5 Must-Knows about “It’s a Wonderful Life”

1.  The story is actually from a Christmas card – “The Greatest Gift” was a short story written and self-published as a 21 page Christmas card gift 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. Unable to get this story published, the author Stern sent the script out as a Christmas card 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.

2. Initial casting had 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, however, his only choice for George (now Bailey) was Jimmy Stewart. Before settling on Donna Reed for the role of Mary Bailey (this was her film debut!), 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.”

3. 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. 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.

5. The snowy town of Bedford Falls was actually a Hollywood set (RKO backlot) in California.  It was built on the and spanned 4 acres (1.6 ha), assembled from three separate parts with a main street stretching 300 yards (three city blocks), with 75 stores and buildings, a tree-lined center parkway and 20 full grown oak trees. For months prior to principal photography, the mammoth set was populated by pigeons, cats and dogs in order to give the “town” a lived-in feel. The film crew was 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! (BTW – Filming started on April 15, 1946 and ended on July 27, 1946, exactly on deadline for the 90-day principal photography schedule.)

SOURCES:

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