25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


Getty Images

By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “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 save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


Getty Images

Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “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.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] 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 cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "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.”

10 Game of Thrones Fan Theories About How the Series Will End

HBO
HBO

Our faces are longer than Jon Snow’s right now. It’s been nearly a year since the last season of Game of Thrones ended, but season 8—the series's final one—won’t air until next spring. To tide you over until 2019, we’ve collected some of the most plausible as well as the most bonkers fan theories about what could go down in the final episodes. They predict everything from a new contender for the Iron Throne to a new species classification for a major character. On the bright side, we’ll all have plenty of time to debate these before the first episode airs.

1. JON SNOW WILL KILL DAENERYS.

Almost since the series began, fans have been predicting that Jon Snow is the Prince Who Was Promised—a reincarnation of the legendary hero Azor Ahai. But most predictions have overlooked a central piece of the Azor Ahai legend, which may spell doom for Daenerys: Azor Ahai, a lousy metallurgist, had a tough time forging his fabled flaming sword Lightbringer. Then he realized he needed to temper the blade by plunging it into the heart of his wife, Nissa Nissa, to imbue it with her power. (Because in the logic of this legend, killing a powerful woman turns a mediocre man into a hero.) If Jon Snow is Azor Ahai, the theory goes, then Daenerys will be his Nissa Nissa—the one true love he must kill in order to save the realm.

2. THE LANNISTERS’ REPAID DEBTS WILL BE THEIR DOWNFALL.

Lena Headey in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

You know the family creed: A Lannister always pays his debts. In Season 7, Cersei stayed true to her family name when she paid off a large debt to the Iron Bank. Most viewers read this as a play to buy the loyalty of the bank and its mercenary soldiers, but one Machiavellian Redditor has predicted that paying off the debt will have the opposite effect. “While the Lannisters were in debt to the Bank, the Bank had a vested interest in their success,” one Redditor wrote. Now that the debt is paid, the Iron Bank will invest in the side that seems to have the best chance of winning—and right now, that doesn’t look like Cersei's.

3. EURON GREYJOY IS THE FATHER OF CERSEI’S CHILD.

Somehow this seems more disturbing than Jamie being the baby’s incestuous father. PopSugar rolled out this hot take based on some circumstantial evidence. First, Euron and Cersei cooked up a plan to betray Jon and Daenerys without telling Jamie, which “raises the question about what else Cersei was doing with Euron behind Jamie’s back.” Then there’s the fact that Cersei just let Jamie ride north to fight the White Walkers, which doesn’t seem like a risk you’d want your unborn child’s father to take. She has no idea when or if he’ll be back. But on the other hand, she knows exactly where Euron will be. Perhaps she’s keeping an eye on her baby’s true father.

4. DAENERYS WILL DIE BEYOND THE WALL.

Redditor Try_Another_NO reached all the way back to season 2 to substantiate this theory about Daenerys’s demise. While Daenerys is in the House of the Undying, she has a series of possibly prophetic visions. She walks through the throne room in Kings Landing, which is damaged and filled with snow. Before she can touch the Iron Throne, she’s called away by a sound and suddenly finds herself walking beyond the wall. There she meets Khal Drogo who says he has resisted death to wait for her. According to the theory, these were clues about the series’s end: The White Walkers will threaten Kings Landing. Daenerys will turn away from the throne to fight the White Walkers. Death awaits her beyond the wall.

5. CLEGANEBOWL WILL FINALLY HAPPEN.

For years fans have eagerly awaited a fight between Sandor and Gregor Clegane, which has been affectionately dubbed “Cleganebowl.” In the season 7 finale, the Hound hinted that the much-hyped fight is coming when he told his brother, “You know who's coming for you.” The cryptic message also spawned a fan theory about the real origin of the Clegane brothers’ beef. Our only version of the tale comes from noted liar/sleazebag Littlefinger, who claimed Ser Gregor burned his brother’s face over a stolen toy. But Redditor 440k11 thinks the Hound has always had a talent for reading the future in the flames. In fact, the theory goes, the Hound saw his brother’s death foretold in a fire and told him about it. Enraged, young Gregor pushed his brother’s face into the fire he was reading, burning Sandor and cementing their lifelong enmity.

6. VARYS IS ACTUALLY A MERMAN.

The case for this one is watertight. The books make several mentions of merlings living alongside dragons, giants, and White Walkers—mythical creatures we know exist in Essos. Varys, meanwhile, constantly covers his lower body in long robes. What is he hiding? According to Redditor nightflyer, it’s his freaky fish body. In the books, it would explain his cryptic response when Tyrion threatened to have him thrown off a ship: “You might be disappointed by the result.” In the show, it might explain how Varys traveled from Dorne to Daenerys's ship in Mereen seemingly overnight in the middle of season 7. (It wasn’t lazy writing—he swam there!) In general, it might explain why he’s such a slimy weirdo.

7. THE MAESTERS ARE COLLUDING WITH CERSEI TO BEAT DAENERYS.

Finally, a fan theory fit for our political age! According to this theory, the maesters are natural enemies of magic. The strange forces that bring the dead back to life, reveal the future in fire, and allow Arya to wear many faces are beyond the maesters’ powers of rational explanation. But if magic were eliminated, the maesters’ monopoly on knowledge would continue unchallenged. It follows, then, that the maesters would feel comfortable with Cersei’s cruel reign but threatened by Daenerys’s magical dragons. Maybe that explains why a former maester built Cersei a weapon meant to kill dragons. And maybe the maesters will intervene in the conflict more directly in the next season.

8. ARYA WILL KILL CERSEI ... WEARING JAMIE’S FACE.

Maisie Williams in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Predicting that Jamie will kill Cersei is so mainstream. Seeing Jamie kill Cersei for the good of the realm would reprise his role as the Kingslayer (or Queenslayer). It would neatly fulfill the Volanqar prophecy—the prediction a witch made to a young Cersei, that she would be killed by a volanqar (which translates to "younger sibling" in High Valyrean). And it would be so easy. Reasoning that George RR Martin would never do something so obvious, and that Arya’s assassin character arc has to led to a more consequential target than Walder Frey, Redditor greypiano predicts that Arya will be Cersei’s killer. If she first kills Jamie and uses his face to catch Cersei unaware, then the volanqar prophecy will be confirmed (even if it’s on a technicality).

9. VISERION WILL COME BACK TO LIFE.

Here’s a fan theory for moms, from a mom. Redditor Cornholio_the_white wrote that after the season 7 finale, their mom called to say she was sad about Viserion’s death. But she had a prediction: “I think it’s going to remember its mother.” She explained that Daenerys’s love would free Viserion from the Night King’s spell. Cornholio_the_white scoffed. That wasn’t possible. The dragon was dead. But then Mom dropped a compelling counterargument: “Not if the Red Woman brings it back. They’re keeping her around for something.”

10. GENDRY IS THE LEGITIMATE CHILD OF CERSEI AND ROBERT BARATHEAN.

This theory throws another contender for the Iron Throne into the mix. It maintains that Gendry was not Robert Barathean’s bastard son—in fact, he was the only legitimate child of the king. We know that Cersei and Robert had a child—a “black-haired beauty”—who supposedly died shortly after birth. Curiously, Cersei says she never visited her firstborn child in the crypt, even though we know she is a fiercely devoted mother. Perhaps that’s because she knew her son was actually in Fleabottom as a blacksmith’s apprentice. And perhaps it was Cersei all along who was looking out for Gendry, securing his apprenticeship and protecting him from Joffrey’s purge of Robert’s bastards. Gendry, for his part, remembers only that his mother had yellow hair. If that yellow-haired woman was Cersei, Gendry would have the most legitimate claim to the Iron Throne of anyone in Westeros.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. To celebrate his birthday (he turns 73 today), here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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