It's a Wonderful Life: a Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Touching Christmas Classic

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:46:52 PM ET
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There's no film that better encapsulates the holiday spirit than the Christmas classic It's A Wonderful Life. The movie's charismatic characters, heartwarming message and theme of hopefulness have made the film both an enduring symbol of the holidays and every cinephile's favorite feel-good film. Still, the magic within the seasonal production didn't come from thin air: plenty of hard work was required to bring the film to fruition. This is a behind-the-scenes look at the Christmas classic It's A Wonderful Life.

James Stewart Struggled Post-WWII

Although his performance earned him an Oscar nomination, James Stewart had a tough time getting into the groove of the film. After spending years in vicious WWII combat, Stewart struggled to deal with the violence he’d witnessed and questioned his abilities as an entertainer. Fortunately, Stewart was able to channel some of the trauma that he experienced into his acting.

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After completing his noble military service, Stewart was apprehensive to take on any heavy roles, making his decision to play the suicidal George Bailey a tough one. However, his experiences made his portrayal that much more raw, real and emotional.

The Film Was Shot in the Summertime

Have you ever heard of a Christmas film shot in the middle of summer? Believe it or not, It's A Wonderful Life was not filmed during the jolliest time of the year. Instead, it was recorded entirely during the summer of 1946. Unfortunately, this season was accompanied by a killer heatwave.

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In many scenes, the leading actors and actresses can be seen sweating up a storm as a response to the scorching weather. The temperatures became so unbearable that director Frank Capra was forced to stop filming on multiple occasions to prevent his cast and crew from overheating.


Stewart Didn't Cry Crocodile Tears

There is no scene quite as heartbreaking as George Bailey's intimate prayer session in the roadside diner. The moment isn't only touching for its tone of despair, but also for Stewart's captivating display of grief. Unsurprisingly, Stewart truly felt the hopelessness he was speaking to.

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"I felt the loneliness … of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears," Stewart shared in The Power of Positive Living. "I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all … the realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless, had reduced me to tears."


It Gained Popularity From a Copyright Error

While the film is a Christmas classic today, it wasn't a major hit in the box office. Its release in theaters went largely unmarked, and once the holiday season passed, most people forgot all about It's A Wonderful Life. However, the film later emerged as a household title due to a simple copyright error.

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In 1974, whoever was tasked with renewing the film's copyright messed up. The flick became public domain, for better and for worse. Up until the early '90s, every television network shamelessly aired the film all season long, helping it become a staple Christmas flick.


The Set Was Tense Starting Off

All of James Stewart's co-workers came to adore the soft-hearted, savvy actor, yet the leading actor didn't initially have faith in the project. This made for plenty of tenseness, squabbles, and concern to manifest onset.

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"Donna Reed … said, 'This was not a happy set,'" author Robert Matzen told the Chicago Tribune. "These guys were very tense. They would go off and huddle say, ‘Should we try this? Should we try that?’ And it proceeded that way for months." Luckily, Stewart’s gloomy predictions didn’t come true.


Stewart Was Scared of the Kissing Scene

Stewart's most romantic scene with leading lady Donna Reed was one that he dreaded shooting, though not for the reason you might imagine. Why was he so apprehensive to dive into kissing his gorgeous costar? It wasn't all nerves. Rather, he was taken aback by her pureness.

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Stewart told Paul Petersen (one of the stars of The Donna Reed Show), "She turned out to be the embodiment of goodness, and got me so disconcerted that I kept putting off that kiss scene, you know, when we were in that tight two-shot on the telephone? We put off doing that scene for weeks."


The FBI Left a Nasty Review

Unbelievably, the FBI found everything to hate about the treasured film. The agency felt that It's A Wonderful Life was not only offensive to authority, but also espoused communist ideas. Additionally, they made claims that two writers for the film, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, were both associated with the Communist Party USA.

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In a memo released after the film's debut, the FBI argued that, "With regard to the picture … the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'Scrooge-type' … This … is a common trick used by Communists."


Donna Reed Won an Interesting Bet

There is a reason that Donna Reed was so stellar as the flick's leading lady. Before the glamour and glitz of Hollywood life, actress Donna Reed grew up on a farm in an itty-bitty town in Iowa. Considering how well Reed adapted to the celebrity life, many of her costars found her background to be somewhat unbelievable.

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One such costar was Lionel Barrymore, who doubted the outdoorsy skills Reed learned in her upbringing. He challenged her to milk a cow on-set and promised her $50 if she was successful. Of course she completed the task, proudly collecting her fifty!


Bedford Falls Was a Massive Achievement

The little town of Bedford Falls wasn't easy to create. The set for the film was one of the largest ever built during its era, featuring over four acres worth of buildings, neighborhoods, restaurants, bars, storefronts and more. The town's on-site Main Street was a stunning 300 yards!

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To give the natural setting of the town an authentic image, the crew brought in massive live oak trees and planted them throughout the set. This was meant to give Bedford Falls the appearance of a small northern town while also making it seem like the tiny community was well-established.


The Story Evolved From a Christmas Card

Before it was retitled It's A Wonderful Life, Philip Van Doren Stern's story, "The Greatest Gift," wasn't successful. Despite his best efforts, the story was consistently turned away by publishers. Finally, he resorted to printing the 4,000-word story on 200 Christmas cards which he sent to friends and family.

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Shockingly, one recipient — his Hollywood agent — was able to successfully pitch the Christmas card tale to RKO. Buying the story for $10,000, they went on to produce what would become one of the most beloved Christmas flicks of all time.


Robert J. Anderson Really Got Slapped

It's difficult to forget the moment that Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) slapped child George Bailey (Robert J. Anderson) for failing to complete a medication delivery. Believe it or not, that scene wasn't entirely fictional … or entirely ethical. Warner, who was drunk during shooting, delivered a genuine slap to Anderson's face.

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While this certainly wouldn't fly with film studios today, poor Anderson was forced to endure the hit. The actor shed real blood as a result of the brutal slap. Fortunately, Warner and Anderson hugged it out at the end of filming the rough scene. No hard feelings, right?


Reed Proved Her Strength

Who can forget when lovestruck George and Mary walked home from the dance, gleefully throwing rocks at abandoned homes? The original plan was for the actors to break the house windows, yet Capra doubted Reed's ability to bust in the glass on her own.

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As a result, Capra hired someone to shoot in the window. However, Reed impressed everyone when she broke the window on her own. Her secret? The strength of a motivated woman … and a childhood baseball career. "Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window," her daughter, Mary Owen, later shared.


Carol Coombs Was a Victim of the Depression

Carol Coombs gave an unbelievably heartwarming performance as George Bailey's eldest daughter. Despite being young, her sharp acting skills made every bright grin and gripping tear believable. However, Coombs didn't feel any attachment to the part for an all-too-common reason: her family was recovering from the Great Depression.

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"My father lost his money during the Depression up in Canada, so we came out here and my mother got us in pictures, my brother and I … I did it and I was in 20 movies or so," she later told Finger Lakes Times.


The Ending Was (Fortunately) Rewritten

It may seem cliche today, yet it's undeniable that the celebratory ending of It's A Wonderful Life gave the movie its Christmas classic status. Surprisingly, there was a point in time when Capra didn't intend for the population of Bedford Falls to come to George's rescue.

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In the original script, the film was slated to end with George intimately reciting the Lord's Prayer. While Stewart would have still found a way to make this conclusion sparkle, it's unlikely that it would have packed the same punch as the entire town gathering together to rescue George from his melancholy.


Dorothy Parker Polished the Script

When it came to finalizing the script for It's A Wonderful Life, there was no shortage of edits and rewrites. While many scriptwriters who later became famous took a stab at helping to reshape Stern's story, one surprising individual hopped on to help smooth out the rough edges.

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Acclaimed writer and critic Dorothy Parker ultimately helped polish Stern's tale into a functional film. Parker, who was known for contributing to flicks like A Star Is Born and Mrs. Parker, assisted in cleaning up the script's dialogue to make it sound more natural.


The 'Swim-Gym' Wasn't a Set

While the crew certainly put plenty of work into constructing the set for Bedford, one series of scenes was shot outside the iconic RKO studio: the events of the dance. This portion of the movie was filmed in a genuine auditorium at the local Beverly Hills High School. But what about the insane retractable floor?

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It may come as a surprise, but the floor-turned-swimming-pool that the leading actors made a splash in was 100% authentic. The high school facilities came with the odd floor-pool duo, aptly known as a swim-gym.


Grimes Didn't Watch the Film for 40 Years

Karolyn Grimes enjoyed a fruitful career as a child actor, yet it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Despite being a 6-year-old at the time of filming, Grimes' mother was concerned that if she watched her performance in the film, she would develop too big of an ego. As a result, she wasn't allowed to view the flick.

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Ultimately, Grimes didn't end up viewing the beloved film footage until 1979. "I never saw movies I was in because my mom told me that would be prideful, being stuck on yourself," she shared with The Washington Post.


The Script Had to Be Censored

Can you imagine this heartwarming flick being deemed inappropriate? Believe it or not, It's A Wonderful Life was viewed as a not-so-wonderful family film by Hollywood censor Joseph Breen. He felt that many scenes were too racy, overly-romantic or sexually explicit, and he demanded that several shots be cut.

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What were some of the moments in the film that were sliced out? Any mention of sexual behavior or suggestion of nudity was cut from the final footage. This included a line from Violet's character — "I was out all night last night" — because it suggested a sexual encounter.


Stewart Opposed the Film's Colorization

While colorization made films more accessible to young audiences who watched color television, James Stewart was adamantly against the colorization of It's A Wonderful Life. In fact, when viewing a portion of the film in color, he felt sick and had to shut it off.

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He disliked the practice so much that he expressed his opposition to the new technology before Congress. However, his co-stars weren't bothered. Jimmy Hawkins, one of the film's child stars, told the Huffington Post, "I don’t care if they polka-dotted it to get somebody to watch it, [the message is] the important thing."


Stewart Passed on a Hero Flick for I.A.W.L.

After returning home from war, Stewart was still one of Hollywood's most beloved community members. However, the industry was more interested in his real service stories than any fictional narratives. Some producers wanted to make a film highlighting his accomplishments as a war hero. He adamantly declined.

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Robert Matzen told The Chicago Tribune, "Stewart, very publicly, when he got back from the war was asked, 'If you're going to make a picture now, what do you want to make?' And he said, 'A comedy, I have to make a comedy. The world has seen too much trauma and horror and suffering.'"


Cary Grant Was Almost the Star

Can you imagine anyone other than the charming James Stewart playing George Bailey? Considering that he was reluctant to participate in the film from the start, he wasn't RKO's first choice for the flick. Instead, they were hoping Cary Grant would step into the coveted role.

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Once Frank Capra took over creative control of the film, he dismissed the concept of casting Grant as the lead. Although they had worked together on previous films, Capra didn't feel that Grant exemplified Bailey's spirit. Instead, he was eager to get Stewart booked.


They Invented a New Type of Snow

Up until the production of It's A Wonderful Life, filming scenes with artificial snow wasn't exactly efficient. Prior movies used painted cornflakes to replicate the appearance of snow onscreen. Unfortunately, the crunching sound produced when actors stepped on the cereal meant that all dialogue had to be recorded after the fact.

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Capra sought out a quality method of filming with fake snow that wouldn't be such a hassle. With the help of his special effects team, the crew invented artificial snow which drew on sugar, ice, soapy water and Foamite — fire extinguisher fluid — to produce a fluffy yet quiet mixture.


Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett Abandoned the Script

Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett both received credit for their roles in crafting the film's script, yet they weren't happy campers during production. Their qualms weren't with the story itself, but with Capra, who Hackett felt was "condescending," according to the New York Times.

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According to Hackett, "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."


Donna Reed Waited Decades to Watch It

Karolyn Grimes wasn’t the only member of the cast who didn’t see the movie until years after it came out in theaters. Without any sort of red carpet event or family trip to the theater following its release, Donna Reed didn't watch It’s a Wonderful Life for years.

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How long did it take Reed to see the film? Three decades. Don't worry — she wasn't holding off out of fear of disliking the flick. When she finally saw it in the 1970s, she loved everything about it.


Capra Was Great With Kids

In a film occupied by child actors, older cast and crew needed to be comfortable talking to the kids on set without losing their patience. Fortunately, the most essential member of the creative team, Frank Capra, was incredibly kind to the children involved with the film.

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Karolyn Grimes told ABC News that he was a natural with children, sharing, "He was just so kind, and I learned that it was OK to make mistakes." Grimes also called attention to the fact that Capra would squat whenever he was talking to kids so as not to tower above them.


It Wasn't Supposed to Be a Christmas Film

The film's production may have started with a Christmas card, yet Capra didn't view the film as a holiday movie. He simply appreciated the touching storyline. In 1984, he told The Wall Street Journal, "I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."

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Despite the fact that it didn't start as a holiday film, it came to exemplify the Christmas spirit around the world. It also became Capra's favorite project, which he shared in his memoir, stating, "It was my kind of film for my kind of people."


The Small-Town Cast Was Authentic

While Bedford Falls may have been a fictional town, Capra set out to create a cast of characters who understood the real experiences of living in a little community. As a result, many of the leading actors — including the children — came from small towns across the United States.

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According to Jimmy Hawkins, "You could see where Jimmy Stewart came from … kind of a small town. And of course, Donna Reed in Denison, Iowa. They brought the elements of those towns … You could see it. They were just regular people and they captured who they really were, from small-town America."


Stewart Was a Director's Dream

Although Stewart was fresh out of the war and struggling in his endeavors as an actor, Frank Capra adored the star. Despite being rather tough on his scriptwriters, Capra had nothing but the highest praise for Stewart and was grateful for the ways he made his job easier.

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As Capra told the Los Angeles Times, "You get someone like Jimmy Stewart, who’s a director’s dream. You don’t really direct an actor like Jimmy Stewart, you just stand back and watch him do his thing." Considering how many of Stewart's scenes were fueled by experience, it's unsurprising that he needed little direction.


Beulah Bond Was a Master at Motherhood

In her time, Beulah Bondi was a favorite actress among theatergoers, often playing warm, humorous and motherly characters in a number of Golden-era flicks. In It's A Wonderful Life, she played the charming role of Mrs. Bailey, George Bailey's mother, with ease. Fortunately, she had plenty of practice pretending to be Stewart's parent.

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While she may not have been Stewart's mother behind-the-scenes, she was well-versed in acting like his mom. In fact, she had already performed the part of Stewart's mother in three separate productions: Of Human Hearts, Vivacious Lady and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.


The Film Was a Cast Favorite

Donna Reed and James Stewart have both enjoyed fruitful careers on the big screen. Still, at the end of the day, both have admitted that It's A Wonderful Life was their favorite film to work on. Stewart told Guideposts that "out of all the 80 films I've made, it's my favorite."

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The film's creative genius, Capra, also gave his highest praises to the film despite working on dozens of other successful movies. In his autobiography, he explained, "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made."