Christmas is the time of year when even the most casual movie fans will re-watch the same title over and over again, so you might as well go into it with some interesting trivia at your disposal. Over the years, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart has become one of the most widely-beloved classics of the season, but it wasn't always that way. Read on for some fun facts about the movie that every fan should know.
Capra directed, produced and co-wrote It's a Wonderful Life with the help of screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. The movie is based on the writings of Philip Van Doren. It centers around George Bailey (Stewart), a gregarious man who constantly puts off his own thirst for adventure to do what is best for his family and his community. The movie takes its title from a grim episode where Stewart contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve, but is visited by an angel who shows him what life might have looked like if he had never been born. He then finds strength in the community that he has helped foster over the years.
The movie offers a portrait of an idyllic U.S. and a view of the country economically ravaged. It cannot be separated from its context immediately after World War II — especially because its director and its star both served in that conflict. In many ways, the movie shows how individuals and communities grappled with that global tragedy, as succinctly explained in an essay by The A.V. Club's Emily St. James.
It's a Wonderful Life is an indelible part of the American Christmas experience, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon, so it's worth digging deeper into this cultural touchstone. Here is a look at some fun trivia facts about the movie.
The Scene Stewart Kept Putting off
One of the film's most iconic and romantic scenes comes care of Stewart and co-star Donna Reed in a passionate embrace at her house after his character George Bailey celebrates his brother Harry's newly announced marriage. Stewart was surprised by the casting of Donna Reed as Mary Hatch in the Capra classic, not only because she was relatively new to the industry but she was just 25 years old at the time — a rather big age difference to his being 40 years old. According to actor Paul Peterson, Reed's co-star and TV son on The Donna Reed Show, Stewart was thrown off by her charm telling the young actor per a report from Purple Clover: "She turned out to the be the embodiment of goodness and got me so disconcerted that I kept putting off that kiss scene, you know, when we're in that tight two-shot not he telephone? We put that scene off for weeks."
Adding how there was "electricity in the air," Stewart admits she had him very nervous. "I asked Donna if she wanted to rehearse and she said, "Why don't we just do it?' and Capra, knowing what was going on, agreed." So there we were, cheek to cheek, no rehearsals, hormones out of control and Capra says, 'Action!' Well, we did it in one take. One of the best things I've ever done."
It's a Wonderful Life is based on a short story by PhilipVan Doren Stern, which he self-published in the form of a Christmas Card. Stern had 200 copies of the 21-page story printed and sent them out to friends and family for the holidays. One found its way to Capra, according to The American Film Institute, who wanted to adapt it into a movie. He convinced a producer at RKO Picture to pay Stern $10,000 for the movie rights to the story.prevnext
It's a Wonderful Life was a catastrophic commercial failure when it was first released — to the point where it legitimately threatened Capra's career. The production cost $3.18 million, and it needed to make $6.3 million at the box office to break even, according to Marc Eliot's 2006 biography of star Jimmy Stewart. Instead, it made just $3.3 million.
As a consequence, the movie did not really become popular until nearly 30 years after its release, when its copyright lapsed and it entered the public domain. At that point, TV networks could broadcast it without paying licensing fees, so it aired on dozens of channels every Christmas, making it a familiar household sight. Only after that did the movie become a critical success.prevnext
Producers and studio executives behind the film initially hoped that A-lister Cary Grant would star in It's a Wonderful Life at first. However, Capra personally insisted on casting Stewart, who was one of the first people he shared Stern's story with.prevnext
It's a Wonderful Life made one notable breakthrough in the art of special effects: a new type of fake snow. Back then, crew members usually painted corn flakes white to serve as falling snow, but Capra disliked the crunching sound these made when actors walked over them. According to a report by Time, he worked with his special effects supervisor Russell Shearman to create a new type of artificial snow, which ended up being a mixture of fire extinguisher foam, soap, sugar and water, all blown through a wind machine.prevnext
In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that a sequel to It's a Wonderful Life was in the works. The movie would have been called It's a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, and would have shown what became of the Bailey family after George's divine experience. The movie had legitimate financial backers, and even got a release date in 2015, but the project was eventually dropped. Now it remains in limbo, and it appears it will not be coming out.prevnext
A 1947 FBI memo was dredged up and published by Wise Bread back in 2006, showing that the agency investigated It's a Wonderful Life, fearing it was "communist propaganda." Some of the most beloved and enduring factors of the movie were the reason for this investigation — Bailey's generosity and kindness to his neighbors. In the memo, the FBI raised concerns about the villain being a "scrooge-type" banker, fearing that this was an anti-capitalist sentiment. These concerns were never followed-through-on in any major ways, however.prevnext
The actress who plays George Bailey's young daughter ZuZu, Karolyn Grimes, did not see It's a Wonderful Life until 1980 — 34 years after its release. She revealed this surprising fact in a 2013 interview with Detroit's WWJ and then in 2016 told Vanity Fair that she had seen the film over 500 times since.
"I never took the time to see the movie," she admitted. "I never just sat down and watched the film."prevnext
Capra in Retrospect
Frank Capra lived to see his Christmas flop become a cultural icon over the decades, and the experience delighted him. According to Turner Classic Movies, he declared It's a Wonderful Life to be his favorite film he ever maded and even said that he watched it with his family every year. In 1984, he told The Wall Street Journal that he didn't necessarily think of it as a Christmas movie.
"I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea," he said. The movie's cultural significance and legacy have been proven over and over again since 1946. It has won five Academy Awards, been lauded on the AFI's most prestigious lists and even been added to the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress. It's a Wonderful Life is streaming now with a subscription to Amazon Prime.prev