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