“No man is a failure who has friends.” “George Bailey, I’ll love you till the day I die.” “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is a film full of memorable quotes. Now a tradition to watch around the holidays for many families, there aren’t many out there who haven’t seen this classic movie. It’s possible that many fans of the film have the whole picture memorized, but do fans know that Jimmy Stewart almost didn’t do the movie? Or that the film was investigated by the FBI? To learn more about these facts and other untold truths of this famous movie, let’s take a closer look.
The film was based on a short story
The storyline for It’s a Wonderful Life was not original to the film, but actually came from a short story. Written by Philip Van Doren Stern, the idea for The Greatest Gift came to the author in a dream. Unfortunately, publishing his story did not come as easy as the story itself. He was not able to find a publisher who was willing to publish his story about a man named George Pratt.
As Simon and Schuster described the story, it is about Pratt “who ponders suicide until he receives an opportunity to see what the world would be like without him.” Sound familiar?
Determined, Stern eventually published the story in a pamphlet and it was sent out in 1943 as a Christmas card. Just 200 cards were made, but one of those cards made it to a very important person. Frank Capra, the eventual director of It’s a Wonderful Life, received the card and the rest is history.
It wasn’t originally thought of as a Christmas movie
The movie has become known as a Christmas classic, airing on television primarily during the month of December. Plus, spoiler alert, the last scene takes place on Christmas Eve.
Yet the director of the film never viewed it as a Christmas movie. In 1984, Frank Capra spoke with the Wall Street Journal (via The Telegraph) about this Christmas-time association, sharing, “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
The movie almost didn’t include Jimmy Stewart
It seems near impossible to picture It’s a Wonderful Life without actor Jimmy Stewart. He was the George Bailey. However, the perfect star almost gave up acting all together before filming the movie.
Prior to filming, Stewart served as a pilot during World War II. As author Robert Matzen described in his book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (via Chicago Tribune), the war brought stress to the actor. Matzen wrote of his discussions with the men who flew with Stewart in the war, “the guys that flew with him, who told me about the fact that he went flak-happy on a couple of occasions—which means shell shock, battle fatigue, what we now know as PTSD. He wasn’t afraid of bombs or bullets. He was afraid of making a mistake and causing someone to die. That was his endless stress, and that’s what ended up grounding him.”
But as history shows us, Stewart decided to pursue acting again, giving a face and voice to the iconic character of George Bailey.
Being able to play the piano got one actress the job
While many actors have singing and musical talents in addition to acting, it’s not always a requirement for a role. However, for young Carol Coombs Mueller, it was musical ability that sealed the deal for her role in the movie.
In the final scenes of the film, George and Mary Bailey’s daughter, Janie, is practicing playing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” on the piano. According to an interview Coombs Mueller did with The OC Register, the actress could play the song without making a mistake, and that “as much as anything” is what ended up getting her the job.
An unusual bet took place on set
While Donna Reed was an elegant actress at the time of filming It’s a Wonderful Life, she was also a midwestern girl at heart, born and raised on a farm in Iowa.
During filming, someone on set didn’t believe she could milk a cow on a her own. She took the bet and, in a display of her roots, won. According to Sunday Post, Reed later called the bet, “The easiest 50 bucks I ever made.”
It was filmed in Los Angeles
While It’s a Wonderful Life takes place in New York, and the snow covering the streets makes one think of winter-time, the movie was actually filmed in Los Angeles. Hollywood magic transformed a warm set into a winter wonderland.
According to CBS News, the movie was mainly filmed in Culver City and Encino. The scene where Stewart and Reed are dancing at the high school dance was filmed at a real high school. Beverly Hills High School still resides at this location, but it’s just a guess that they avoid the pool opening up during any dances these days.
The film was investigated by the FBI
Not everyone was a big fan of the now-beloved film — just ask the FBI. A 1947 FBI report revealed concerns about the movie and its connections to the “communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.”
The report stated, “With regard to the picture It’s a Wonderful Life, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”
Given that 1947 was the year the “Red Scare” came to Hollywood, it isn’t that surprising that It’s a Wonderful Life got caught up in the fray.
It didn’t do well at the box office
Although It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered one of the top films ever, it wasn’t successful at the box office when it came out. According to Vanity Fair, the movie was nominated for five Oscars, but didn’t win any. Although it had good reviews, people weren’t coming to see the movie. In fact, RKO Pictures reportedly lost $525,000 on the film.
As Jeanine Basinger, the author of The It’s a Wonderful Life Book explained in an interview (via Vanity Fair), it had to do with bad timing. Basinger shared, “This was the first full Christmas after the war. Everyone was celebrating and in a happy mood. The film has an upbeat ending, but you suffer quite a bit before you get there. And that was part of its problem.”
A lapse in copyright brought the movie success
Success for the movie did come eventually. As reported by Vanity Fair, in the 1970s the film’s copyright lapsed, which put the film into public domain. Different television stations decided to air the film during the holidays, as it was at no cost to them, and its popularity soared.
As film historian and contributor to the It’s a Wonderful Life Book, Leonard Maltin shared with Vanity Fair, “I remember one Christmas Eve when it was in the public domain, my wife and I played TV roulette with it. We literally kept changing channels and came upon it in different stage of its progress. And you can’t not watch. You can’t turn it off.”
One actress only first saw the movie 33 years after it came out
Hard to believe, but one of the actresses in the film didn’t see the movie until decades after it was released. Karolyn Grimes played young Zuzu, daughter to George and Mary Bailey in the movie. It’s hard to not think of “Zuzu’s petals” when you think of this famous movie, but for Grimes it wasn’t an option to see the film when she was young.
As she shared with The Washington Post in 2011, “I never saw movies I was in because my mom told me that would be prideful, being stuck on yourself.” The big moment came in 1979, when the then 39-year-old saw a moment from the movie. “Then it hit me,” she shared with The Washington Post, reflecting on finally seeing the film. “I was in that movie. I was Zuzu.”
Even after such a lapse in time, Grimes is certainly a fan. She continued, “Oh, it was fresh and dark, about as relevant today as it was when it was made. Think of all the people out of work, losing their homes, hungry kids worried about their parents. What’s so different about today and 60 years ago?”
Fans can experience the film in real life
Although Bedford Falls isn’t a real town, one real-life city claims their town was the inspiration for the film. According to NPR, the residents of Seneca Falls, New York are quite certain that they are the real-life Bedford Falls. Even little Zuzu is on board with the notion. “I really believe this is what inspired [director] Capra. It’s got the canal, it’s got names of the streets, it’s got the Victorian houses — I mean, it’s got it all,” Grimes told NPR.
A local historian also told NPR that the director was also known to have visited Seneca Falls in the 1940s, further advancing the theory that the town is in fact the inspiration for Bedford Falls.
The town even has a museum for all things It’s a Wonderful Life. Plus, there is a full weekend festival every December to transport fans back in time and feel like they are in the movie.