“It’s a Wonderful Life” — Behind the Scenes and Trivia
I can’t imagine there being anyone that has not seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring James Stewart and Donna Reed.The movie is absolutely timeless and it comes in near the top of just about every poll ever taken about “favorite Christmas movies.”
I guess most people know at least one piece of trivia about the movie. It was a bomb when it first came out in 1946. In fact, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, didn’t even make enough money at the box office to cover the cost of making the movie.
Here a few lesser known stories and facts behind “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
In case you aren’t familiar with the website, IMDB, it is an amazing site that contains pretty much every actor and every movie to come out of Hollywood. If you want more information about a movie, or if you would like information about a favorite actor, chances are you’ll find it on IMDB. It’s a slo a very accurate site, which makes it perfect for settling arguments!
Films made prior to this one used cornflakes painted white for the falling snow effect. Because the cornflakes were so loud, dialogue had to be dubbed in later. Frank Capra wanted to record the sound live, so a new snow effect was developed using foamite (a fire-fighting chemical) and soap and water. This mixture was then pumped at high pressure through a wind machine to create the silent, falling snow. 6000 gallons of the new snow were used in the film. The RKO Effects Department received a Class III Scientific or Technical Award from the Motion Picture Academy for the development of the new film snow.
As Uncle Billy is leaving George’s house drunk, it sounds as if he stumbles over some trash cans on the sidewalk. In fact, a crew member dropped some equipment right after Uncle Billy left the screen. Both actors continued with the scene (“I’m all right, I’m all right!”) and director Frank Capra decided to use it in the final cut. He gave the clumsy stagehand a $10 bonus for “improving the sound.”
For the scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock into the window of the Granville House, Frank Capra hired a marksman to shoot it out for her on cue. To everyone’s amazement, Donna Reed broke the window with true aim and heft without the assistance of the hired marksman. Reed had played baseball in high school and had a strong throwing arm.
James Stewart was nervous about the phone scene kiss because it was his first screen kiss since his return to Hollywood after the war. Under Frank Capra’s watchful eye, Stewart filmed the scene in only one unrehearsed take, and it worked so well that part of the embrace was cut because it was too passionate to pass the censors.
When composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s original score for the finale (featuring “Ode To Joy”) was eliminated, tracks of Alfred Newman’s score from The Hunchback of Notre Dame were used instead, most notably the chorus singing “Hallelujah”.
In 1947, an FBI analyst submitted, without comment, an addition to a running memo on “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” recording the opinion of an industry source who said that the film’s “obvious” attempt to discredit bankers “is a common trick used by Communists.”
The gym floor that opens up to reveal a swimming pool was real and was located at Beverly Hills High School in Los Angeles.
In 2004 the BBC TV listings magazine “Radio Times” conducted a poll into the Best Film Never to Have Won an Oscar. It’s a Wonderful Life came second (The Shawshank Redemption was first).
This was the first and last time that Frank Capra produced, financed, directed and co-wrote one of his films.
At $3.7 million, this was a very expensive independent production. In its initial box office run, it only earned $3.3 million.
James Stewart cited George Bailey as being his favorite character. The part was originally developed at another studio with Cary Grant earmarked for the role. When Frank Capra inherited the project, he rewrote it to suit Stewart.
Vincent Price was considered for the part of Mr. Potter.
Donna Reed’s first starring role.
After the war Frank Capra set up Liberty Films with George Stevens and William Wyler to make more serious, soul-searching films. This and State of the Union were Liberty’s only productions.
The instant that George says “God” on the bridge, it starts snowing, showing that he is back in the real world.
The set for Bedford Falls was constructed in two months and was one of the longest sets that had ever been made for an American movie. It covered four acres of the RKO’s Encino Ranch. It included 75 stores and buildings, main street, factory district and a large residential and slum area. The Main Street was 300 yards long, three whole city blocks!
Dalton Trumbo, Dorothy Parker, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets all did uncredited work on the script. Trumbo was one of the “blacklisted” writers following the “McCarthy Hearings.”
AN URBAN LEGEND ABOUT BURT AND ERNIE
Two of Sesame Street’s Muppets, Bert and Ernie, share their names with the film’s cop and cab driver, respectively, but it’s believed to be just a coincidence. While Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu, claimed that the two Muppets were named after the characters because the movie was Jim Henson’s favorite, according to longtime Muppets head writer Jerry Juhl in an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, Ernie and Bert were not named after the movie’s characters. Juhl said, “I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim [Henson] had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cabdriver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street’s first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show’s format. He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”
While filming the scene where George prays in the bar, James Stewart has said that he was so overcome that he began to sob right then and there. Later, Frank Capra reframed the shot so it looked like a much closer shot than was actually filmed because he wanted to catch that expression on Stewart’s face.
Actor and producer Sheldon Leonard said in an interview that the only reason he agreed to play Nick the bartender in this film was so that he would have money to buy Dodger baseball tickets.
The film has two lines of “secret dialog” – spoken quietly through a door. (They can be heard when amplifying the volume, and are also explicitly depicted in the closed-captioning.) The lines occur at the end of the scene set in Bailey’s private office with Bailey and his son George, and Potter and his goon present. After George raves to Potter that “you can’t say that about my father”, he is ushered out of the room by his father, then George is shown standing outside the office door. At that moment, George overhears the following two lines of dialog through the glass pane of the door behind him: POTTER: What’s the answer? BAILEY: Potter, you just humiliated me in front of my son.
The scene on the bridge where Clarence saves George was filmed on a back lot on a day where the temperature was 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This is why James Stewart is visibly sweating in a few scenes.
Frank Capra often said that this was his favorite of all his films.
James Stewart’s performance as George Bailey is ranked #8 on Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (2006).
Voted the #1 inspirational film of all time in AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Cheers” (June 14th, 2006)
Ranked as the #1 Most Powerful Movie of All Time by the American Film Institute (2006).
In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #20 Greatest Movie of All Time.
Ranked #3 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 10 greatest films in the genre “Fantasy” in June 2008.
Debuted a week after William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which explained why this movie was a disappointment at the box office and at the Academy Awards.
When Officer Bert shoots at George, the “s”, the “v” and the “i” in the electric “Pottersville” sign far away in the distance, go out.
Despite being set around Christmas, it was filmed during a heat wave. It got to be so hot that Frank Capra gave everyone a day off to recuperate.
According to an interview with Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played Zuzu, the name Zuzu comes from Zu Zu Ginger Snaps. George makes reference to this near the end of the movie when he says to Zu Zu at the top of the stairs, “Zuzu my little Ginger Snap!”
Ginger Rogers was offered the role of Mary, but turned it down.
James Stewart said that of all the films he made, this was his favorite.
This film is one of five times Beulah Bondi portrayed James Stewart’s mother, The others are: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts and Vivacious Lady, and once on his television series, The Jimmy Stewart Show.
Frank Capra strove to make scenes as real as he could for actors. Thus the first kiss between Stewart and Reed was shot at the same time as the other end of the phone conversation, with Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson) on a different set (Wainwright’s New York office) at RKO’s Pathe studio.
Although credited as merely “Mr. Potter,” it is revealed on the back of the glass on Mr. Potter’s office door that his name is Henry F. Potter.
“Smith Wins Nomination”, the newspaper headline, has nothing to do with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It refers instead to Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, the “Happy Warrior” who ran for President as a Democrat in 1928. Republican Herbert Hoover defeated Smith.
In the scene where George Bailey runs through the streets wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, there’s a shot of a theater marque advertising for The Bells of St. Mary’s. Henry Travers, who plays Clarence, had co-starred in the film the previous year.
The year that Potter offers George a $20,000 annual salary is unclear, but assuming that this scene takes place in 1939, that amount is equivalent to $310,567 in 2010 dollars.