Released on December 20, 1946, It’s A Wonderful Life is a Christmas classic produced and directed by Frank Capra. The film stars James Stewart as a man without hope, set on taking his own life on Christmas Eve, only to be convinced otherwise by those around him and his guardian angel. Although struggling at the box office, the film is regarded as one of the greatest holiday and overall films of all time. It was nominated for five Academy Award including Best Picture and is at the top of many best films list. Take a look behind the scenes of It’s A Wonderful Life and it’s struggles successes, and what established it as a timeless classic.
The Film Got Its Start Thanks To A Christmas Card
In 1943, Philip Van Doren Stern wrote the short story The Greatest Gift, with the hopes of getting it published. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out, so Stern decided to print 200 copies of his 4,000-word story and send them in the form of a Christmas card to his friends, family, and Hollywood agent.
One of the cards ended up in the hands of David Hempstead, a producer at RKO pictures. He enjoyed the story so much, he then went on to purchase the rights to make it into a movie for $10,000.
Jimmy Stewart Was Unsure Of His Performance
After the breakout of World War II, Jimmy Stewart stepped out from in front of the camera and into a military aircraft. During the war, Stewart flew in dozens of missions over Nazi-occupied Europe, becoming a decorated war hero.
After his five-year hiatus from acting, he was hesitant of stepping in front of the camera for It’s a Wonderful Life. On his performance, he commented, “I couldn’t tell you if it was good or bad.” Luckily, his friend and co-star Lionel Barrymore helped him get some of his confidence back.
Screenwriters Frances Goodrich And Albert Hackett Left The Project
Although they’re still credited as the film’s screenwriters along with Capra, the married writing couple became so fed up with the film that they walked out on it. According to Hackett, “Frank Capra could be condescending… and you just didn’t address Frances as ‘my dear woman.'”
Furthermore, when the couple was nearing the end of the script, their agent called saying that Capra was wondering when they were going to be finished. Supposedly, the two responded with, “We’re finished right now” and quit the job.
Parts Of The Script Were Censored
Even though It’s a Wonderful Life is considered to be a family Christmas classic, some parts of the script were revised for supposedly being too risque. Film industry censor Joseph Breen wrote to RKO requesting to “Please omit the expression ‘all night’ in Violet’s line ‘I was out all night.”
He believed the line had too much implication and might have been interpreted in the wrong way. Breen also made it clear that when they are drying their clothes after George pulls his guardian angel out of the water that “there should be no suggestion that George or Clarence is naked.”
The Film Was Donna Reed’s First Starring Role
Donna Reed was no stranger to Hollywood when she took on her role, having starred in twenty other films previously. Yet, even though she was an established movie star, this was her first starring role. While nobody can see anyone playing the part of Mary Hatch, Reed almost lost the part to Jean Arthur.
According to Reed’s daughter, Mary Owen, Capra had been interested in Reed for the part after seeing her in They Were Expendable. But after meeting her at MGM, he knew for sure that she was perfect for the role.
The Film Didn’t Do So Wonderful At The Box Office
With his new production company, Liberty Films, director Frank Capra bought the right of Stern’s short story The Greatest Gift from RKO for $50,000. The film was then released on December 20, 1946, and although today it is regarded as a classic, it didn’t do all that great at the box office.
The film cost a total of $2.3 million, a lot of money, especially after the war, with Liberty Pictures losing a whopping $525,000. Capra would go on to sell Liberty to Paramount Pictures the next year.
Bedford Falls Is All A Set
Constructed in just two months in Encino, California, the town of Bedford Falls wasn’t just any set, but one of the biggest sets ever built during Hollywood’s Golden Age. It was a total of four acres with more than 75 buildings consisting of various factories, homes, slums, neighborhoods, and even a Main Street that was more than 300 yards long.
In addition, twenty fully-grown trees were re-planted onto the set so that the fictional town of Bedford Falls, New York looked like it had been there for a while.
Filming Took Place In The Summer
Even though the film depicts a winter wonderland, in reality, it was filmed during the summer. At times, it was so hot on set that Capra had to halt production. So, in order to achieve the effect of snow, instead of using corn flakes painted white, which was common, Capra tried a new technique.
To avoid the crunching some that accompanied using corn flakes, Capra utilized a blend of Foamite, which is used in fire extinguishers, shaved ice, and soapy water. He then blasted 6,000 gallons of it through a wind machine to cover the set in what looks like snow.
Early Signs Of Product Placement
In the drugstore scene in which young Violet and Mary are competing for George’s attention, if you look closely, you might recognize some common brand names. In the store, products such as Bayer aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, Coca-Cola, Vaseline, and more can all be seen in the background.
Furthermore, there are the popular 20th-century cigarettes, Sweet Corporal, whose slogan “Ask Dad, He Knows,” leads a young George to run home to his father after Mr. Gower accidentally filled a prescription with poison. This was one of the earliest example of product placement in film, a practice that is still frequently used today.
The FBI Was Not Thrilled With The Film
Upon the release of the film, one particular group that did not enjoy it was the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. In fact, in 1947, they issued a memo describing the film as a possible “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” claiming that its “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.”
Apparently, this was a tactic used by Communists. Although none of this is true, it was a time of high-anxiety in the United States, so it wasn’t necessarily surprising.
Jimmy Stewart Kept Putting Off Once Scene
Jimmy Stewart was surprised to learn that Donna Reed had been cast to play Mary Hatch. Flustered by both her beauty and stunning personality, it led him to put off one scene in particular.
According to Stewart, “She turned out to be the embodiment of goodness and got me so disconcerted that I kept putting off the kiss scene, you know when we’re in that tight two-shot on the telephone? We put off doing that scene for weeks.” Clearly, even the iconic Jimmy Stewart got nervous around girls. He went on to add they never rehearsed it and got the scene in one hormone-fueled shot.
In Need Of A Bad Girl
When looking to cast an actress for the role of Violet, Frank Capra made it very clear that he wanted “a good bad girl.” This led to him casting Gloria Grahame, a role that would help to kick start her career.
She went on to win an Oscar for her performance as Rosemary Barlow in the 1952 film The Bad and the Beautiful. Grahame was also perfect for the role of Violet as she had a complicated life, which included four husbands, one who was Nicholas Ray, the director of Rebel Without a Cause.
Jimmy Hawkins Worked With Donna Reed On More Than One Occasion
In the film, Jimmy Hawkins played the four-year-old Tommy Bailey, the son of Mary, who was played by Donna Reed. However, this would not be the last time the two shared the screen together. Hawkins went on to play Shelley Fabares’ boyfriend on The Donna Reed Show.
He last saw Reed on December 25, 1985, just three weeks before she died. He gifted her with a Christmas ornament from the tree in It’s a Wonderful Life commenting, “Wow! What a special lady.”
Jimmy Stewart Actually Scared The Child Actors
Carol Combs was cast for the role of Janie Bailey, mostly because Capra thought she convincingly looked enough like Donna Reed to play her daughter. However, she had more talent than just looking like Reed. She actually played “Hark the Harold Angels Sing” on the piano in the scene when George Bailey freaks out on his kids.
Apparently, even though it was in the script that the kids should cry, it didn’t take much acting. Combs recalled that “We were supposed to cry, and believe me it was easy because he truly scared us – he was so good.”
It Wasn’t meant To Be A Christmas Movie
Once George is back in Bedford Falls, and no longer in Pottersville, he is overwhelmed with relief. He then begins running down Main Street shouting “Merry Christmas!” establishing the film as a holiday film.
However, the film was never intended to be a Christmas movie. it was initially set to be released in January 1947, but plans changed and it was moved to fill a spot in the studio’s holiday lineup as well as qualify for that years’ Academy Awards.
There Was A Change Of Characters
In It’s a Wonderful Life, Henry Travers plays Clarence, the Angel 2nd Class, who jumps into the frigid waters so that George will rescue him. However, that’s not what happened in the original short story.
In The Greatest Gift, Travers’ character is just an unnamed stranger who teaches George the same lesson that “each man’s life touches so many other lives.” He doesn’t jump off a bridge and isn’t an angel, but talks to the main character as he is contemplating suicide.
Stewart Was Against Colorizing The Film
In the 1980s, Jimmy Stewart made his point very clear when he testified before Congress against the trend of colorizing black-and-white classic films. He was completely against it, especially when it came to the movies that he was in.
So, when it came to It’s a Wonderful Life, his self proclaimed favorite of the over 80 movies he has starred in, he was adamant about keeping in black-and-white. He noted that “[I] tried to look at the colorized version, but I had to switch it off – it made me feel sick.”
Donna Reed Has An Interesting Background
Although Donna Reed was a movie star and a popular pin-up girl during the World War II era, many people would never be able to guess where she came from. Unbelievably, the actress that played Mary Bailey grew up on a farm in Iowa.
Actor Lionel Barrymore, who played Mr. Potter. couldn’t believe it and asked her to prove her farmyard heritage. He bet her $50 that she couldn’t milk a cow. To his dismay, Reed claims that it was the easiest $50 that she ever made.
There Was Hope For A Sequel
In 2013, producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth announced that they were planning on making a sequel to the film titled: It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story. The film was planned to be released in 2015, but Paramount, who owned the copyright, refused to clear them.
They stated that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount.” Unsurprisingly, Paramount has no plans of giving up the rights to the film anytime soon, so a sequel is unlikely.
The Film’s Later Success Surprised Capra
Even though the film may have bombed at the box office, Frank Capra never imagined the film would attain the status of a classic.
He commented, ” It’s the [expletive] thing ever […] “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work.” He went on to add that he just liked the story and never thought it would be a Christmas movie.”