It’s a Wonderful Life – 20 Fun Facts You May Not Know

The original movie poster for the 1946 classic film “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Takeaways:

  • “It’s A Wonderful Life” was nominated for 5 Academy Awards but failed to win.
  • The set of Bedford Falls is one of the largest in American film history with Main Street alone measuring over 300 yards.
  • The film was originally set up at another studio with Cary Grant in the lead role of George Bailey.

Did You Know?

“It’s A Wonderful Life” was a box office flop when it was released in 1946 partially due to an opening weekend snowstorm that rocked the Midwest.

Chances are that at some point this Christmas season you and your family are going to sit down and watch the perennial classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore. The classic film tells the story of George Bailey (Stewart), a man who works his whole life in a small town to make good only to feel that he has failed and decides to end his life. George’s guardian angel comes to George at his greatest moment of despair to show him that his life has not been wasted and is worth living.

Directed in sentimental fashion by veteran Frank Capra, “It’s A Wonderful Life” is one of the few films that seem to improve with age. There are very few people out there that don’t enjoy this beautifully told comedy/drama while most people outright love it.

Here is a list of 20 fun facts about the film that you may or may not know. When you sit down with your loved ones or curl up next to a blazing fire in the fireplace to watch this movie, you can look for some of these facts in the movie or later share them with your friends and family.

1) The film was nominated for 5 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Director; Actor; Sound Recording; Editing) but failed to win a single award. “The Best Years of Our Lives” would win the Best Picture Award.

2) When the film was released in 1946 it was a box office flop. The weekend it opened happened to be the same time as vicious snowstorms slammed the entire Midwest.

3) The film was made on a budget of $3.8 million dollars and was completely financed by Frank Capra, who set up Liberty Films with fellow directors William Wyler and George Stevens. The failure of this film resulted in the bankruptcy of the new studio.

4) This was James Stewart’s first film after finishing his service in World War II. Initially he rejected the part feeling it was too soon after coming home to return to work but was convinced to take the role by Lionel Barrymore.

5) The film was originally set up as a project for Cary Grant at another studio. When that version failed to materialize, Frank Capra stepped in and re-wrote the character of George Bailey to suit Stewart.

6) Jean Arthur was Capra’s first choice to play Mary Bailey but she rejected the script as “too sappy.” Capra then chose Donna Reed, who would make her starring debut here.

7) Vincent Price was Capra’s first choice to play Mr. Potter. There is no known reason as to why Price didn’t get the role that eventually went to Lionel Barrymore.

8) Before “It’s A Wonderful Life” snow was created using painted cornflakes. Unfortunately the flakes would make so much noise that any dialogue would have to be dubbed in later in postproduction. Capra wanted to record the sounds live so a new snow effect was created using foamite (a chemical used to fight fires), soap and water. The mixture was then pumped through a wind machine to create the falling snow. Over 6,000 gallons were used during the production. The effects department at RKO was awarded a special award by the Motion Picture Academy.

9) In the scene where Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) is leaving George’s house drunk, he walks off camera and sounds as if he stumbles over a pile of garbage cans. In reality a young crewmember had dropped some equipment at the moment Mitchell walked off camera. Both Mitchell and Stewart continued the scene with Mitchell improvising the line “I’m alright! I’m all right.” If you look closely at Stewart’s reaction you will see him laugh but he stays in character. The crewman believed he was about to be fired but Capra liked the moment so much he kept it in the film and gave the crewman a $10 bonus.

10) In the high school dance scene, the young man spurned by Mary to dance with George and eventually opens the floor to reveal the swimming pool was played by Carl Switzer, best known as “Alfalfa” in “The Little Rascals.”

11) The gym floor that opened up to reveal a swimming pool was real and located at Beverly Hills High School. The pool is still there today.

12) For the scene where George and Mary make wishes and throw rocks into the windows of the Granville house, Frank Capra had a marksman on hand to throw the rock off camera for Donna Reed. Reed insisted that because she had all brothers she could make the throw accurately herself. Capra agreed to give her one take to make the shot and, to the amazement of the crew, she made an accurate throw and hit the window she was aiming at. That shot is the one that is in the film.

13) The set of Bedford Falls took over two months to build on the RKO lot and became one of the longest sets ever created for an American movie. It covered over four acres and included over 70 buildings. Main Street alone was three blocks long and measured well over 300 yards.

14) In the scene where George prays in the bar, Stewart filmed a rehearsal that was extremely powerful and even resulted in him crying real tears. When it came time to shoot an actual take, Stewart informed Capra he didn’t think he could come close to recreating the emotions so Capra took the rehearsal and blew up the film to make it look like the camera was moving in for a close-up. The rehearsal is the scene in the final cut.

15) Actor Sheldon Leonard, who played Nick the bartender, claimed he only took the role so he could have money to buy Brooklyn Dodgers season tickets.

16) The scene where Clarence comes to George on the bridge was shot on the RKO back lot on a 90-degree day. Because of the heavy clothing required it is possible to see Stewart sweating in a few shots.

17) In the scene where police officer Bert shoots at a fleeing George, you can see the “Pottersville” lighted sign in the background. At the moment Stewart runs by its path you can see the “s” on the sign go out. This was a pure accident as the bulb simply burned out but it appears as if it has been shot out.

18) James Stewart was petrified to film the phone-kissing scene with Donna Reed, as it was his first romantic scene since returning from the war. Capra assuaged Stewart’s fears and filmed the scene in one long take. It worked so well and was so passionate that Capra had to cut several seconds out to avoid censorship problems.

19) If you turn the volume WAY up it is possible to hear two lines of dialogue after young George is shown out of his father’s office when berating Potter (“You can’t say that about my father”). When George is outside the office you can hear the following lines:

POTTER: What’s the answer?

BAILEY: Potter, you’ve just humiliated me in front of my son.

20) Director Frank Capra later sighted this film as his personal favorite. Likewise, James Stewart said that George Bailey was his favorite performance.