12 Things You Didn't Know About 'It's a Wonderful Life'
Even if you've seen the film dozens of times, there may still be a few things you don't know about it.
For many families, Christmas isn’t Christmas until the annual viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s 1946 classic tells the story of a suicidal man (James Stewart) saved by divine intervention in the form of an angel named Clarence who has not yet earned his wings. Clarence shows the man, George Bailey, what life would have been like had he never been born, teaching him to appreciate the wonder of his small-town existence. While the film is now a Christmas tradition, when it was released it had a tepid reception, failing to recoup the $3.7 million the film cost to make and while it was nominated for five Academy Awards, it won none. No one could have imagined that over 60 years later the film would still be shown and that it would be a part of so many families’ Christmas traditions.
Even if you have seen the film dozens of times, there may still be a few things you do not know about the movie. Here are a dozen of them:
1. It all started with a Christmas card
Philip Van Doren Stern wrote the short story The Greatest Gift after it came to him in a dream, but like many authors, he ended up self-publishing it. He printed 200 copies and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. One of those cards found its way into the hands of Frank Capra, who shared it with Jimmy Stewart and with David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, who purchased the movie rights for $10,000.
2. It was supposed to star Cary Grant
When RKO Pictures bought the rights to the film, they hoped their star Cary Grant would take the leading role of George Bailey. However when Capra came onboard, he brought Jimmy Stewart along with him. As for Mary Hatch Bailey, the role was reportedly offered to Jean Arthur, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Dvorak, and Ginger Rogers, who called the character “too bland.” Ultimately, of course, the part went to Donna Reed for her first starring role.
3. Frank Capra didn’t think of it as a Christmas movie
The director told The Wall Street Journal in 1984: "I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."
4. They invented a new type of snow for the film
Before CGI and green-screen technology, special effects artists had to be very creative. For example, when making it snow in films, they used painted cornflakes as stand-ins for snowflakes. Capra, though, didn’t like the crunching noise when actors stepped on the cereal. So he and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow that was made of much quieter stuff, specifically fire extinguisher foam mixed with soap, sugar and water and blown through a wind machine.
5. ZuZu didn’t see the film for 40 years
Karolyn Grimes, who played ZuZu, the youngest daughter in the Bailey family who uttered the famous line “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.” She made up for lost time, though, telling Vanity Fair that she has now seen it over 500 times.
6. There was supposed to be a sequel (and still may be)
At 73 years old, Grimes was ready to reprise the role, all set to star in a sequel called, It's A Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story. The film was supposed to tell what happened after George Bailey’s fateful night. Originally scheduled to come out in time for Christmas 2015, but it missed the deadline and now it appears the film will not be released.
7. You can visit Bedford Falls—sort of
While the Bedford Falls pictured in the film was a four-acre set in Encino, California, it’s believed to have been inspired by two separate towns—Bedford Hills in the affluent Westchester County, New York (Martha Stewart has a home there), and the more working-class city of Seneca Falls.
That city has run with the idea, setting up an entire website, The Real Bedford Falls, dedicated to pointing out the numerous similarities between the two towns, opening an It’s A Wonderful Life Museum, and hosting the annual It’s A Wonderful Life Festival.
8. The Little Rascals’ Alfalfa had a small role
In one of his very few post-Our Gang roles, Earl “Alfalfa” Switzer played Freddie, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part as Mary’s date to the school dance. The scene—and Switzer’s role—ended in the famous scene where the school’s dance floor accidentally turns into a swimming pool.
9. The gym floor swimming pool is real
While most of the film was shot on a set, the director decided that for the high school dance scene he needed to use a real life high school. The dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School which really has a retractable gym floor that moves to reveal a swimming pool, earning the nickname the Swim Gym.
10. Dorothy Parker helped write the movie
The famously acid-tongued and unsentimental Parker, who founded the Algonquin Round Table, worked on the script. Although at the time her contributions were uncredited, the Academy now recognizes her role.
11. The FBI considered the film to be Communist propaganda
Back at the time when Hollywood was enemy no. 1, the FBI thought the film’s populism and anti-banker message was problematic. They even mentioned it in a 1947 FBI memo titled “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry.”
12. It was Frank Capra’s favorite film
The director once said of It's a Wonderful Life: "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made. It wasn't made for the oh-so-bored critics or the oh-so-jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people."