25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


Getty Images

By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO JIMMY STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Jimmy Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


Getty Images

Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “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.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds.

“I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver.

"I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format," Juhl continued. "He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

8 Surprising Facts About James Stewart

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For a good portion of the 20th century, actor James Maitland “Jimmy” Stewart (1908-1997) was one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men. Stewart, who was often called upon to embody characters who exhibited a strong moral center, won acclaim for films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Vertigo (1958), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In all, he made more than 80 movies. Take a look at some things you might not know about Stewart’s personal and professional lives.

1. Jimmy Stewart had a degree in architecture.

Acting was not James Stewart’s only area of expertise. Growing up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a hardware store, Stewart had an artistic bent with an interest in music and earned his way into his father’s alma mater, Princeton University. There, he received a degree in architecture in 1932. But pursuing that career seemed tenuous, as the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Instead, Stewart decided to follow his interest in acting, joining a theater group in Falmouth, Massachusetts after graduating and rooming with fellow aspiring actor Henry Fonda. After a brief turn on Broadway, he landed a contract with MGM for motion picture work. His film debut, as a cub reporter in The Murder Man, was released in 1935.

2. Jimmy Stewart gorged himself on food so he could serve the country in World War II.

Colonel James Stewart leaves Southampton on board the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth, bound for home in 1945.
Express/Getty Images

Stewart was already established in Hollywood when the United States began preparing to enter World War II. After the draft was introduced in 1940, Stewart received notice that he was number 310 out of a pool of 900,000 annual citizens selected for service. The problem? Stewart was six foot, three inches and a trim 138 pounds—five pounds under the minimum weight for enlistment. So he went home, ate everything he could, and came back to weigh in again. It worked, and Stewart joined the Army Air Corps, later known as the Air Force.

3. Jimmy Stewart demanded to see combat in the war.

Thanks to his interest in aviation, Stewart was already a pilot when he went to war; he received additional flight training but wound up being sidelined for two years stateside even though he kept insisting he be sent overseas to fight. (He filmed a recruitment short film, Winning Your Wings, in 1942, which was screened in theaters in the hopes it could drive enlistment.) Finally, in November 1943, he was dispatched to England, where he participated in more than 20 combat missions over Germany. His accomplishments earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf clusters, among other honors, making him the most decorated actor to participate in the conflict. After the war ended, he returned to a welcome reception in his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father had decorated the courthouse to recognize his son’s service. His next major film role was It’s a Wonderful Life.

4. Jimmy Stewart kept his Oscar in a very unusual place.

After winning an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story in 1940, Stewart heard from his father, Alex Stewart. “I hear you won some kind of award,” he told his son. “What was it, a plaque or something?” The elder Stewart suggested he bring it back home to display in the hardware store. The actor did as suggested, and the Oscar remained there for 25 years.

5. Jimmy Stewart starred in two television shows.

Actor James Stewart is pictured in uniform
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After a long career in film through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Stewart turned to television. In 1971, he played a college anthropology professor in The Jimmy Stewart Show. The series failed to find an audience, however, so was short-lived. He tried again with Hawkins in 1973, playing a defense lawyer, but that show was also canceled. (Stewart also performed in commercials, including spots for Firestone tires and Campbell’s Soup.)

6. Jimmy Stewart hated one version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

While Stewart had just as much affection for It’s a Wonderful Life as audiences, one alternate version of the film annoyed him. In 1987, he sent a letter to Congress protesting the practice of colorizing It's a Wonderful Life and other films on the premise that it violated what directors like Frank Capra had intended. He described the tinted version as “a bath of Easter egg dye.” Putting a character named Violet in violet-colored costumes, he wrote, was “the kind of obvious visual pun that Frank Capra never would have considered.” Stewart later lobbied against the practice in person.

7. Jimmy Stewart published a book of poetry.

In 1989, Stewart authored Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, a slim volume collecting several of the actor’s verses. Stewart also included anecdotes about how each one was composed. His best known might be “Beau,” about his late dog, which Stewart read to Johnny Carson during a Tonight Show appearance in 1981. By the end, both Stewart and Carson were teary-eyed.

8. Jimmy Stewart has a statue in his hometown.

For Stewart’s 75th birthday in 1983, his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania honored him with a 9-foot-tall bronze statue. Unfortunately, the statue wasn’t totally ready in time for Stewart’s visit, so they presented him with the fiberglass version instead. The bronze statue currently stands in front of the county courthouse, while the fiberglass version was moved into the nearby Jimmy Stewart Museum.

Top 50 Best-Selling Artists of All Time

Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Victor Blackman, Express/Getty Images

Who are America’s all-time favorite musicians and bands? When it comes to the best-selling artists of all time, The Beatles still rule—yes, even a half-century after their breakup. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), these are the 50 best-selling artists of all time.

1. The Beatles

American television host Ed Sullivan smiles while standing with British rock group the Beatles on the set of his television variety series, New York, February 9, 1964. Left to right: Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Sullivan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Albums sold: 183 million

2. Garth Brooks


Cooper Neill/Getty Images for dcp

Albums sold: 148 million

3. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley is seen playing the guitar in his 1966 film, 'Spinout'
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 146.5 million

4. Eagles

The Eagles in concert, "History of the Eagles" tour, Grand Rapids, September 2014. Doolin-Dalton
Rachel Kramer via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Albums sold: 120 million

5. Led Zeppelin


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 111.5 million

6. Billy Joel

Albums sold: 84.5 million

7. Michael Jackson


Getty Images

Albums sold: 84 million

8. Elton John

Elton John plays a concert in 2008.
LENNART PREISS/AFP/Getty Images

Albums sold: 78.5 million

9. Pink Floyd

Albums sold: 75 million

10. AC/DC

Albums sold: 72 million

11. George Strait

Albums sold: 69 million

12. Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand
Terry Fincher, Express/Getty Images

Albums sold: 68.5 million

13. The Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones in concert
Getty Images

Albums sold: 66.5 million

14. Aerosmith

Aerosmith performs on stage during the Operation Tribute to Freedom, NFL and Pepsi sponsored “NFL Kickoff Live 2003” Concert on the Mall
U.S. Navy, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 66.5 million

15. Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen performs during the closing ceremony of the Invictus Games 2017 at Air Canada Centre on September 30, 2017 in Toronto, Canada
Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Albums sold: 66.5 million

16. Madonna

Albums sold: 64.5 million

17. Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey performs during the 2019 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 1, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Albums sold: 64 million

18. Metallica

Albums sold: 63 million

19. Whitney Houston

American singer Whitney Houston performing on Good Morning America (Central Park, New York City) on September 1, 2009.

Albums sold: 58.5 million

20. Van Halen

Albums sold: 56.5 million

21. Fleetwood Mac

Trade ad for Fleetwood Mac's album Rumours
Warner Bros. Records - Billboard, page 86, 25 Jun 1977, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 54.5 million

22. U2

The Edge and Bono of the rock band U2 perform at Bridgestone Arena on May 26, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee
Jason Kempin, Getty Images

Albums sold: 52 million

23. Céline Dion

Albums sold: 50 million

24. Neil Diamond

American pop singer-songwriter Neil Diamond relaxes with his guitar. Diamond is shortly to make his film debut in a remake of 'The Jazz Singer'
Keystone/Getty Images

Albums sold: 49.5 million

25. Journey

Albums sold: 48 million

26. Kenny G

Kenny G performs onstage during the "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives" Premiere Concert during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall
Noam Galai, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Albums sold: 48 million

27. Shania Twain

Albums sold: 48 million

28. Kenny Rogers

Albums sold: 47.5 million

29. Alabama

Albums sold: 46.5 million

30. Eminem

Eminem performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards which broadcasted live on TBS, TNT, and truTV at The Forum on March 11, 2018 in Inglewood, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 46 million

31. Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

Photo of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band.
By American Talent International, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 44.5 million

32. Guns N’ Roses

Slash Ft. Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators At Whisky a Go Go
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Albums sold: 44.5 million

33. Alan Jackson

Albums sold: 43.5 million

34. Santana

Trade ad for Santana's album Santana III
By Columbia Records, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 43.5 million

35. Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift performs onstage at 2019 iHeartRadio Wango Tango presented by The JUVÉDERM® Collection of Dermal Fillers at Dignity Health Sports Park on June 01, 2019
Rich Fury, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 43 million

36. Reba McEntire

Albums sold: 41 million

37. Eric Clapton

Albums sold: 40 million

38. Chicago

Albums sold: 38.5 million

39. Simon & Garfunkel

Pop duo Simon and Garfunkel, comprising (L-R) singer, Art Garfunkel and singer-songwriter, Paul Simon, performing on ITV's 'Ready, Steady, Go!', July 8, 1966
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 38.5 million

40. Foreigner

Albums sold: 38 million

41. Rod Stewart


Getty Images

Albums sold: 38 million

42. Tim McGraw

Albums sold: 37.5 million

43. Backstreet Boys

Albums sold: 37 million

44. 2 Pac

Albums sold: 36.5 million

45. Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Albums sold: 36 million

46. Def Leppard

Albums sold: 35.5 million

47. Queen

 Freddie Mercury (1946 - 1991), lead singer of 70s hard rock quartet Queen, in concert in Milton Keynes in 1982
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 35 million

48. Dave Matthews Band

Albums sold: 34.5 million

49. Britney Spears

Britney Spears performs at the 102.7 KIIS FM's Jingle Ball 2016
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 34.5 million

50. Bon Jovi

Albums sold: 34.5 million

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