The holidays are all about traditions. Families put up the same Christmas tree decorations. The same favorite cookies are baked. There is also a wide range of the same songs, television shows and movies that return every year. Over time these have become true benchmarks of the season. You know it’s Christmas when the Grinch does his thing, when Bing sings about snow and when George Bailey needs a reminder about how wonderful his life really is.
Although most folks have seen the film so many times that they can recite dialogue from memory, there are plenty of behind the scene facts aren’t as familiar. Here are the Top Ten “It’s A Wonderful Life” Behind the Scene Facts.
10. It All Started with a Christmas Card
“The Greatest Gift” was a short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943. It concerned a man named George Pratt who wished he had never been born. A stranger meets George on a bridge and grants him his wish. George gets to see what would have happened if he wasn’t around. He ends up selling a brush to his former wife and her new husband in this alternative universe. When Stern couldn’t get the story published, he self-published it as a 21 page Christmas card gift that he sent out to 200 friends. A Hollywood agent got a hold of the card and bought the rights. When attempts at creating a script failed, director Frank Capra took over the rights and the rest is history.
9. Cary Grant as George and Ginger Rogers as Mary?
The Hollywood agent who first bought the rights to “The Greatest Gift” was Cary Grant’s agent. He thought this might be a perfect project for his star. When Frank Capra took over, his only choice for George (now Bailey) was Jimmy Stewart. However, before settling on Donna Reed for the role of Mary Bailey, other actresses were considered for the part. Among them were Jean Arthur, Olivia De Havilland and Ginger Rogers who turned it down because it was “too bland.”
8. The Gym/Pool was located at Beverly Hills High School
The classic scene where George and Mary dance the Charleston and end up taking a dip in the pool was filmed at the Beverly Hills High School gymnasium which actually has its basketball court built over its swimming pool. The same set up was used in the Cary Grant from “The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer.” The school also boosts such alumni as David Schwimmer, Lenny Kravitz and Jamie Lee Curtis.
7. Little Rascal Dunks George Bailey
George and Mary might not have taken their dunk during the high school dance had it not been for a little rascal, specifically Alfalfa. Carl Dean “Alfalfa” Switzer played the role of Freddie, Mary’s ill-fated date to the dance. Carl was 19 when he appeared in the film, but had his start in show business at the age of 8 when he appeared in his first “Our Gang” (Little Rascals) short “Beginner’s Luck” in 1935.
6. Uncle Billy’s Unscripted Crash
At one point in the film, an inebriated Uncle Billy bids good night to his nephew George then wanders off screen. A crash is heard and Uncle Billy cries out, “I’m alright.” That crash was a crew member accidentally dropping equipment during the take. Frank Capra decided to keep in the ad lib and paid the crew member an extra 10 bucks for “improving the sound.”
5. Box Office Bomb
By Hollywood standards, the original release of “It’s A Wonderful Life” in 1946 was a box office disappointment. The film cost around 3.7 million to make, but only generated 3.3 million in its initial run. That would be considered a bomb in anyone’s record book. Then along came television and public domain. Looking for fill-up programming hours during the holidays, local television stations got to broadcast “It’s A Wonderful Life” as many times as they wanted. This meant several dozen showings in one holiday season. The result is that folks fell in love with the classic and demanded it to be aired every Christmas. Today, NBC maintains the rights to the film and have managed to create their own traditions with multiple airings every December.
4. Jimmy the Crow as Good Luck Charm
Alfred Hitchcock was famous for making on-screen cameos in all of his movies. Jimmy the Crow was Frank Capra’s good luck charm. He first popped up in “You Can’t Take It With You” and made subsequent cameos in most of Carpra’s film. In “It’s A Wonderful Life” Jimmy was one of Uncle Billy’s pets shown in the Bailey Building and Loan.
3. Beulah Bondi was Jimmy Stewart’s Favorite Movie Mom
Ma Bailey was played by Academy Award nominated actress Beulah Bondi. Turns out she played Jimmy Stewart’s mother in four other times in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Of Human Hearts,” “Vivacious Lady,” and on the “Jimmy Stewart Television Show.”
2. A New Snow Was Made for the Film
Before “It’s A Wonderful Life,” film snow was actually corn flakes painted white. The problem was all that crunching. Films that used corn flake snow had to go back and dub in the dialogue. Frank Capra wanted to record the sound live so he asked his special effects department for some new snow. They came up with a combination of soap, water and foamite (stuffed used for fighting fires). This new snow formula proved so successful it actually won a technical award from the Academy.
1. It’s a Wonderful Heat Wave
One of the reasons the special effects team needed to create their own snow for the film was so that they could control the flow. The town of Bedford falls was built on the RKO backlot and spanned nearly four acres. That’s a lot of area to cover in snow. However, the bigger reason was that they were actually filming this winter wonderland Christmas classic in the middle of a California summer heat wave. If you look closely during the bridge scenes you can actually see Jimmy Stewart sweating!
by Rick Bitzelberger