he does a bit of divine intervention and makes a certain movie come on her TV. Jimmy Stewart’s line “I’ll give you the moon, Mary” is a reference to an earlier romantic moment in Bruce, and is guaranteed to do the trick.