Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life is a certified American classic. The story follows George Bailey (James Stewart), a small-town banker and family man on the brink of a breakdown. When George is visited by a bumbling second-class guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), he learns the error of his ways and discovers that life is, in fact, wonderful. Before you settle in for a viewing, get to know the film better with these 12 facts.
1. The story idea came to its writer “complete from start to finish.”
In 1938, a writer named Philip Van Doren Stern had an idea for a story while shaving: A Christmas tale about a man on the brink of suicide — saved by his guardian angel. The author quickly sketched out the idea and, over the next five years, slowly transformed it into a short story. In 1943, he mailed about 200 copies of his yarn, called “The Greatest Gift,” as his annual Christmas card.
2. The script employed a dream-team of writers.
Eventually, a draft of “The Greatest Gift” fell into the hands of an agent at RKO Pictures, who paid the author $10,000 for the motion-picture rights. Attempts to transform the story into a screenplay fizzled until director Frank Capra stepped in. Capra’s team of writers — which included Dorothy Parker and the future Pulitzer Prize-winner Frances Goodrich — turned it into a viable script. Filming began in April 1946.
3. Jimmy Stewart was the real war hero.
In the movie, George Bailey's brother, Harry (Todd Karns), is a well-decorated war hero. But, in reality, that honor belonged to Jimmy Stewart. The leading man was one of the first Hollywood stars to enlist in the military after the United States entered World War II. He spent the war with the Army Air Corps and flew nearly two dozen combat bombing missions over Europe. Stewart remained active in the military for decades and eventually retired in 1968 as a brigadier general — making him America’s highest-ranking actor.
4. The set of Bedford Falls was enormous.
Filmed mostly at RKO’s movie ranch in Encino, California, the fictional town of Bedford Falls covered about four acres. The Main Street stretched three city blocks and the town itself contained dozens of buildings — and even 20 fully grown oak trees. (The buildings weren’t all newly constructed, though. Many of them had been used in the 1931 Oscar-winning film Cimarron.)
5. Many towns claim to be “the real” Bedford Falls.
A lot of places claim to be the inspiration for Bedford Falls: Seneca Falls (NY), Westchester County (NY), Califon (NJ), and Pottersville (NJ) to name a few. Seneca Falls has the strongest claim — Frank Capra purportedly visited the town while working on the script — however there’s no solid proof it was his inspiration. "I have been through every piece of paper in Frank Capra's diaries, his archives, everything,” film historian Jeanine Basinger told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “There's no evidence of any sort whatsoever to support this.”
6. The set was unbearably hot.
If you look closely, it’s clear that Jimmy Stewart and other actors are glistening with sweat. That’s because the wintry scenes were shot in the middle of a scorching summer heat wave. Even Capra, who was known for ignoring the elements, believed the heat was too intense: He canceled one day of filming because of the rising mercury.
7. The special effects team invented a new type of fake snow.
In the 1940s, most film sets used painted corn flakes for snow scenes. Problem was, corn flakes were loud and crunchy whenever anybody stepped on them. Capra was forced to re-shoot and dub multiple scenes, costing the production time and money. To solve the problem, the film’s special effects team invented a new type of fake snow reportedly made from soap flakes and fire extinguisher foam.
8. The film was never intended for Christmas.
Amazingly, It’s a Wonderful Life — whose entire plot happens on Christmas Eve — was originally scheduled a late January 1947 release. The studio intended their Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. vehicle Sinbad the Sailor to be its holiday release, but when production problems with Sinbad’s Technicolor caused a delay, the black-and-white movie got bumped to the earlier Christmas slot.
9. The movie failed at the box office.
Shot on a budget of $3.7 million, It’s a Wonderful Life did not recoup its costs. In fact, it left Capra $525,000 in the hole. Some blame the film’s failure on a bitter cold spell on the east coast, which kept many would-be movie-goers indoors. Others blame the film’s dark themes. Others point fingers at the movie’s advertising team, which failed to play up the film’s relation to the Christmas season. “Instead, it portrayed the film more as a purely warm romance,” film historian Jeremy Arnold has said.
10. It owes its subsequent popularity to a copyright error.
Some of the film’s actors never even saw it when it was released. Leading lady Donna Reed (who played George’s wife Mary) didn’t catch it until the late 1970s, and Karolyn Grimes, who played daughter Zuzu, waited nearly four decades! After its lackluster opening, the film was practically forgotten until 1974 when the copyright lapsed (reportedly because of a filing error). With no royalties to pay, television stations began playing It’s a Wonderful Life almost non-stop around the holidays. The movie’s popularity blossomed.
11. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda.
The FBI’s Los Angeles field office investigated more than 200 movies between 1942 and 1958, including It’s a Wonderful Life. As part of the infamous McCarthy era, the investigators concluded that the film was a “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry” for its unsavory depictions of bankers. The film, it said, was “written by Communist sympathizers” who were “attempting to instigate class warfare.” (Unlike many Hollywood players, some of whom were subsequently blacklisted,, Capra was never called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC].)
12. It’s big in Britain.
It’s a Wonderful Life might be a quintessentially American classic, but the film is popular across the pond too, where it’s been rated as “Britain’s favorite Christmas film.” The movie and its dialogue is so well-known in Britain that in 2018, more than 4.5 miles “of words from the film have been painted along the yellow line at 14 stations across the UK,” according to the BBC. The idea was cooked up by the charity Rethink Mental Illness and Virgin Trains as a suicide prevention measure. “It has that sad and difficult story,” Rethink’s James Fletcher told the BBC, noting that it was one of the first movies to address male mental health. “But ultimately it leaves you with a smile on your face at the end as well.”