Was “It’s a Wonderful Life” Really All That Wonderful?

What once bombed at the box office has now become a Christmas classic. Since 1946, the black and white film has touched the hearts and minds of millions of people worldwide. People continue to gather with their loved ones during the holidays to watch the nostalgic movie.

Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed / The cast of It’s a Wonderful Life / Karolyn Grimes and Jimmy Stewart / A poster for the film.
Source Getty Images

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is considered one of the best movies in history. It’s incredible to think that it has been about seventy years since the movie was released, and it remains a movie milestone people cherish as a tradition. Directed by Frank Capra, the fantasy drama is a gift for the ages.

Why It’s the Best

Once the movie was given to the public for at-home viewing, it became a sensation. It allowed for broadcasting without royalty fees and the bureaucracy of licensing. The movie is recognized as one of the 100 Best American Films ever made by the American Film Institute.

James Stewart is standing in the cashier cubicle of a bank in a scene from the film 'It's A Wonderful Life.'
Photo by RKO Radio Picture/Getty Images

Every Christmas, director Capra would screen the movie for his family. He considered it among his favorites ever made. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was also added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1990 because of its historical and cultural significance. It was honored with five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

When was “It’s a Wonderful life” Made?

Philip Van Doren Stern wrote the original story behind the film, called The Greatest Gift, in November of 1939. Following rejections from publishers, he mailed 200 copies to family and friends after printing it as a 24-page pamphlet.

Donna Reed is lifted by James Stewart in movie art for the film 'It's A Wonderful Life.'
Photo by RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images

Ten thousand dollars was the amount RKO Pictures bought the movie rights for. The movie was stored away after several screenplays were written by Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets, and Marc Connelly. Charles Koerner of RKO made training films and documentaries when he landed on “The Greatest Gift.” He realized the potential and wanted to turn it into a Hollywood movie.

Screenplay Security

RKO sold him the rights and added a few previously written scripts with no extra cost. While working on the screenplay with several other writers, clashes emerged, finding Capra challenging to work with. One writer, Goodrich, reflected on Capra’s behavior throughout the process, saying, “He Couldn’t wait to get writing it himself,” and calling him “That Horrid Man.”

Frank Capra and James Stewart relax behind the scenes.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

Following several credit-right disputes and screenplay writing debacles, the story was renamed “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Goodrich, Hackett, and Capra were credited for the screenplay, with Jo Swerling contributing “additional scenes.” One of the best movies set the stage with a rocky start.

Claiming Ownership

Seneca Falls, New York, hosts an “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival every December. Capra visited the town in 1945. The city then claimed that Capra modeled the Bedford Falls location in the movie after them.

Guests pose at the It's a Wonderful Life Seneca Falls museum.
Source: Pinterest

Historical accuracy regarding the city’s claim has been disputed as film historian Jeanine Basinger stated, “I have been through every piece of paper in Frank Capra’s diaries, his archives, everything. There’s no evidence of any sort whatsoever to support this.” It could be that the town inspired Capra for the movie’s setting, but there is no clear proof to make it so.

Convincing Jimmy Stewart

Capra wasn’t a master at convincing his most wanted actor to play Good Sam. They worked together on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and You Can’t Take it with You (1928).

James Stewart is sitting and talking with Donna Reed in a scene from the film 'It's A Wonderful Life.'
Photo by RKO Radio Picture/Getty Images

When hearing that Capra wanted him for the role, Stewart said, “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 have to save him, when do we start?” His loyalty to Capra was apparent as he quickly agreed.

Choosing Marry Hatch Bailey

Stewart’s previous co-star, Jean Arthur, was the first to be considered for the role, but she was out of the question after quitting Broadway due to exhaustion. Other actresses that were offered the position included Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott, and Ginger Rogers.

James Stewart poses with Donna Reed.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

Capra finally chose Donna Reed. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she’d be just right for Mary Bailey,” said Mary Owen (Donna Reed’s daughter) in an interview. When cast, Donna Reed had an extensive resume, and she landed her first starring role in the movie.

Who Played Potter?

Lionel Barrymore was picked for the role, famous for playing Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” He was familiar with Capra and Stewart from working on the Best Picture Oscar-winning movie; You Can’t Take It with you.

Lionel Barrymore poses for a publicity portrait.
Photo by RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images

Mr. Potter is recognizably his most famous role to date. The part is recognized as miserable and cruel. He is also remembered for playing MGM’s nine Dr. Kildare movies as Dr. Leonard Gillespie. Fun Fact: He played with his sister Ethel in the Main Street to Broadway (1953).

Where Was “It’s a Wonderful Life” Filmed?

The location for filming was extravagant and diverse. It was filmed at RKO Radio Pictures Studio in Culver City and its movie ranch in Encino, California. The “city” was built 300 yards in length. A residential neighborhood and 75 stores and buildings were added.

James Stewart stands on the street in a still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

Snow for the movie was made out of water, soap flakes, foamite, and sugar. There are two locations from the movie that still exist today; The swimming pool at Beverly Hills High School and the “Martini home” in California.

Coincidental Scene

Remember the scene where Billy walks off drunk after coming to Harry and Ruth’s welcome home party? A crash is suddenly heard off the stage, and we hear Billy yell out, “I’m all right! I’m all right!” What happened was that equipment was knocked down by a technician on set. Mitchel improvised after hearing the sound, and it was kept in the final cut.

Thomas Mitchell, as Uncle Billy, in a still from It’s a Wonderful Life.
Source: YouTube

As Capra complemented Mitchel for the spontaneous reaction, things turned out best and awarded the technician ten dollars for the well-timed accident.

Did People Like it?

We already know that the movie tanked at the box office, but what did people think about the movie? Capra felt that many critiques flat out disliked and ousted the movie. However, Time Magazine praised the film as “pretty wonderful,” placing it in the same category as The Best Years of Our Lives.

The Bailey family in a still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

New York Times writer at the time, Bosley Crowther, praised Stewart and Reed’s performance but didn’t compliment the alternative reality that seemed like an illusion instead of reflecting a fundamental reality.

The FBI Didn’t like it Either

The Federal Bureau of Investigation had much to say upon the release of the movie. They noted it as a “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry” because they made Lionel Barrymore, who played a banker, a ‘scrooge-type’ character that everyone hated.

Stewart and Reed on the set of the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

The FBI criticized it, saying that the movie portrayed high-class wealthy people as stingy and arrogant. It was an interesting time not long after World War II, and political opinions seemed to be floating around regarding the film. Opposing comments highlighted the misrepresentation of Mr. Potter’s character because he got away with robbery.

International Response

Years after the movie was made, the UK’s Channel Four ranked “It’s a Wonderful Life” seven out of 100 best films ever made, airing it yearly on Christmas Eve. Other critiques highlighted the underlying display of the complicated story, from abandoning your aspirations to viewing your surrounding progressing in life while you stay behind.

Stewart jumps in excitement in a scene from the film.
Source: YouTube

When the film took off on television broadcasting, Capra was in shock, “The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it.”

Everyone Wanted a Piece

Over time, the movie had moved around in terms of copyright ownership. Around the 80s, the film was becoming popular because of the reruns on Christmas every year. Republic Pictures wanted to apply the ruling of Stewart V. Abend, which had to do with another Stewart, to claim ownership of the copyrights.

A movie theater marquee is advertising a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Source: Pinterest

They made a deal with Turner Broadcasting, allowing them to air the movie a limited number of times on TNT and TBS. The rights were eventually sold to NBC for airing, while Paramount owned the film’s rights.

From Black and White to Color

Positive feedback was received from Topper, where Cary Grant played once color was added. Capra underwent discussions to add colorization to “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a result. Once he signed a contract to officialize the decision, responses halted his artistic control in adding color to the film.

Stewart and Reed pose for a portrait.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Eventually, after Capra to the campaigns against his artistic control, three-color versions came out. One version was by Hal Roach Studios (1986), one by Republic Pictures (1989), and a third by Legend Films (2007).

Playing Mom

Beulah Bondi, who was cast as Mrs. Bailey (Jimmy Stewart’s Mom), had a lot of practice when it came to playing the parental figure. She did so in three other movies, including Vivacious Lady, Of Human Hearts, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. She was also famous for playing wives and grandmothers later in her acting career.

Beulah Bondi and James Stewart on the set of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Source: Facebook

In 1925, she was already a successful Broadway Star in Street Scene, which later turned into a film in 1931 where she also played the same part.

Late to the Party

Karolyn Grimes, who took on the part of ZUZU in the movie, took decades to finally watch a film she played in, “I never took the time to see the movie” and “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

James Stewart hugs actor Karolyn Grimes in a still from 'It's a Wonderful Life.'
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

Grimes was famous for being a child actress, taking on 16 roles. Following her role in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” she was acclaimed for playing Loretta Young in the Bishop’s wife. Like Los Angeles, Missouri has a Walk of Fame, where she earned a star honoring her as a famous Missourian.

Sweating Like Crazy

Sometimes actors must adjust to certain conditions when filming, such as crafted scenes, creative costumes, unique props, and varying weather. In “It’s a Wonderful Life” the movie was filmed amidst a heatwave in the summer of 1946.

Stewart wipes off with a towel behind the scenes.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

It was noticeable as there were scenes in the film where we saw Stewart sweating. If anyone thought it was staged, it was all too real. At one point, it got so hot that filming needed to be shut down—good Call by Capra for taking the decision.

Surprise Skill

Remember the scene where rock broke the window of the Granville House? A stuntman was hired to shoot the rock through the window for the scene. It turns out he wasn’t needed. Donna Reed played baseball in high school, and her skills not only remained but shined on set.

Stewart and Reed are standing outside the Granville house.
Source: Wikimedia

She threw the rock that broke the window. What a pleasant surprise that must have been for the directors, “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House….”On the first try,” said her daughter, Owen.

Onscreen Kiss

There certainly have been some unforgettable onscreen kisses in Hollywood. I’m always curious about how the actors feel in those scenes. Even as professionals, some can be uncomfortable.

Reed and Steward during the phone kiss scene.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

Like many veterans at the time, James Stewart was brushing up on some acting skills he had halted due to the war. He was extremely nervous during the phone kiss scene since it was his first since coming back to acting. He ended up giving an excellent performance as one unrehearsed take was done almost too well for the camera sensors.

Favorite Film

Many have recalled Capra saying, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was his favorite film to make, “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

The cast of It’s a Wonderful Life pose on set.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

Reed and Stewart also considered it their favorite movie after playing in numerous films. After all the success it has had over the years, the cast and crew must have had great memories. Steven Spielberg, one of the best directors in history, also called it one of his favorite movies.

A Director and a Chemical Engineer

In his early life, Frank Capra studied at the California Institute of Technology and finished with a degree in Chemical Engineering. Although he could never find a job in the field, his education didn’t go to waste.

Frank Capra squeezes actor Jimmy Stewart's face.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

As he moved from engineering to directing, inspiration from his life played out in the outstanding movie. Firstly, George Baily’s display of failure reflects Capra’s inability to find work in the field. Secondly, Sam makes a fortune in plastic in the film while Harry becomes an engineer in a glass factory owned by his father-in-law.

Fifty Cents Bought Him a Kiss

James Stewart and Ellen Corby rehearsed the bank run scene several times with Capra. In the script, Corby was supposed to say $17 when asked how much she needed. Before filming the scene, Capra directed Corby to reply with an odd number instead of what was written in the script.

Ellen Corby in a scene from the film.
Source: Twitter

Instinctively, she replied with “$17.50” and Steward was totally baffled. His surprise led him to giving her a spontaneous kiss. Capra liked the natural reaction, so he decided to leave it in the final cut.

Small Town to the Big Time

Have you ever heard of those actors who came from a town in the middle of nowhere and “made it big” in Hollywood? James Stewart and Donna Reed are on the list. Reed from Denison, Iowa, and Stewart from Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Stewart and Reed pose together.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

It seems like Lionel Barrymore couldn’t’ believe it and wanted to put Donna to the test. He bet her fifty dollars she couldn’t milk a cow. She proved she could by milking a cow on set, Owens recalling, “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

Where Did the Name ZuzuU Come From?

Ginger Snaps, otherwise known as Zuzu Ginger Snaps, was a cookie brand made out of ginger and sugar-cane molasses. They came out in 1901 by the National Biscuit Company, later changed to Nabisco, and produced until the 1980s.

Reed, Stewart, and Grimes in a still from the film.
Source: Twitter

In turn, she was named after the book brand. During one of the final scenes, George rushes up the stairs, and ZUZU appears, and he says, “ZUZU, my little ginger snap!” Rumor has it that the cookie brand name was based on a character in the play Forbidden Fruit.

Inflation Rising

The year might have been 1939 when Potters offers George an annual salary of $20,000. If that amount were converted to the same value in 2020, it would be an average of $352,807.19. It has taken over 80 years for the amount to become seventeen times the original.

Lionel Barrymore in a scene from the film.
Source: Twitter

This was all because of the changing inflation rate post World War II in the United States. The last year of the Great Depression was 1939, where the inflation rate was -1.42%. It then jumped to .99% between 2019 and 2020.

“Alfalfa”

Remember the Little Rascals? Who could forget the adorable protagonist named “Alfalfa,” who tries to win Darla’s heart over while staying cool with the gang where “no girls were allowed?”

Bug Hall as Alfalfa in The Little Rascals.
Source: Twitter

Well, it turns out this isn’t the first reference to the character. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer plays Freddie Othello in “It’s a Wonderful Life” but was uncredited for the small role. He takes on two small scenes, the one mentioned and the other is turning the key that opens the gym floor, revealing the swimming pool.

Secret Dialogue

Next time you watch the movie, make sure to turn up the volume and read the closed captioning. There is an exchange of secret dialogue behind a door. Peter Baily speaks to his son George, Potter, and his goon, present in his private office at the end of a scene.

Potter, his bodyguard, George, and Peter in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

After George is kicked out of his dad’s office for scolding Potter, we overhear behind the glass plane of the door that Potter says, “What’s the answer?” and Bailey responds, “Potter, you just humiliated me in front of my son.”

Making it PG

My, how the times have changed. It seems that things that were once accepted on screen have to be double-checked for censorship and appropriateness before airing it to an audience. In the original take of the movie, released in the 1950s and ’60s, there is a line that George speaks to the teacher over the phone, asking, “What do you mean, sending her home like that half naked?”

James Stewart sits while Donna Reed looks to him in a scene from the film 'It's A Wonderful Life.'
Photo by RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images

This was later changed to, “What do you mean, sending my kid home from school in the rain?”

Take a Closer Look

There is a possible reference to a nomination in the movie. We see Bert the Cop holding a newspaper in the referenced scene while George asks Ernie, the taxi driver, for a lift. The headline writes, “Smith Wins Nomination.” This possibly referenced one of Stewart’s and Capra’s films, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, released in 1939.

Stewart in a still from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: Columbia Pictures

The other possible option was the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination of Governor Al Smith in 1929. This was happening around the same time as the setting in the film.

Historical References

A little piece of history was seen in the film as Capra based one of his characters on one of the founding bankers in America, A.P Giannini. George Bailey’s character reflected him and also happened to be the founder of the Bank of Italy.

A.P. Giannini sits in his office.
Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

The Bank of Italy would later become what we know today as the Bank of America. A.P Giannini innovated and established today’s banking practices. He was also noted as the first banker to give middle-class banking services and not only to the elite.

Famous Products in the Movie

This was a historical time leading up to the end of the Great Depression. The movie timeline highlights the consumerism industry developing in America. At that time, many corporations were making their start and taking off. A lot of products were used in the movie, reflecting the time.

Little George in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

Various products seen included Paterson tobacco pipes, Camel Cigarettes, Lucky Strike cigarettes, Vaseline hair tonic, Bayer Aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, Sweet Caporal cigarettes, Penetro cough syrup, Coca-Cola, La Unica cigars, and the Saturday Evening Post all found in Gower’s drugstore.

Sesame Street Coincidence

The film’s cab drivers were named Bert and Ernie, which many believed to be adopted as the Muppet’s from Sesame Street (1969), while others said this was just a coincidence. Katelyn Grimes, who played Zuzu, believed this was true because she said “It’s a Wonderful Life” was Henson’s favorite movie, and that is where he drew the inspiration from.

The cab drivers in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

On the other hand, Jerry Juhl, who wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and was Henson’s writing partner, was adamant, saying that this was a total coincidence.

Couldn’t Recall

Jim Henson himself didn’t remember the names of the cab drivers regardless of having seen the movie. Juhl added, “I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive (the rumor) was incorrect.”

Stewart and the cab drivers in a scene from the film.
Source: Pinterest

Before he was able to confirm with him, Henson passed away. However, he did get a chance to sit with Jon Stone, the show’s first producer. He added that the names Bert and Ernie were made in a day that reflected the features and personalities of the characters.

Merging with Time

There were two locations where the Bailey Park was filmed in Los Angeles County, California. One was Crescenta Valley and the other the far western end of the San Gabriel Valley. These were two separate communities known as La Canada and Flintridge.

The set of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

The communities were combined into one city called La Canada Flintridge, California, on November 30th. 1976. This was thirty years after the release and production of the movie. I guess it was meant to be if the film was able to combine them into one setting.

70th Anniversary

2016 was infamous for being the 70th anniversary of “It’s a Wonderful Life. Seneca Falls celebrated by hosting a three-day festival from December 9th to December 11th.

James Stewart, Donna Reed, Carol Coombs, Jimmy Hawkins, Larry Simms, and Karolyn Grimes.
Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis/Getty Images

The small town in New York will forever be famous for inspiring the location and allowing people to reminisce and connect, “Anybody who grew up in a small town in the 1940s can easily believe that Bedford Falls is their hometown,” said Capra. Three of the Bailey kids in the movie attended the celebration, including Jimmy Hawkins, Grimes, and Carol Coombs.

Never Gets Old

Karolyn Grimes, who is now in her late 70’s commented that she has seen the movie 500 times, and it doesn’t look like she’s ever going to stop. She shared, “Capra was trying to make people realize that life is worth living and that you can make a difference.”

Karolyn Grimes holds up a tree ornament with a picture from the film.
Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage/Getty Images

She further reflected that sometimes we forget the importance of life and how we can make a difference every day. Gathering around the TV with our families and watching the reruns helps to remind us of that.

Why It’s Important to Her

Katelyn Grime didn’t have the dream childhood many would have guessed. She actually became an orphan at the age of fifteen and had to live with her religious aunt and uncle in Missouri. She got married, divorced, remarried, had two kids, and then her husband died.

Karolyn Grimes poses for a studio portrait.
Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images

After getting married once again, her third husband had three kids, expanding her family significantly. Only years later, the movie became essential in her life, saying, “They Kept knocking at my door wanting an interview,” and then fan mail started arriving.

What Did Grimes Remember?

When requests came in asking her to do interviews, she showed them what she kept from the movie, “So I dragged all my stuff up from the basement and showed them my memorabilia, and over the years, the same thing kept happening.”

The cast of It’s a Wonderful Life on the set.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

She recalled that the first time she saw the movie from beginning to end, it was something she was going to cherish forever, “And it just touched my life so much that I realized that I had to be part of the message from the film.”

Memories on Set

Grimes spoke about the unique atmosphere. For example, there were other kids on the set so they could play together, “You worked for three minutes, and then you sit for an hour,” she said. As a kid, when you have to sit around for so long, it can be challenging.

James Stewart, Donna Reed, and the cast in a scene from the film 'It's a Wonderful Life.'
Photo by RKO Pictures/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Having kids on the set gave them the time to interact with one another. It wasn’t until she was about forty years old that she realized how significant the movie she played in as a kid had become.

New Generation

With constant new technology, social media, and limitless access to information, movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” remind us of the good ol’ days, and the yearly screenings help the younger generation connect. Jay Potashnick from NBC said, “I like the fact that we are helping a new generation to watch something in black and white.”

A poster for Frank Capra's comedy-drama 'It's A Wonderful Life.'
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Marry Owen, daughter of Donna Reed, shared that she loves watching the movie in the theatre but has given into that more people can be reached when screened on TV.

Jimmy Hawkins Shares

Hawkins was four when he played in the movie. He recalls the first time the film became big… For him, it was just another acting role, “So 1992 is when I first realized that everybody was watching it,” said Hawkins.

Stewart and Hawkins in a scene from the film.
Source: Pinterest

He mentioned television giving the movie the push to become a viewing sensation. He also spoke to Sheldon Leonard, who portrayed Nick the Bartender. Leonard commented that the lessons and affinity for the movie came years later and weren’t something people needed in 1946.

Working with the Cast

When asked to reflect on his relationship with Donna Reed, Capra, and Stewart, Hawkins mentioned running into Capra at the Motion Pictures Academy for a director’s reflection of their best movies and how he got to know him better.

It's A Wonderful Life 2007 re-release poster.
Photo by LMPC/Getty Images

He also recalled working with Jimmy Stewart on Winchesters ’73 and how he was invited to play his son-in-law on a TV series, “And they brought me in, and they tested me to play his son in law in the series. And I was producing movies then.”

Possible Sequel

The title was set out to be “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story.” The movie was going to reflect the life of Zuzu’s grandson. Karolyn Grimes participated in the movie as Zuzu playing an angel to assist her grandson on the path to goodness.

The Bailey family in a still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: RKO Pictures

Even though a budget was set, filming began, and the release was scheduled for 2015, the project never followed through. Since it belonged to the public, copywriting rights had not been revived, and therefore an extensive screening wasn’t relevant.