One of my favorite Christmas traditions is watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” with my mom and whoever else will join us. Usually it’s just the two of us since neither of my siblings have ever cared much for the black and white classic. We have watched it on the big screen together twice, once in New York City when we visited my brother for Christmas, and once in my hometown, in downtown Wilson, North Carolina at our local historic theater. But most years, it’s pajamas, fuzzy socks, and the fuzzy VHS tape at home. (Though this year, I have realized it’s on Amazon Prime so we won’t have to deal with the finicky VCR this year.) We’ve seen it a dozen times at least and yet the end still makes us cry.
I am so looking forward to this year’s viewing and in honor of the tradition, I’ve compiled a few fun facts about this 1946 Christmas classic.
- Both Frank Capra (the director) and James Stewart (who plays the main character George Bailey) served in World War II, with this film being the first they had worked on postwar. Frank Capra, Italian by birth, volunteered to enlist at the age of 44 after Pearl Harbor and put his film talents to patriotic use, creating documentaries about the war to boost morale among troops. Most notably he produced the “Why We Fight” series. James Stewart served as a pilot in WWII rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve and becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history. He was also the first Hollywood star to enlist to fight in World War II.
- Donna Reed, who played Mary Hatch Bailey, the film’s leading lady, said that the film was “the most difficult film I ever did. No director ever demanded as much of me.”
- The film didn’t do as well as expected at the box office because of strong competition, but it was nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (James Stewart), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Recording.
- The one award that the film won was the Technical Achievement Award given to the Special Effects crew for developing a new technique for simulating falling snow on motion picture sets. Before It’s a Wonderful Life snow was made using painted cornflakes; however, these were rather noisy when stepped on, causing scenes to need redubbing. The special effects team on It’s a Wonderful Life developed a new way to create snow using water, soap flakes, foamite and sugar, which was much quieter than cornflakes.
- The film is based on a short story titled The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, which was written in 1939 and published privately in 1943. Good Housekeeping magazine published the story in their January 1945 edition under the title The Man Who Was Never Born. The studio became interested in the story and Cary Grant was initially interested in playing the lead role that would ultimately go to James Stewart.
- The swimming pool under the gym floor that features in the famous dance scene of the movie still exists at Beverly Hills High School where it was in use at least until 2013.
- The film is listed on the American Film Institute’s 100 Best American Films Ever Made, placing number 11 on the initial 1998 list and number 20 on the revised 2007 list.
- The pet raven of Uncle Billy’s was in several of Capra’s films beginning with You Can’t Take it With You. His name was Jimmy.
- Like many of Capra’s films, the movie told a moral story with a positive, heartwarming and patriotic message about a downtrodden “every man.”
- 4.7 million people tuned in to NBC’s Christmas Eve broadcast of the movie in 2017. Will you be watching this year?