'Tis the season to watch "It's a Wonderful Life." But before you tune in (or start streaming), click through for behind-the-scenes trivia and surprising fun facts about the movie that became a holiday tradition.
It's Based on a Christmas Card
Philip Van Doren Stern wrote the original story, "The Greatest Gift," in 1943. Unable to get it published, he printed 200 copies of the 4,000-word fable and sent them as Christmas cards to friends, relatives and his Hollywood agent, who sold the film rights to RKO for just $10,000. An RKO producer then showed the story to Cary Grant, who liked it so much that he wanted to play George Bailey—the part that eventually went to James Stewart.
Jimmy Stewart Had a Shaky Start
During World War II, James Stewart gave up a $12,000-a-week Hollywood salary for a military paycheck of $21 a month. He flew dozens of combat missions in Nazi-occupied Europe and came home a decorated war hero. But after five years without acting, Stewart felt insecure about his performance in front of the camera. "I couldn't tell if I was good or bad," he later said. The actor finally hit his stride thanks to a pep talk from Lionel Barrymore, who played Henry F. Potter, "the richest and meanest man in the county."
Don't Bet Against Donna Reed
Although Donna Reed was a popular pin-up during World War II (she personally corresponded with many soldiers serving overseas), the actress who played Mary Bailey grew up on an Iowa farm and had a girl-next-door image. Lionel Barrymore apparently found this story too good to be true and bet her 50 bucks that she couldn't milk a cow. Reed (birth name: Donnabelle Mullenger) said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.
The Script Was Censored
The beloved family movie began with a script that film industry censor Joseph Breen deemed too racy. "Please omit the expression 'all night' in Violet's line, 'I was out all night last night,'" he wrote RKO. "There should be no flavor, of course, that George is trying to proposition Violet." Breen also insisted that, when they dry out their clothes after George pulls his guardian angel out of the river, "there should be no suggestion that either George or Clarence is naked."
The FBI's Review: Thumbs Down
From an FBI memo "concerning Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry":
"['It's a Wonderful Life'] represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'Scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This ... is a common trick used by Communists."
Behind the Scenes
Dalton Trumbo—later blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House on Un-American Activities Committee—was among a number of acclaimed but uncredited writers who worked with Frank Capra on the screenplay. Among the others were Dorothy Parker and
Not So Wonderful at the Box Office
Director Frank Capra and his then-new production company, Liberty Films, bought the rights to "The Greatest Gift" from RKO for $50,000. Released on December 20, 1946, "It's a Wonderful Life" did only so-so at the box office. Because the movie cost $2.3 million to make—a lot of money just after the war—Liberty Films ended up losing $525,000 on the deal. Capra's company was sold to Paramount Pictures in 1947.
Welcome to Bedford Falls
Built in two months on RKO property in Encino, California, Bedford Falls was one of the biggest movie sets constructed in Hollywood's Golden Age. It covered four acres and included more than 75 buildings, slums, factories, residential neighborhoods and a Main Street that stretched for 300 yards. Twenty full-grown oak trees were transplanted to suggest that the town—said to be based on Seneca Falls, New York—had a long history.
Summer of '46
Although much of the action takes place around Christmas, "It's a Wonderful Life" was filmed in the summer. On some days, the temperature climbed so high that Frank Capra put production on hold.
The White Stuff
Snow in movies made before 1946 was actually cornflakes painted white. Since the cereal made a crunching sound when actors walked on it, dialogue had to be dubbed afterward. To avoid that, Capra and his special effects team developed a new, more realistic kind of artificial snow—a blend of Foamite (found in fire extinguishers), sugar, shaved ice and soapy water—and pumped 6,000 gallons of it through a wind machine to blanket Bedford Falls in white.
Rescuing Harry Bailey
In the original script, the boys weren't sledding when young George saved his brother from drowning—they were playing hockey. In that version of the story, George rescues Harry after Mr. Potter sets loose a pack of vicious dogs to chase the boys off his property.
'Wish I Had a Million Dollars—Hot Dog!'
The strange-looking device on which George makes his wish is an old-school cigar lighter, which doesn't always work—that's why it's lucky when George pulls the lever and gets a flame. You can see a lighter just like it in the Seneca Falls "It's a Wonderful Life" Museum, which opened in 2010 in the town that inspired Bedford Falls.
Early Product Placements
The scene at Gower's drugstore, where young Violet and Mary vie for George's attention, is packed with brand names, including Coca-Cola, Bayer aspirin, Pepto-Bismol and Vaseline. The standout is Sweet Caporal, a popular cigarette brand early in the 20th century. Its ad slogan ("Ask Dad, he knows") inspires George to run to his father when Mr. Gower orders him to deliver capsules the druggist accidentally filled with poison.
The Rascal at the Dance
The annoying high school kid momentarily seen with Mary—the one who turns the key to open the dance floor, revealing the pool underneath in the middle of a Charleston contest—is played by Carl Switzer. You know him better as the Alfalfa on "The Little Rascals." (Switzer died in 1959 after a dispute that ending with him being shot with a .38 revolver.)
That dance floor wasn't dreamed up in Hollywood. The scene was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School, where there's still a 75-foot pool under a retractable gym floor. The facility is known as the "Swim-Gym."
Won't You Come Out Tonight
"Buffalo Gals," the traditional song sung by George and Mary in this scene, refers to the city in upstate New York, not to the American buffalo. Singers in the 19th century would adapt the lyrics to the place where they were performing ("New York Gals," "Boston Gals") and eventually "Buffalo" stuck.
The Old Granville House
A crew member stood by ready to shatter the window when it was Mary's turn to throw a rock at the Granville House. But that may not have been necessary. Donna Reed reportedly threw the rock and broke the window on her first try. Whether or not that story is exaggerated, the actress did play baseball in high school.
The Scene Stewart Kept Putting Off
Jimmy Stewart was thrown by the casting of Donna Reed, according to Paul Petersen, who later played her son on "The Donna Reed Show." Referring to Petersen's TV mom, Stewart told the former child star, "She turned out to be the embodiment of goodness, and got me so disconcerted that I kept putting off that kiss scene, you know, when we're in that tight two-shot on the telephone? We put off doing that scene for weeks."
'One of the Best Things I've Ever Done'
Stewart's story continues: "I was so nervous. There was real electricity in the air. I asked Donna if she wanted to rehearse and she said, 'Why don't we just do it?' and Capra, knowing what was going on, agreed. So there we were, cheek to cheek, no rehearsals, hormones out of control, and Capra says, 'Action!' Well, we did it in one take. One of the best things I've ever done."
Acting on Impulse
When a bank run threatens to sink the Building & Loan on their wedding day, George and Mary placate panicked shareholders with money earmarked for their honeymoon. Before shooting that scene, Frank Capra discreetly told actress Ellen Corby to request a very modest amount. As the camera rolled, she asked for $17.50, and a surprised Jimmy Stewart impulsively kissed her. The reaction was genuine and in character, though it wasn't in the script.
The Hero and the Villain
George Bailey ranks No. 9 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest heroes in movie history. (No. 1 is Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird.") As for the greatest movie villains, Mr. Potter is No. 6. (Topping that list: Dr. Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs.")
Frank Capra said he wanted "a good bad girl" when he cast Gloria Grahame as Violet. It was a breakthrough role for the actress, who went on to win an Oscar for her part in 1952's "The Bad and the Beautiful." Like Violet, Grahame had a complicated personal life. Her four husbands included Nicholas Ray, the mercurial director of "Rebel Without a Cause."
W.C. Fields was considered for the role of absent-minded Uncle Billy, whose monumental blunder—losing the deposit money on Christmas Eve—spells doom for the Building & Loan. But the part went to Thomas Mitchell, also remembered as Scarlett O'Hara's father in "Gone With the Wind."
Karolyn Grimes, who played 6-year-old Zuzu Bailey, didn't see "It's a Wonderful Life" until 1979. "I never saw movies I was in because my mom told me that would be prideful, being stuck on yourself," said Grimes, now 76, a retired medical technologist. Her favorite scene: George praying at Martini's. "Gosh, it makes me cry."
Remembering Donna Reed
Jimmy Hawkins, who played 4-year-old Tommy Bailey, appeared years later as Shelley Fabares' boyfriend on "The Donna Reed Show." He paid a final visit to his movie mom on December 25, 1985, three weeks before she died, and gave her an unexpected present—a Christmas ornament from the tree in "It's a Wonderful Life." Leaving the room to let her rest, "I looked back and caught that smile once again—for the last time," Hawkins later said. "Wow! What a special lady."
George at the Breaking Point
Carol Coombs, who got the part of Janie Bailey because the casting director thought she looked like Donna Reed, really played "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" on the piano as Capra shot the scene in which a distraught George Bailey loses it and yells at his kids. As Coombs recalled, "We were supposed to cry, and believe me it was easy, because he truly scared us—he was so good."
Those Tears Were Real
"Dear Father in heaven ... show me the way," George prays in desperation. Stewart later recalled performing that scene: "As I said those words, I felt the loneliness and hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer. The realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless had reduced me to tears."
And So Was the Sweat
The weather was especially hot—about 90 degrees—during the filming of scenes at Martini's bar and on the bridge, when George Bailey is on the verge of committing suicide. Stewart can be seen sweating in some shots.
Angel 2nd Class
Clarence, the Angel 2nd Class who rescues George by plunging into the icy water so George will rescue him, doesn't jump off the bridge in the original story. Nor is he an angel. In "The Greatest Gift," he's just an unnamed stranger who imparts the same lesson Clarence does—how "each man's life touches so many other lives"—by showing what it would be like if George had never been born.
The Martinis, who were able to buy a decent home in Bailey Park, are based on Frank Capra's own family, Italian immigrants who arrived in America in 1903. But in Pottersville, Martini's bar is Nick's roadhouse, So what happened to Mr. Martini? An earlier version of the script explained that he died from burns suffered while rescuing his family from their burning house, a firetrap rented from Mr. Potter.
Mary Without George
Frank Capra once said he regretted depicting Mary as a stereotypical old maid, timid and frightened, in the world where George had never been born.
George knows for certain he's alive again when he finds Zuzu's petals—the ones he pretended to re-attach to a flower for his youngest daughter—back in his pocket, where he'd put them. Apparently this symbol of his return to life still resonates. Zuzu's Petals is now the name of a Brooklyn flower shop and a Minneapolis rock band.
Yay! Back in Bedford Falls—instead of Potterville, the neon-lit Sodom and Gomorrah the town would have become if he'd never been born—George runs down Main Street shouting "Merry Christmas." Yet "It's a Wonderful Life" wasn't intended to be a Christmas movie. Originally slated for release in January 1947, it was moved up to fill a vacancy in the studio's holiday lineup and to qualify for that year's Academy Awards.
Jimmy Stewart's 'Higher Level'
Capra on Stewart:
"There is a higher level than great performances in acting—a level where there is no acting at all. The actor disappears and there's only a real live person on the screen, a person audiences care about immediately. There are only a few actors, very few, capable of achieving this highest level ... and that tall string bean sitting right over there, he's one of them."
Yet He Didn't Win an Oscar
"It's a Wonderful Life" was nominated for five Oscars but didn't win any. In the Best Actor category, James Stewart lost to Fredric March, the star of "The Best Years of Our Lives," which also won the award for Best Picture.
It's a Wonderful Ending
In Capra's original script, the final scene in the movie was going to be George on his knees, saying the Lord's Prayer. Fortunately, the director opted to have the whole town come to George's rescue in one of the most moving endings in Hollywood history.
The Copyright Lapse
The movie re-emerged as a holiday hit because of a mistake. Someone neglected to renew its copyright in 1974, and for nearly two decades "It's a Wonderful Life" was in the public domain, airing countless times on multiple TV channels every December. Produced in the first year of the postwar Baby Boom, it became the favorite of a generation.
James Stewart Vs. Colorization
Stewart made a big impact when he testified before Congress against the 1980s trend toward "colorizing" black-and-white classics. Referring to "It's a Wonderful Life," his favorite of the more than 80 movies he had starred in, the actor said he "tried to look at the colorized version, but I had to switch it off—it made me feel sick."
Then and Now
Although the movie took in just $3.3 million at the box office during its original theatrical run, it has racked up about $70 million in DVD sales, not to mention revenues from merchandise ranging from "It's a Wonderful Life" calendars to prints of Mary's "George Lassos the Moon" drawing.
James Stewart on "It's a Wonderful Life":
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