When the Christmas season arrives, there are few things better than snuggling down with your loved ones to watch a festive movie. And it could be argued that It’s a Wonderful Life is the best of them. Before you ready yourselves in front of the screen, though, you might want to keep these 40 behind-the-scenes secrets in mind. They’re pretty cool!
40. It’s based on a short story
Like a lot of movies, the idea behind It’s a Wonderful Life came from a short story. Yes, it can be traced back to a Philip Van Doren Stern tale titled The Greatest Gift. But he had real trouble getting it published at first. In fact, the author’s first distributed version of the narrative was actually as a lengthy Christmas card in 1943; it only became a book 12 months later. That’s quite a journey!
39. The pool party was real
While talking to the Fox News website, movie historian Jeremy Arnold shed some light on one of the more memorable sequences from the film. He said, “The swimming pool scene, where the floor of the high school gym opens up to reveal a swimming pool underneath and everyone falls in or jumps in? That was real. It’s still there at the Beverly Hills High School.”
38. It had a secret rewrite
As anyone in Hollywood will tell you, screenplay rewrites aren’t that uncommon. All the same, It’s a Wonderful Life is a pretty special case. Officially, the script was put together by three different people – which included director Frank Capra. But famed writers such as Dalton Trumbo, Dorothy Parker and Clifford Odets actually gave it a secret polish too. That’s some lineup, right?
37. An agent sold the story for big bucks
Before The Greatest Gift became a book, a Hollywood agent got their hands on the story in its Christmas-card form. As for what happened next, Arnold informed Fox News, “[They] wound up selling it to RKO for I believe $10,000.” Given the beloved status of It’s a Wonderful Life now, that was money well spent – and let’s be honest, a nice little earner for the agent, too.
36. The product placement
For those of you who watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year, we have to ask – do you ever notice all the product placement in the movie? Mr. Gower’s shop is packed! Look afresh and you’ll spot heaps of stuff, including Bayer Aspirin, Coca-Cola and Vaseline in there. Plus, a Sweet Caporal cigarette poster prompts George Bailey to speak to his dad.
35. It was Donna Reed’s breakout moment
In the early part of Reed’s career, she racked up plenty of acting credits. But It’s a Wonderful Life was her first leading performance, as she took on the character of Mary Hatch. After that, Reed went on to establish herself on the big and small screen, enjoying nearly 40 years in the spotlight.
34. The story’s darkness appealed to Frank Capra
Following World War Two, Frank Capra felt drawn towards one aspect of the tale’s narrative. Arnold told Fox News, “The darkness of the story was something he thought was appropriate and interested him to explore. Ironically, we remember the film for its lightness and joy, but it was this darkness that attracted Capra to it.”
33. The inspiration behind Bedford Falls
Bedford Falls is one of those movie locations that you’d love to be a real place. The on-screen community took its name from two spots in New York – Bedford Hills and Seneca Falls. Here’s the thing, though. The second town has asserted itself as the de facto equivalent of Bedford Falls. There’s a website and everything!
32. Carl Switzer has an uncredited cameo
We don’t know about you, but we love spotting uncredited cameos in films. They can be pretty cool! It’s a Wonderful Life has one of its own, in the famous swimming pool scene. The guy that unveils the hidden natatorium is portrayed by none other than Carl Switzer. Yes, The Little Rascals’ Alfalfa!
31. Bert and Ernie
Before the names Bert and Ernie became synonymous with a pair of puppets, they belonged to two characters in It’s a Wonderful Life. So is there a connection? Apparently not. Arnold informed Fox News, “That’s a rumor that has been dispelled by the makers of Sesame Street many times. One of the Hensons clearly said no and it’s just a coincidence.”
30. Smashing the Old Granville House window
Remember the scene when Reed’s character Mary smashes one of the windows at the Old Granville House with a stone? Well, that was all her. Yes, the actress showed pinpoint accuracy to shatter the glass in the very first take. There was no need for the effects department to step in. Talk about skill!
29. Donna Reed’s daughter is named Mary…
Following the release of It’s a Wonderful Life, Reed went on to have a little girl several years later. Her name is Mary Owen… and we know what you’re thinking. Don’t get too excited, though, as Owen came clean to the Mental Floss website. She revealed, “I was named after my great-grandmother Mary Mullenger.” Oh well!
28. Sequel plans
Back in 2013 two producers named Bob Farnsworth and Allen J. Schwalb unveiled plans to create a follow-up to the 1946 classic, but Paramount quickly stepped in. A representative from the studio told Variety magazine, “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights.”
27. An alternative rescue
In one of the film’s flashbacks, young George Bailey rescues his sibling by pulling him out of some water. Yet the sequence was much harsher than that in the script’s initial draft. You see, Harry was set to be chased by “attack dogs” in that version before the switch was made.
26. Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed’s chemistry
Regarding Stewart and Reed’s relationship in the movie, Arnold outlined its importance to Fox News. He said, “The connection that they forge and the screen chemistry that they gave is remarkable and it’s easy to take for granted. If we didn’t feel the connection he has with Mary, really the story wouldn’t work.” We have to agree!
25. The Hotel Clarence
In a film full of memorable characters, Henry Travers’ Clarence is one of our personal favorites from It’s a Wonderful Life. But did you know that the lovable guardian angel has a hotel named after him? Yep, you’ll find the building in Seneca Falls. It was first established in 2009, so it’s a recent addition!
24. It was shot in a heatwave
The shooting schedule for It’s a Wonderful Life was surprisingly brutal on everyone thanks to the weather. You see, the production coincided with a summer heatwave in 1946. That explains why Stewart’s George Bailey appears to be perspiring in certain sequences – he was genuinely roasting on the set.
23. The set was HUGE
To say that the Bedford Falls set was impressive would be a major understatement. It still puts plenty of film productions to shame! This massive space covered more than four acres and housed over 70 buildings. Plus, the whole thing was constructed in just two months. That’s an amazing effort, right?
22. Uncle Billy’s farewell
Remember the scene where Uncle Billy makes a commotion outside George’s pad? Well as it turns out, the noise was actually caused by a production person’s clumsiness. Some kit slipped out of their hands and crashed to the ground. So it wasn’t Billy who cried out, “I’m alright, I’m alright” – it was one of the film crew. Capra didn’t cut it, though, and the guy actually earned a small bonus for his part.
21. Jimmy Stewart knew his on-screen mom very well
Certain actors seem to cross paths all the time, but Stewart and Beulah Bondi had a very unique on-screen bond. Why’s that? Well, Bondi had portrayed his mother on three occasions prior to It’s a Wonderful Life, with the festive classic marking the fourth. Then, they did it again in The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis. What a run!
20. Communist accusations
After It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946, the FBI spoke about it in a shocking memo. It read, “With regard to the picture, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he’d be the most-hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”
19. The snow
In the past, movie snow consisted of painted cereal – but on the set of It’s a Wonderful Life, it proved to be far too noisy. So, special effects artist Russell Shearman came up with an alternative. Arnold told Fox News, “They created a new way of doing snow, which combined water, sulfite, flakes of soap and I believe sugar.” Problem solved!
18. It has a museum…
Museums dedicated to our favorite movies… how great would that be? When it comes to It’s a Wonderful Life, though, it’s not just a pipe dream. Yes, there’s already a special exhibit focused on the film in Seneca Falls. And if that wasn’t enough, the community hosts a themed festival to celebrate the classic every year too.
17. Animals prowled the set
A bit of realism can go a long way with certain sets, as it makes them look less artificial. Mind you, the people in charge of It’s a Wonderful Life came up with a unique idea on that front. To further improve the Bedford Falls backdrop, they let dogs, birds and cats roam around prior to the start of principal photography.
16. Jimmy Stewart needed convincing
While Stewart went on to do a tremendous job as George Bailey, he was initially pretty hesitant about starring in the movie. As he’d fought in World War Two, the actor wasn’t sure if the opportunity came at the right time. Thankfully, his co-star Lionel Barrymore talked him into it – and the rest is history!
15. Frank Capra didn’t see it as a Christmas movie
You all know about the Die Hard debate right? For years, fans have got into heated discussions as to whether or not it’s a festive movie. Well, Capra had similar doubts regarding It’s a Wonderful Life. He once said, “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
14. The slaps were real
At one stage in the movie, young George Bailey receives numerous slaps from Mr. Grower. But there wasn’t much acting involved! Yes, Robert J. Anderson noted that H.B. Warner actually struck him – so the blood was real. Warner quickly went to commiserate with his co-star when the sequence concluded.
13. It’s part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry
Over four decades on from It’s a Wonderful Life’s release, the movie earned an incredible honor in 1990. At that point, the Christmas classic became the latest addition to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Every 12 months, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” join the famed lineup. Well-deserved, wouldn’t you say?
12. A baby photo “prop”
Sometimes, the right prop really can make all the difference on a movie set – no matter how small it might be. In the case of It’s a Wonderful Life, the object in question was a baby photo. Yes, Stewart’s folks handed over a shot of the actor when he was just half-a-year old. How sweet!
11. Screenwriting drama
While Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett have writing credits on the film, they didn’t actually finish it. Hackett informed a reporter, “Frank Capra could be condescending. When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you’ll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We’re finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.” Wow!
10. The film’s original ending
As the film comes to a close, our beloved characters engage in a sing-song to round everything off. The ditty in question is “Auld Lang Syne” – a timeless classic! But did you know that that wasn’t the first choice? Instead, “Ode to Joy” was meant to close the movie out. Which would you have preferred?
9. Donna Reed won a weird bet on the set
Before Reed became an acting legend, she grew up on a farm in Iowa. Yet for some reason her co-star Lionel Barrymore wasn’t having it, leading to a bizarre moment on the set. As Reed’s daughter Owen told Mental Floss, “He bet $50 that she couldn’t milk a cow. She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”
8. It was a box-office disaster
Given the status of It’s a Wonderful Life today, you’d think that it was a storming box-office success back in the 1940s. That wasn’t the case, though. At all. The movie had a budget of $3.7 million, but it only generated $3.3 million in ticket sales. Nope, it didn’t break even! The response left Capra in a financial hole at the time.
7. Jimmy Stewart’s stepping stone
During Jeremy Arnold’s chat with Fox News, he made an interesting point. He said, “This is a very important film in James Stewart’s career because it was a stepping stone into a phase where he played much darker characters. He starred in Vertigo where he’s extremely disturbed psychologically. It’s a Wonderful Life is probably the film where he explores that side of his character to such a degree.”
6. One of the stars didn’t watch it for years
While the likes of Stewart and Reed are often hailed for their performances, you can’t forget about Karolyn Grimes either. She played little ZuZu. But were you aware that Grimes didn’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life until 1980? The actress informed Detroit’s WWJ radio station, “I never took the time to see the movie. I never just sat down and watched the film.”
5. A clerical error changed everything
It’s hard to believe that It’s a Wonderful Life could’ve faded into obscurity, yet that almost happened following its cinema run. Mind you, everything changed in the 1970s. Arnold recalled to Fox News, “The film fell into public domain [at the time] I believe due to a clerical error. The copyright wasn’t renewed, so that meant any TV station could show it without having to pay anyone.”
4. The studio had another star in mind…
Had the higher-ups had their way, It’s a Wonderful Life would’ve been a very different movie. You see, they wanted Cary Grant to star in it. Imagine that! Capra had other ideas, though, preferring Stewart instead. They’d already worked together on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington prior to this. Of course, the director won out in the end.
3. How many angels got their wings?
The next time you have a Christmas film quiz, you might want to keep this in mind. During the movie, ZuZu notes that the sound of a ringing bell highlights when an angel gets their wings. So how many got lucky by the end? Well, you can apparently pick up on 42 rings across the runtime.
2. The score problem
Before Capra worked on It’s a Wonderful Life, he enjoyed a collaborative relationship with the scorer Dimitri Tiomkin. The pair came together again on the festive classic, but the director wasn’t a fan of the music. So Capra apparently culled some of it behind Tiomkin’s back. The latter described it as “an all-around scissors job” while writing his autobiography. Ouch!
1. The stars and director adored it
Both Stewart and Reed went on to say that It’s a Wonderful Life was their “favorite” bit of work. Capra followed suit, informing readers of his autobiography, “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.” He’s got a case!