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10 Fascinating Facts About The Empire Strikes Back

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Earlier this month, to celebrate Star Wars Day (“May the 4th be with you!”), we rounded up 37 amazing facts about the Star Wars saga. But being that today marks the 35th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back’s premiere, we couldn’t let the day pass without shining a little extra saber-provided light on the Oscar-winning second entry in the original trilogy. So here are 10 more fascinating facts about one of the most frequently misquoted films in the history of cinema.

1. THE “BIG REVEAL” MAY NOT HAVE BEEN SUCH A SECRET AFTER ALL.

Much has been made of the lengths to which Lucas and his fellow filmmakers went to keep the revelation that (spoiler alert?) Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father under wraps. In a 2004 interview with Sound & Vision, Mark Hamill shared that “it was a wonderfully hard secret to keep because [Irvin] Kershner, the director, brought me aside and said ‘Now I know this, and George knows this, and now you're going to know this, but if you tell anybody, and that means Carrie or Harrison, or anybody, we're going to know who it is because we know who knows.’” But the truth is that anyone who picked up the novelization of the movie, which was released a month earlier than the film, would have known the plot twist already. (Good thing Twitter didn’t exist.)

2. DAVID PROWSE SPILLED THE BEANS ON LUKE’S CONNECTION TO VADER IN 1978.

Two years before the Empire novelization hit bookstore shelves, a crowd of approximately 1000 Star Wars fans gathered in Berkeley, California to shake hands with David Prowse, the man in Darth Vader’s suit. Believe it or not, Prowse shared that critical plot point with the crowd. A newspaper clipping from 1978 teased the genetic connection, even quoting Prowse as saying, “Father can’t kill son, son can’t kill father.”

3. ITS MOST MEMORABLE LINE IS ALSO ITS MOST MISQUOTED.

When Darth Vader drops the paternal bomb on Luke, he does so by stating, “No, I am your father.” The line is one of the most often misquoted in cinema history, and usually repeated as “Luke, I am your father.” (Yes, even Chris Farley got it wrong in Tommy Boy.)

4. MONTY PYTHON AND THE ROLLING STONES MADE HAN AND LEIA SMILE.

In 1999, Carrie Fisher penned an essay for Newsweek on her Star Wars experience and recounted the time she and Ford pulled an all-nighter at a party with Eric Idle and the Rolling Stones. “Eric had just come home from filming Life of Brian in Tunisia,” wrote Fisher. “He brought this drink that he said they gave the extras so they'd work longer. I called it Tunisian Table Cleaner. As a rule I'm allergic to alcohol, and Harrison doesn't really drink either. But that night, there was a makeshift party. The Rolling Stones were there ... We stayed up all night and drank the table cleaner and never went to sleep. When we arrived at the set the next morning, we weren't hungover—we were, like the extras in Tunisia, more than willing to work. That morning we shot our arrival at Cloud City, where we meet Billy Dee Williams. And it’s one of the very few times in the series both Harrison and I smile. To this day, Eric is proud as a papa of his impact on the trilogy.”

5. GEORGE LUCAS WANTED JIM HENSON AS YODA

In an interview with Leonard Maltin, Lucas admitted that he wanted Muppets maestro Jim Henson to play the role of Yoda. “I went to Jim [Henson] and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m busy, I’m doing this, and doing that, I’m making a movie and all that—I really can’t, but ... how about Frank [Oz]? You know, Frank’s the other half of me.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’d be fantastic.’”

Henson also recommended creature designer Stuart Freeborn, who explained that, “I was the one who kind of put all the elements of Yoda together, and although Jim didn’t make Yoda, George and he had an understanding that they would exchange technology information. George would give to Jim and Jim would give some of his people to George to help. Wendy Froud helped out a little bit with the character and two other people from Jim’s company worked the cables for me.”

6. FRANK OZ RECALLS THE STORY DIFFERENTLY.

In a 2014 interview, Oz, the normally reclusive puppeteer and director, said that, “George didn't want my voice in the beginning. I gave him a tape. He said, 'No thank you.' And in post-production for about a year I heard that he was auditioning voices for Yoda. He had no intention of using me for the voice. Then I was on my honeymoon with my first wife about 25 years ago or 30 years ago, and he [called and] said, ‘Frank can you come out … I think we'd like to try your voice.’ So I flew back and recorded Yoda.”

7. CLIFF CLAVIN IS IN IT.

Two years before he began his decade-plus run as Boston mailman/trivia expert Cliff Clavin on Cheers, and a full 15 years before he began voicing Hamm in the Toy Story series, John Ratzenberger made an early-career appearance as Major Bren Derlin, part of the Rebel Force in The Empire Strikes Back. While he loved being part of such a major film franchise, what he remembers most is how “I somehow got a parking space next to Kermit the Frog. It was Jim Henson’s space, with this Kermit the Frog sign. So I took a photo of it and sent it to my mom with a caption that read, ‘Look, Mom. I made it. I got a parking space next to Kermit the Frog.’”

8. THE EMPEROR USED TO BE A CHIMP.

In the original version of the film, the scene in which Darth Vader converses with the Emperor used to look a lot different. Though many viewers automatically associate the character with actor Ian McDiarmid, the original Emperor was an old woman with chimpanzee eyes and the voice of Clive Revill. (You can see both versions side-by-side here.)

9. THE FILM MARKED THE END OF GARY KURTZ AND GEORGE LUCAS’ PARTNERSHIP.

Though it’s George Lucas’ name that’s most synonymous with the Star Wars universe, producer Gary Kurtz—who came up with the title for The Empire Strikes Back and also served as an uncredited assistant director—was an essential contributor to the first two films. Yet the pair ended their partnership following The Empire Strikes Back. “I could see where things were headed,” Kurtz told the Los Angeles Times in 2010 of his reasons for stepping far, far away from Lucas’ film galaxy. “The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It's a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It's natural to make decisions that protect the toy business but that's not the best thing for making quality films.”

10. HAMILL WASN’T A FAN OF SOME OF LUCAS’ TINKERS.

While fans have long lamented the many changes Lucas has made to the original trilogy over the years, even Luke Skywalker himself wasn’t crazy about some of them. “I can't say I cared for that scream they added to the Special Edition (now gone), when Luke sacrifices himself [in The Empire Strikes Back],” Mark Hamill told Sound & Vision. “Kersh and I talked about the fact that when he actually reaches the point whether he has to join them or not, he lets go. It's like he's committing suicide rather than going to the Dark Side. So it is a calm thing. Look, it’s [George's] to tinker with as he sees fit. I always say it's his train set, if he wants to put up new billboards and new landscaping … Remember the old, ‘It's good to be the king?’ I guess George is ‘It's good to be The Emperor!’ If he wants to make them into musical comedies, that's his choice.”

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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.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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