There aren’t too many sleeps ’till Christmas now, and it’s that time where we all like to keep to tradition and ritual more than any other month in the calendar. We all have those little things we do in the run up to the big day that – if we were to give them up – just wouldn’t feel Christmassy. Decorating the tree, making a snowman, listening to cheesy Christmas songs – these are all important traditions for sure, but we also like to curl up with a good holiday film every now and them. And some of them have become as much a part of the Christmas tradition as jolly old Saint Nick.
One in particular to deserve this accolade is perhaps the most iconic and well-loved Christmas flick in Hollywood history – It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s tale of a downtrodden bank manager on the verge of suicide may not sound as if it’s packed with tidings of comfort and joy, but you’d be surprised. As redemption stories go, this is possibly the most heart-warming and satisfying of the lot.
The hardships and uncertainty that 2016 has brought makes the film’s message even more poignant this time around, and this film does a better job than most of reminding us all what is truly important. It’s a Wonderful Life is shown on TV nearly every Christmas, so there’s almost no excuse not to give it a try if you haven’t already. And if you haven’t – where have you been?!
In a celebration of all things festive and feel-good, here are 15 things you might not know about your favourite Christmas film…
15. It Was Shot During A Heatwave
It’s a Wonderful Life? Not so much for the cast who were made to film in very unseasonal weather conditions. Ironically, the Christmas film to end all Christmas films was actually shot during a heatwave. No wonder Jimmy Stewart is visibly sweating during some of the film’s more dramatic scenes – we would have just put it down to well-acted stress!
The sticky hot summer of 1946 apparently got so bad, Frank Capra decided to stop filming for a day to give his cast and crew some much needed relief from the sweltering temperatures. This makes us wonder whether, in the scene where George Bailey is forced to jump into icy waters and save Clarence the Angel, James Stewart wished the river really was ice cold.
14. The Girl Who Played Zuzu Didn’t Watch The Film Until 1980
As we mentioned in the intro, It’s a Wonderful Life is such a trademark of our Christmas culture. It’s the kind of film that’s passed on down the generations and it’s hard not to come across it growing up. It’s pretty odd then to discover that the girl who played George’s youngest daughter, Zuzu, didn’t see the film until she was 40 years old!
Karolyn Grimes, who played 6-year-old Zuzu admits that she “never took the time to see the movie.” After years of receiving fan mail and requests for interviews in her adult years to find out if she really was the little girl in It’s a Wonderful Life, Grimes eventually watched the film in 1980. What was Grimes’ opinion after all this time? “Frank Capra was a genius.” That’s what everyone was trying to tell you!
13. Cary Grant Nearly Had The Main Role
It’s so hard to imagine anyone other than Jimmy Stewart and his softly-spoken southern drawl in the role of George Bailey, but as it turns out, Stewart was not the studio’s original choice for the part. When RKO pictures bought the rights, they did so with Cary Grant in mind for the lead.
Eventually, however, both the script and the rights changed hands so much throughout the development process that the film rights finally landed in the hands of director, Frank Capra. Having worked with James Stewart previously, Capra made Stewart his immediate choice. Speaking of his great working relationship with Stewart, Capra gushed that: “(Stewart) has the look of an intellectual about him. And an idealist. A pretty fine combination.” Tough break, Cary Grant.
12. The Slap A Young George Gets From Mr. Gower Was Real
Almost every slap, kick and punch we see in fight scenes today are brilliantly choreographed to look real and intense, but without causing any harm to the actors. No such courtesy was used in one scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, when the child actor playing a young George Bailey really was slapped across the face – and pretty hard too!
In the scene where the druggist, Mr. Gower lashes out at a young George, the actor (played by H.B. Warner) struck the young George (Robert J. Anderson) so hard, he caused Anderson’s ear to bleed. Apparently, the minute Capra yelled “cut!”, Warner rushed to Anderson’s aide and comforted the boy. Even in a family Christmas flick, you really do have to suffer for your art sometimes.
11. IAWL Was A Form Of Therapy For Stewart
Jimmy Stewart suffered from PTSD as a result of his service as a pilot during World War II. When he signed up for It’s a Wonderful Life, it was Stewart’s first cinematic outing after returning home from the horrors of war, and this can be seen in some parts of his performance.
He very nearly considered quitting the film altogether but rather admirably, Stewart decided to become committed to the role and a lot of the angst we see in George Bailey’s character is really the post-war angst felt by the actor. The sense of rage and loss of sanity felt by George Bailey throughout the film was apparently Stewart’s way of working through his PTSD. Who knew wartime horror and method acting would pay off so well in a Christmas movie?
10. Both Stewart And Capra Consider It Their Favourite Film
They’re in pretty good company, since a lot of people do consider this the best film ever made – but when you consider the impressive shared filmographies of both Frank Capra and James Stewart, this is high praise indeed. From Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rear Window to It Happened One Night, both talents have had a hand in some of Hollywood’s most highly-regarded films.
Speaking of his love for It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart told UK talk show host Michael Parkinson that it was the best film that he had ever worked on. Director Frank Capra, however, took his praise a tad further. Not one for modesty, Capra said in his autobiography The Name Above the Title that he thought IAWL was “the greatest film anybody ever made.” Maybe let the public decide on that one, eh, Frank?
9. Donna Reed Really Broke The Window Of The Granville House
Clearly, there wasn’t much call for Health and Safety in films of the 1940s, as evidenced by the scene in which Mary’s character (played by Donna Reed) really throws a rock through the window of the Granville house.
Capra had apparently already hired a stuntman, who was waiting in the wings to break the window for the shot, but this turned out to be a waste of money. Though Donna Reed was no stuntwoman, she was an avid softball player in her youth and was luckily able to hit the correct window pane on the first try! Reed’s daughter, Mary Owen, takes a lot of pride in the fact that her Mom hit a bulls eye. Shame it didn’t turn out to be a cheap shot for Capra.
8. Bedford Falls Took 2 Months To Create
By Hollywood standards in the mid 1940s, the set of the film’s fictional town (Bedford Falls) was considered one of the most expensive and elaborate film sets ever made. The production crew had to literally build a small town for the sake of one film – consisting of around 75 stores lining the streets in addition to dozens of houses and factories.
The town was created on the RKO’s 89-acre movie ranch, with the main street stretching the expanse of 3 whole city blocks. To bring an extra realistic touch to the fictional white-picket fence town, Frank Capra even added 20 fully-grown Oak trees to the set. Basically, everything you see as George runs through the town, shouting “Merry Christmas!” was put there by hand. The entire film was shot on – what would have been considered – an enormous budget of $3.7 million and it certainly paid off!
7. The Gym Floor With The Pool Underneath Was Real
In what many believe was a brilliant set piece built entirely for the purposes of the film, the gym floor that opened up to reveal a pool during the party scene was actually the real deal. In the scene, George and his date, Mary are dancing the Charleston, when the gym floor suddenly opens up behind them and sends them flying into the hidden pool below.
The party scene was filmed on location at a high school in Beverly Hills and the swimming pool that George and Mary fall into is known as the Swim Gym. Hollywood films have featured a lot of pool party scenes over the years, but never one quite as cool as this. We wish these existed in our high school gym!
6. The Film Initially Flopped
This may be the most hard to believe fact about IAWL, but sure enough, the film didn’t do too well at the box office. The film that grew to become a masterpiece and Christmas cracker of the film world wasn’t a straight up hit with film audiences of the late 1940s.
The reason for its box office duddery is said to be down to America’s post-war mind set. Also, It’s a Wonderful Life was rather unfairly pitted against a film celebrating war veterans at the time of its release called The Best Years of Our Lives. It wasn’t until decades after IAWL‘s original release that people started to regard the film as the iconic tour-de-force it’s heralded as now. Thanks to television re-runs in the 1970s, it soon struck a chord with audiences and generations have returned to it time and time again ever since.
5. A Copyright Error Helped Boost Its Popularity
There’s a reason you may rarely remember a Christmas in your lifetime without seeing It’s a Wonderful Life on your TV screen. That’s because a clerical error made at the copyright office of the rights holder meant that, as long as they could get a copy, any television station could air the film completely free of charge.
The film may have suffered a box office dive upon release, but thanks to a copyright error in 1974, TV stations were able to broadcast the film royalty-free for the next 20 years in the run up to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays! Though the copyright issue was corrected in 1994, by then It’s a Wonderful Life was already a part of our hearts and households and there was no going back after that.
4. The Filmmakers Created A New Type Of ‘Movie Snow’
At the time of filming IAWL, a widely-used form of artificial snow in the movies was created using painted cornflakes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this caused quite a few sound issues for director Frank Capra and the crew, so they decided to engineer a new kind of fake snow.
Together, Capra (who had a background as an engineer) and the film’s special effects supervisor, Russell Shearman, mixed in some fire extinguisher foam with sugar and water. Yum! Although that can’t have tasted as nice as a painted cornflake landing on your tongue, it certainly helped the snow appear more realistic and solved the noise problem. If the snow in films made after 1946 looks slightly closer to the real thing, you probably have these two to thank.
3. The FBI Hated The Film
Because of its themes regarding greedy bankers and the evils of wealth compared with the true value of family and friendship, It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t seen too favourably in the eyes of some. The strangest criticism of which was received by the FBI, who slated the film following its release and described it in a 1947 memo as a “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.”
The FBI also despised the film’s portrayal of Mr. Potter as a Scrooge-like character and viewed this as a deliberate attempt to discredit bankers. Whether or not this really was the film’s true intention, society certainly didn’t need the film’s help for that. It seems that if the authorities will find fault with It’s a Wonderful Life, there’s probably not much they won’t find fault in.
2. A Sequel May Be In The Works
The notion of making a sequel to a 70-year-old classic is pretty unthinkable, but it’s not unheard of. The likes of Psycho, Indiana Jones and Tron have all been treated (or in some cases, injured) by needless sequels decades after the original. And now, a sequel to IAWL could unfortunately be on the cards.
Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth announced in 2013 that they had plans for a sequel rather sickeningly entitled, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story. Thanks guys, but I don’t think we need to hear the rest. Paramount, who own the film’s copyright have (for now) put the minds of angry fans to rest, ensuring that “this project cannot proceed without a license from Paramount and we will take all appropriate steps to protect these rights.” It’s a Christmas miracle!
1. Fittingly, The Movie Got Made All Because Of A Christmas Card
The production of perhaps the most classic Christmas movie ever made starting making headway because of a humble Christmas card. The film was inspired and adapted from The Greatest Gift – a short story by the American author Philip Van Doren Stern.
When Stern struggled for years to get his book picked up, he gave up chasing publishers and instead sent 200 copies of the story out to his nearest and dearest in the form of 21-page holiday cards. Before long, one of the card’s wound up in the hands of David Hempstead – who just so happened to be a producer at RKO pictures. Hempstead later purchased the film rights for $10,000 and helped bring Stern’s timeless tale to life. That’s one Christmas present Stern likely never forgot.
Merry Christmas everyone!