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 JIMMY STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Jimmy 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," Juhl continued. "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.”

12 Things We Know About The Crown Season 3

Sophie Mutevelian, Netflix
Sophie Mutevelian, Netflix

Between the birth of Prince Louis, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's announcement that they're expecting their first child in the spring, 2018 was a busy year for England's royal family. But the next big royal event we're most looking forward to is season three of The Crown.

Since making its premiere on November 4, 2016, the Netflix series—which won the 2017 Golden Globe for Best Drama—has become an indisputable hit. The streaming series, created by two-time Oscar nominee Peter Morgan, follows the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and the ups and downs of the royal family.

Now that you’ve surely binge-watched both of the first two seasons, we’re looking ahead to season three. Here’s everything we know about The Crown’s third season so far.

1. Olivia Colman will play the Queen.

Olivia Colman in 'The Crown'
Netflix

From the very beginning, creator Peter Morgan made it clear that each season of The Crown would cover roughly a decade of history, and that the cast would change for season three and again in season five (to more accurately represent the characters 20 and 40 years later). In October 2017, it was announced that Olivia Colmanwho just won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy for The Favourite—would take over the role of Queen Elizabeth II.

When discussing her replacement with Jimmy Fallon, Claire Foy praised her successor, joking that "You'll forget all about me and the rest of the cast. You'll be like, ‘Who are they?' We're the warm-up act."

Though she might be best known to American audiences for her roles in Broadchurch and The Night Manager (the latter of which earned her a Golden Globe in 2017), Colman is no stranger to playing a member of the royal family. In addition to her award-winning role as Queen Anne in The Favourite, she played Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon—wife of King George VI and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret—in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012).

2. We may not seen a third season until later in the year.

While no official release date for season three has been given, the BBC reported that we wouldn't see Colman as Queen Elizabeth II until this year. But we could have some more waiting to do. The good news, however, is that Morgan confirmed they're shooting seasons three and four "back-to-back. I’m writing them all at the moment," he said in February. Meaning we may not have to wait as long for season four to arrive.

3. Tobias Menzies is taking over as Prince Philip.

Tobias Menzies in 'The Crown'
Sophie Mutevelian, Netflix

Between Outlander and The Terror, Tobias Menzies is keeping pretty busy these days. In late March 2017 it was announced that he’d be taking over Matt Smith’s role as Prince Philip for the next two seasons of The Crown—and Smith couldn't be happier.

Shortly after the announcement was made, Smith described his replacement as "the perfect casting," telling the Observer: "He’s a wonderful actor. I worked with him on The History Boys, and he’s a totally fantastic actor. I’m very excited to see what he does with Prince Philip." Of course, passing an iconic role on to another actor is something that former Doctor Who star Smith has some experience with. "It was hard to give up the Doctor—you want to play it for ever. But with this, you know you can’t," Smith told The Times.

For his part, Menzies said that, "I'm thrilled to be joining the new cast of The Crown and to be working with Olivia Colman again. I look forward to becoming her 'liege man of life and limb.'"

4. Paul Bettany came very close to having Menzies's role.

If you remember hearing rumblings that Paul Bettany would be playing the Duke of Edinburgh, no, you're not imagining things. For a while it seemed like the London-born actor was a shoo-in for the part, but it turned out that scheduling was not in Bettany's favor. When asked about the rumors that he was close to signing a deal to play Philip, Bettany said that, "We discussed it. We just couldn’t come to terms on dates really. [That] is all that happened."

5. Helena Bonham Carter will play Princess Margaret.

Honoured @thecrownnetflix

A post shared by Vanessa Kirby (@vanessa__kirby) on

After months of speculation—and one big hint via Instagram (see above)—in May 2018, Netflix finally confirmed the previously "all but confirmed" rumor that Helena Bonham Carter would play Princess Margaret in The Crown's next season. "I’m not sure which I’m more terrified about—doing justice to the real Princess Margaret or following in the shoes of Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret,” Bonham Carter said of the role. “The only thing I can guarantee is that I’ll be shorter [than Vanessa]."

Like Colman, Bonham Carter also has some experience playing a royal: She played Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a.k.a. the Queen Mother, in the Oscar-winning The King's Speech.

6. Princess Diana will notappear in season 3.

As The Crown moves forward, time will, too. Though fans worried that, based on the current time jumps between seasons, it would take another few years to see Princess Diana be introduced, Morgan told People Magazine that Princess Diana would make her first appearance toward the end of season three and that she will be heavily featured in the two seasons that follow. However, casting director Nina Gold later dispelled that notion.

"Diana’s not in this season," Gold told Vanity Fair. "When we do get to her, that is going to be pretty interesting." Charles and Diana did not meet until 1977, when the Prince began dating Diana's older sister, Sarah. According to Variety, season three will only cover the years 1964 to 1976.

7. Camilla Parker Bowles will be featured.

Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker-Bowles at Ludlow Races where Prince Charles is competing, 1980
Express Newspapers/Archive Photos/Getty Images

As it’s difficult to fully cover the relationship between Prince Charles and Princess Diana without including Camilla Parker Bowles as part of the story, the current Duchess of Cornwall will make her first appearance in season three.

“Peter [Morgan]’s already talking about the most wonderful things,” The Crown producer Suzanne Mackie revealed during the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival in April 2017. “You start meeting Camilla Parker Bowles in season three,” she said, noting that they were then in the process of mapping out seasons three and four.

8. Buckingham Palace will be getting an upgrade.

Though it's hard to imagine a more lavish set design, Left Bank—the series's production company—requested more studio space for its sets at Elstree Studios in late 2017, and received approval to do just that in April. According to Variety, Left Bank specifically "sought planning permission for a new Buckingham Palace main gates and exterior, including the iconic balcony on which the royals stand at key moments. The Downing Street plans show a new Number 10 and the road leading up to the building itself. The sketches for the new work, seen by Variety, show an aerial view of Downing Street with a Rolls Royce pulling up outside Number 10."

9. Princess Margaret's marriage to Lord Snowdon will be a part of the story.

Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret in 'The Crown'
Alex Bailey/Netflix

Princess Margaret’s roller-coaster relationship with Antony Armstrong-Jones played a major part of The Crown’s second season, and the dissolution of their marriage will play out in season three.

“We’re now writing season three," Robert Lacey, the series’s history consultant and the author of The Crown: The Official Companion, Volume 1, told Town & Country in December. “And in season three, without giving anything away—it’s on the record, it’s history—we’ll see the breakup of this extraordinary marriage between Margaret and Snowdon. This season, you see how it starts, and what a strange character, a brilliant character Snowdon was.”

10. Vanessa Kirby would like to see Princess Margaret get a spinoff.

While Kirby, who played Princess Margaret in the first two seasons, knows that the cast will undergo a shakeup, she’s not afraid to admit that she’s jealous of all the juicy drama Bonham Carter will get to experience as the character.

“I was so desperate to do further on,” Kirby told Vanity Fair, “because it’s going to be so fun [to enact] when their marriage starts to break down. You see the beginnings of that in episode 10. I kept saying to [Peter Morgan], ‘Can’t you put in an episode where Margaret and Tony have a big row, and she throws a plate at his head?’ I’m so envious of the actress who gets to do it.”

Kirby even went so far as to suggest that Margaret’s life could be turned into its own series, telling Morgan, “‘We need to do a spinoff.’ You actually could do 10 hours on Margaret because she’s so fascinating. There’s so much to her, and she’s such an interesting character. I know that parts like this hardly ever come along."

11. Jason Watkins will play prime minister Harold Wilson.

At the same time Netflix confirmed Bonham Carter's casting, the network announced that BAFTA-winning actor Jason Watkins had been cast as Harold Wilson, who was prime minister between 1964 and 1970 and again between 1974 and 1976. "I am delighted to become part of this exceptional show,” Watkins said. “And so thrilled to be working once again with Peter Morgan. Harold Wilson is a significant and fascinating character in our history. So looking forward to bringing him to life, through a decade that transformed us culturally and politically."

12. Gillian Anderson will play Margaret Thatcher.

Gillian Anderson speaks onstage at The X-Files panel during 2017 New York Comic Con -Day 4 on October 8, 2017 in New York City
Dia Dipasupil, Getty Images

Ok, so this might be a fourth season tidbit—but it's still very worth talking about. In January 2019 it was announced that The Crown had cast its Iron Lady: former The X-Files star Gillian Anderson will play former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Crown's fourth season.

One Key Stranger Things Death Was Originally Much Darker

Netflix
Netflix

While many Stranger Things fans rallied for #JusticeForBarb after Nancy Wheeler’s best friend was abducted to the Upside Down in the first season, season two packed even more of an emotional punch with the death of Bob Newby. The character, played by Sean Astin, was Joyce Byers’s quirky and sweet new boyfriend, who ultimately died a hero when saving the gang from a terrifying group of Demodogs.

As upsetting as the scene was, it turns out it could have been a lot worse. Producers Dan Cohen and Shawn Levy previously revealed the original, much darker plan they had for the beloved character.

“We had talked about the death of some major characters, that may or may not happen in the future near or far. But that was never part of the discussion for Season 2,” Levy said. “The death of Bob was initially much earlier. In fact, in an early outline, Evil Will kill[ed] him in like Episode 3.”

The pair went on explain that Bob’s death was supposed to take place during the scene where in which he and Will are in the car, and Bob is attempting to give Will advice.

“Will just straight-up murders Bob in that car,” Levy said. The scene in question turned out to be pretty sweet, as Bob tells Will what he was afraid of growing up, even making him laugh. Thankfully, they decided to change the original plan.

Stranger Things will return to Netflix on July 4, 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER