Films made prior to this one used cornflakes painted white for the falling snow effect. Because the cornflakes were so loud, dialogue had to be dubbed in later. Frank Capra wanted to record the sound live, so a new snow effect was developed using foamite (a fire-fighting chemical) and soap and water. This mixture was then pumped at high pressure through a wind machine to create the silent, falling snow. 6000 gallons of the new snow were used in the film. The RKO Effects Department received a Class III Scientific or Technical Award from the Motion Picture Academy for the development of the new film snow.
As Uncle Billy is leaving George's house drunk, it sounds as if he stumbles over some trash cans on the sidewalk. In fact, a crew member dropped some equipment right after Uncle Billy left the screen. Both actors continued with the scene ("I'm all right, I'm all right!") and director Frank Capra decided to use it in the final cut. He gave the clumsy stagehand a $10 bonus for "improving the sound."
For the scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock into the window of the Granville House, Frank Capra hired a marksman to shoot it out for her on cue. To everyone's amazement, Donna Reed broke the window with true aim and heft without the assistance of the hired marksman. Reed had played baseball in high school and had a strong throwing arm.
James Stewart was nervous about the phone scene kiss because it was his first screen kiss since his return to Hollywood after the war. Under Frank Capra's watchful eye, Stewart filmed the scene in only one unrehearsed take, and it worked so well that part of the embrace was cut because it was too passionate to pass the censors.
In 1947, an FBI analyst submitted, without comment, an addition to a running memo on "Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry," recording the opinion of an industry source who said that the film's "obvious" attempt to discredit bankers "is a common trick used by Communists."
James Stewart cited George Bailey as being his favorite character. The part was originally developed at another studio with Cary Grant earmarked for the role. When Frank Capra inherited the project, he rewrote it to suit Stewart.
The set for Bedford Falls was constructed in two months and was one of the longest sets that had ever been made for an American movie. It covered four acres of the RKO's Encino Ranch. It included 75 stores and buildings, main street, factory district and a large residential and slum area. The Main Street was 300 yards long, three whole city blocks!
Two of Sesame Street's Muppets, Bert and Ernie, share their names with the film's cop and cab driver, respectively, but it's believed to be just a coincidence. While Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu, claimed that the two Muppets were named after the characters because the movie was Jim Henson's favorite, according to longtime Muppets head writer Jerry Juhl in an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, Ernie and Bert were not named after the movie's characters. Juhl said, "I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim [Henson] had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cabdriver. 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."
While filming the scene where George prays in the bar, James Stewart has said that he was so overcome that he began to sob right then and there. Later, Frank Capra reframed the shot so it looked like a much closer shot than was actually filmed because he wanted to catch that expression on Stewart's face.
James Stewart and Donna Reed reprised their roles in 1947 on radio, first on "The Lux Radio Theatre" and then on "Camel Screen Guild Theatre." In the Lux version, instead of putting Zuzu's petals in his pocket, George has a bell that Zuzu likes to play with. The "Lux" version aired in March; the "Screen Guild" version aired December 29th.
The film has two lines of "secret dialog" - spoken quietly through a door. (They can be heard when amplifying the volume, and are also explicitly depicted in the closed-captioning.) The lines occur at the end of the scene set in Bailey's private office with Bailey and his son George, and Potter and his goon present. After George raves to Potter that "you can't say that about my father", he is ushered out of the room by his father, then George is shown standing outside the office door. At that moment, George overhears the following two lines of dialog through the glass pane of the door behind him: POTTER: What's the answer? BAILEY: Potter, you just humiliated me in front of my son.
Pharmacist Gower's son's death at college is attributed to "Influenza" in the telegram that Young George reads, dated May 3, 1919. Around that time, there was the "Spanish Flu" worldwide epidemic that claimed millions of lives.
The name of Bedford Falls was combined from Bedford Hills, in Westchester County, New York, and Seneca Falls, a small town midway between Rochester and Syracuse. The town of Elmira, mentioned by the bank examiner, is a real town in New York, not that far from the actual Seneca Falls.
According to an interview with Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played Zuzu, the name Zuzu comes from Zu Zu Ginger Snaps. George makes reference to this near the end of the movie when he says to Zu Zu at the top of the stairs, "Zuzu my little Ginger Snap!"
The movie was originally slated for 1947 release, but when Technicolor was unable to deliver prints in time for RKO's Christmastime 1946 release of Sinbad, the Sailor, Frank Capra's film was rushed into theaters. The titles were not reshot, and thus bear a 1947 copyright.
Frank Capra strove to make scenes as real as he could for actors. Thus the first kiss between Stewart and Reed was shot at the same time as the other end of the phone conversation, with Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson) on a different set (Wainwright's New York office) at RKO's Pathe studio.
In the scene where George Bailey runs through the streets wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, there's a shot of a theater marque advertising for The Bells of St. Mary's. Henry Travers, who plays Clarence, had co-starred in the film the previous year.
The husband and wife writing team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett found Capra "nasty" and difficult to work with and were angered when they found he had rewritten their script. They filed an arbitration with the Writer's Guild to have Capra's name taken off, but it remains on.
In the version of this film which aired on TV in the late 1950s and early 1960s, George Bailey(James Stewart), by phone, accuses the teacher of "sending my kid home from school in the rain"(What's the big deal with that? Most schools close at 3). In the most recent version aired on NBC,12/24/12, George's line is "You sent my kid home from school half naked." Quite a stronger accusation. This would give the teacher's husband a more ample reason to " take a poke" at George, as he did, later in Nick's tavern.
In the version of this film which aired on TV in the late 1950s and early 1960s, George Bailey (James Stewart), by phone, accuses the teacher of "sending my kid home from school in the rain" In the most recent version aired on NBC,12/24/12, George's line is "You sent my kid home from school half naked." Probably, the original line. Quite a stronger accusation. This would give the teacher's husband a ample reason to " take a poke" at George, as he did, later in Nick's tavern. The substitution for "half naked" may have been made early on to accommodate family TV viewing.