With the holidays officially here, there is no better tradition than cozying up on the couch in your comfy PJs, indulging in festive treats and cocoa, watching a film inspired by the season. But while so many movies have been released over the years specifically for the Christmas season, no film has created quite the impact on our culture than Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s A Wonderful Life.
Considered a game-changer in the festive film genre, the film is among a list of Hollywood’s greatest movies thanks to its powerful message that allows us to understand life’s most valuable lessons through the eyes of the iconic, George Bailey, played by James Stewart.
Whether you love it or hate it though, it’s a masterpiece that has stood the test of time each and every year. Moreover, with its deep meaning and solid characterizations, it’s truly an evergreen classic, bearing great similitude to our evolving social climate and the relationships we forge throughout our life.
In honor of the film’s 70th anniversary and its immense richness in pop culture, we pay our love and respects to the film with six very interesting facts you might not have ever known about the richest film in town.
It started with a Christmas card
Originally based on the unpublished short story turned 21-page Christmas card by writer Philip Van Doren Stern called, “The Greatest Gift,” the story floated for years before it became a movie. When it was brought to the attention of producer and agent of Cary Grant, David Hempstead at RKO Pictures, its movie rights were purchased for $10,000. Hempstead hoped it would turn into a successful venture for Grant, but the project went through several difficulties over the years and in 1945, after rewrites, was sold to Capra who quickly hired Stewart.
Acclaimed writers contributed to the script
We know how Hollywood works — rewrites, galore! But before the film made it to the big screen and became a favorite for so many over the years, it went through quite the ringer with uncredited write-ups from acclaimed American writers. From Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Spartacus) and Dorothy Parker (A Star is Born, Saboteur), to the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright, Marc Connelly and Clifford Odets, the film was packed with insight and personalization from some of the industry’s greatest and it showed in every line.
The snow was fake…
Bedford Falls is a beautiful little town in New York, right? Well, not in this version. Filmed on location in the sunny San Fernando Valley on a massive studio backlot that stretched four acres in the scorching heat of summer, the film had to fake all of its snowy scenes. Not only was this hard for Stewart and the cast who are visibly seen sweating during crucial moments of the film in their winter wardrobes thanks to the heat wave of 90-degree weather, but it made things hard for the “snow.” Prior to It’s A Wonderful Life, most film productions used cornflakes that were painted white or potato flakes to simulate the real thing, but corn flakes are loud and potato flakes become mashed potatoes at some point.
To remedy their solution, Capra — who trained as an engineer before becoming a director — insisted on using a less disruptive snow prop made from water, soap and a fire-fighting chemical called, Formite. Formulated with Russell Shearman, the two engineered a new type of prop and pumped it through wind machines. An estimated 6,000 gallons of faux snow solution was used for the film and even received acclaim from the Academy Awards (‘Best Technical Award’) for its innovative stunt snow.
The FBI considered it as a form of “communist infiltration”
In what might seem like a shocker, the FBI didn’t like it one bit — especially its portrayal of Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore. The U.S. agency even went on to consider it a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry” for its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers,” as written in a memorandum issued in 1947 as reported by Wise Bread.
With the film seen as an anti-consumerist message through subversive propaganda tactics by Communists, the FBI thought the film smeared the common American values of wealth and free enterprise, while glorifying the victory and hardships of the common man struggling to make ends meet. In other words, the FBI believed Capra’s masterpiece was a subtle way to gaslight audiences into questioning and second-guessing the U.S. in a post-war era.
The film got a second chance…
Shot on a budget of $3.7 million — which was a ton of dough in the mid-1940s — the town of Bedford Falls was one of the most elaborate sets every built at the time, taking months to complete and set up. But although the studios and its stars saw its potential as a classic at the time, it was a dud at the box office, barely breaking even. The film was not an immediate hit with audiences and put Capra at a loss of $525,000.
But after a copyright lapse due to a clerical error in 1974 allowed the film to air on television for 20 years, royalty-free, to any network, the film got its second chance and gained immense popularity as a household tradition for families everywhere. However, the freebie ended in 1994 and Paramount Pictures secured the rights for the first time since 1955, with NBC acquiring its TV-licensing rights for every year.
Though she was hardly a newcomer to the business, It’s A Wonderful Life was Donna Reed’s first major starring role in a motion picture. Previously appearing in over 20 projects as a co-star to some of the industry’s greatest like Robert Montgomery and Charles Laughton, Reed had major competition from Jean Arthur for the role of Mary Hatch, the love of George Bailey’s life — hard to imagine now, since there is no other face we can see replacing her.
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With its illustrious history and enduring legacy, Capra was amazed. Before his death in 1991, Capra told The Wall Street Journal in 1984 that the film’s success was the “damnedest thing” he had ever seen.
“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.”
Are you a fan of It’s A Wonderful Life? Share with us your thoughts about the iconic and beloved film in the comments below.