Weird & Wonderful: the Making of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

The Accidental Holiday Classic

One of the less-effective movie posters

I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film ANYBODY ever made.

~Director Frank Capra, 1971

When originally released, It’s a Wonderful Life flopped at the box office. It couldn’t compete with the cinema classic The Best Years of Our Lives (which would go on to win several Academy Awards and featured a small role for Hoosier Hoagy Carmichael). When the accounting books were balanced, It’s a Wonderful Life‘s poor box office performance left Frank Capra over a half million dollars in debt. But that dismissal didn’t last.

Cinematic arts aside, a portion of the film’s popularity was a complete accident. When Paramount Pictures purchased the original production studio, Liberty Films, an accidental oversight allowed the film’s copyright to lapse in 1974, a lapse that lasted for two decades. It entered the public domain. In that time, even the smallest regional television station could air the film without cost, resulting in hundreds upon hundreds of airings every holiday season until 1994, when the film’s copyright returned to Paramount. Those two decades fixed It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday classic…and also explains why it is seen far less frequently today.

It’s not free anymore.

 The Fighter and the Farm Girl

Stewart and Reed rehearsing

A popular film star and Academy Award winner before World War II, Jimmy Stewart joined the military in 1941. Having been a hobbyist flier years before the war, he joined the US Army Air Corps and received a commission as a second lieutenant in 1942. Jimmy Stewart spent his first service year making training films and public appearances for war bond drives. Unsatisfied with the “easy” work, Stewart persuaded his superiors to send him to the European theatre.

In three years Stewart commanded dozens of combat missions and ended his war service a full colonel. Like many combat-weary soldiers, he rarely discussed his wartime service publicly, but remained a proud member of the military and ultimately ended his career in 1959 as Brigadier General James Stewart. It’s a Wonderful Life was his first attempt to restart his Hollywood film career after witnessing the horrors of World War II firsthand.

Lt. Gen. Martial Valin, Chief of Staff, French Air Force, awards the Croix De Guerre with Palm to Col. Jimmy Stewart for exceptional services in the liberation of France. (U.S. Air Force)

Donna Reed (born Donna Belle Mullenger) left her family farm in Iowa to earn a teaching certification at Los Angeles City College, generating extra income by acting in small theater productions. Despite being wooed by several film studios, the practical-minded actress refused to begin a film career until she received her degree in 1941. She then signed with MGM, adopting the stage name Donna Reed.

For years, her film career was successful but fell short of stardom. Once American audiences fell in love with It’s a Wonderful Life, her career finally took off. In 1953 she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in From Here to Eternity.

Donna Reed

As the cast and crew of Capra’s film discovered, Donna Reed was no meek wallflower, but a born-and-bred Iowa farm girl. Lionel Barrymore didn’t buy into her farm girl background and bet her $50 ($600 in 2020) that she wouldn’t be able to properly milk a cow. Five minutes later she found a cow, pulled over a stool, and went to work. An amazed Barrymore paid her.

In the Wonderful Life scene in front of the run-down mansion, Director Frank Capra readied a professional sniper to shoot out the window of an abandoned house as Donna Reed’s character threw a rock at it. Capra didn’t believe she could hit the window or break the glass. Not only was she able to do it, she did it on the first take.

Bedford Falls and its Hot, Sweaty Christmas

Although the snow fell heavy in Bedford Falls, the entirely fictional city (although upstate New York’s Seneca Falls insists it’s the REAL Bedford Falls) existed only on four acres of the RKO Encino Ranch in the sunny San Fernando Valley. During filming between April and July of 1946, temperatures ranged between 70 and 90 degrees (sometimes higher) across the set. The Christmas film’s costumes typically consisted of heavy winter clothing, making the situation even more uncomfortable.

Luckily, Frank Capra was no despot on the set and gave actors and crew breaks from the oppressive heat, despite his promise of a 90-day shooting schedule to RKO. Scenes in which James Stewart’s face is shining with panicked, cold sweat was simply regular ol’ sweat. Stewart boiled under that long, woolen coat.

Capra wanted Bedford Falls to feel real, much more than any film set to date. He made every detail of his town as authentic as possible. 75 (!) buildings lined the town’s 300-yard Main Street. Capra insisted on distinct neighborhoods for upper, middle, and working class citizens, as well as slum and industrial districts.

To bury Bedford Falls in a cinematic winter, Capra decided against the typical painted-Cornflakes used in most Hollywood films of his day. Instead, he concocted a quick-drying mixture of soap, water, and fire extinguishing chemicals to replicate snow, with shaved ice filling in when handled by the actors. He based this decision on far more than aesthetics: the falling Cornflakes were usually so loud, dialog had to be redubbed in post-production, a costly and time-consuming process. This “silent snow” ended up netting Capra’s effects people an Academy Award for Technical Achievement.

Decades later, this snow would become infamous—although most of it was composed of inert, safe chemicals, some of the sprayed snow decorating the set turned out to be asbestos. The long-term carcinogenic effects of asbestos were still unknown at the time. In total, the film used roughly 6,000 gallons of “snow” to film Christmas in July.

The “Swim Gym” Scene

Mary, George, and Alfalfa (Don’t sue, Paramount. Still under FUP)

It’s not just humor that made It’s a Wonderful Life’s iconic pool scene memorable. Part of it was the surprise appearance of actor Carl Switzer, better known as “Alfalfa” from the Little Rascals. After the handsome George Bailey deftly steals Mary from Switzer’s character, “Alfala” gets revenge by opening up the gymnasium floor to reveal the pool beneath it. Oblivious of the water behind them, George and Mary mistake everyone’s warning shouts for enthusiasm, and the two continue doing the Charleston…well, you can guess the rest.

The pool itself was and IS real. Better known as the “Swim Gym” at the Beverly Hills High School, it’s still used by students in Southern California today. The motorized floor, installed in 1939, was a technical marvel in its day and gets plenty of attention. As in the movie, operators need turn a key and the floor will yawn open at the push of a button, exposing the pool water five feet beneath it. 81 years later, the “Swim Gym” is still there. In fact, the school just replaced the gym’s wooden floor.

The “Swim Gym” Today (photo credit to Pacific Floor)

Bert & Ernie, and other Wonderful Life Myths

A Bert & Ernie Conspiracy? (Paramount Studios copyright; Adheres to FUP)

Like pretty much, well, everything today, plenty of urban legend and false rumors have swirled around It’s a Wonderful Life since its release in December of 1946. That shouldn’t surprise us. At 132 minutes long, it’s an epic as far as holiday pictures go, and with its copyright lapse, it is one of the most viewed holiday films in American film history. Most of these legends are as fake as Bedford Falls itself.

One story that sprouts up every holiday season: the cab driver and police officer that share several scenes happen to be named “Bert” and “Ernie.” Whoa.

Jerry Juhl, the Muppets’ head writer for nearly four decades, shot this rumor down in 2000: “I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the myth] 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 cabdriver.”

D.M. Ladd’s Memo

Another whispered myth insists the FBI disapproved of the film and labeled it possible Communist propaganda. That is 100% true.  This might surprise modern audiences, but not those in the late 1940s. The United States had just emerged from World War II with a new enemy, the Soviet Union. Although the US was no newcomer to the fine art of propaganda, the Soviets transformed it into the effective and cost-efficient art of disinformation.

In a memo to J. Edgar Hoover himself, FBI Assistant Director D.M. Ladd (better known as “Mickey” Ladd) judged Capra’s plot and characters to be “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ [sic] so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.” Although the film wasn’t directly censored, Ladd promised it would be “closely followed.”

Of course, none of that is true. Fans of the film know that. To put it delicately, Mr. Potter was simply an ass.

The Ass

Another Life legend concerns one of the most enigmatic personalities of the mid-20th century—inventor, industrialist, director, and aviator Howard Hughes. Rumors had Hughes himself penning portions of the film’s plot, even creating the elements of the story sympathetic to Communism. Those stories, which are absolutely untrue, stemmed from the testimony of screenwriter John Charles Moffitt in front of the Committee of Un-American Activities, specifically on the Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. The politicians badgered Moffitt, who happened to be the first president of the Screen Writers’ Guild.

Moffitt defended It’s a Wonderful Life. While Potter was an entirely unsympathetic banker, Moffitt said, the movie contained several bankers that were quite obviously good. The audience erupted in an indigent fervor at this eloquent reply, and his lawyer asked that Moffitt receive the same respect and politeness as Howard Hughes had. Just mentioning Hughes casually was enough to start the rumor mill grinding.