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It’s a Wonderful Life is generally thought of as one of the greatest holiday (or anytime) movies ever made. Chances are good that you’ve seen it at least once a year since you’ve been alive. But here are 14 facts that take a deeper look into Bedford Falls.
1. It wasn’t a hit when it premiered.
It’s a Wonderful Life was a bit of a flop when it first premiered. It was met with mixed reviews, five Oscar nominations but no wins, and it failed to even make back the $3.7 million it cost to make. The movie didn’t become a success– and nowhere close to the classic it is today– until the late 1970s and 80s, when it started playing in syndication every year at Christmastime.
2. In fact, it wasn’t just a flop, it was deemed un-American.
An official FBI memo from 1947 stated, “With regard to the picture It’s a Wonderful Life, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented 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. [In] addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” Aw, poor Mr. Potter.
3. But the short story the movie was based on was an even bigger flop.
Philip Van Doren spent years trying unsuccessfully to shop his story, The Greatest Gift. Finally in 1943 he published it himself– as a 21-page Christmas card for friends and family. Fortunately, someone at RKO Pictures wound up with a copy and bought the rights to the story.
4. Still, the people involved were proud of the film.
Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra each named It’s a Wonderful Life their favorite movie they’d ever made.
5. We almost had a much different George Bailey.
Originally Cary Grant was eyed to play George. When Capra took over on the film, he rewrote the part to suit James Stewart. Stewart, though, almost didn’t take the role. He wasn’t sure he felt up to doing the film so soon after coming home from WWII, but Lionel Barrymore– Mr. Potter himself– talked him into it.
6. A different Mary, too.
Jean Arthur was Capra’s first choice for the role, but she was busy on Broadway. Laraine Day was also offered the part, but was already committed to another film (The Locket). Ginger Rogers (who dated James Stewart a decade prior) claims she turned down the role because it was too bland.
7. Creating Bedford Falls was no small task.
The Bedford Falls set was one of the largest in film history, taking up four acres of RKO’s San Fernando Valley studio ranch. The set had 75 buildings, and the town’s Main Street was 300 yards long. The whole thing took two months to build.
8. Extra steps were taken for authenticity.
Cats, dogs, and pigeons were allowed to wander around the huge set in order to make it feel more like a real town.
9. It took a lot of work to make Bedford Falls look so cold.
There are a number of close-ups showing George running through town, drenched in nervous sweat. That was only part way due to acting, though. A record-breaking heatwave hit Los Angeles during filming.
10. In fact, it required new technology.
So how did Bedford Falls look so wintery in the middle of a heatwave? Up until It’s a Wonderful Life, fake snow was generally made of crushed cornflakes. But Frank Capra insisted on recording sound live during every scene, so to avoid constant crunching underfoot, they invented their own brand of snow. Using a combination of foamite (the stuff inside fire extinguishers), water, soap, and a high-powered wind machine, the movie introduced a silent snow that won a Scientific or Technical Award from the Motion Picture Academy.
11. The film passed through a lot of hands.
Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets, and Dorothy Parker, among others, all worked on the script, though uncredited. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, a husband and wife team who were credited, were so angry at Frank Capra for rewriting their script that they filed a formal arbitration with the Writer’s Guild. They tried to have Capra’s name taken off the picture entirely but, well, you know how that turned out.
12. Those angels really exist. (Sort of.)
When the angels in the film talk to each other, they take the form of a actual group of galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet.
It’s generally thought that the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie were named after the film’s Bert and Ernie, the affable police officer and cab driver. However, Sesame Street representatives and employees have always denied the connection, claiming pure coincidence.
14. It’s now an official national treasure.
In 1990, the film was selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, officially marking it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It’s about time.