Frank Capra strove to make scenes as real as he could for actors. Thus the first kiss between James Stewart and Donna 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.
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.
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 re-framed the shot so it looked like a much closer shot than was originally filmed because he wanted to catch that expression on Stewart's face. This is why this shot appears rather grainy compared with the rest of the film.
As Uncle Billy drunkenly leaves the Bailey home, it sounds as if he stumbles into some trash cans on the sidewalk. In fact, a crew member dropped a large tray of props right after actor Thomas Mitchell went off-screen. In reaction, James Stewart began laughing and Mitchell quickly improvised "I'm alright, I'm okay!". Director Frank Capra decided to use this take in the final cut, and gave the clumsy stagehand a $10 bonus for "improving the sound."
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 RKO's Encino Ranch. It included 75 stores and buildings, a main street, a factory district and a large residential and slum area. Main Street was 300 yards long--three whole city blocks.
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.
Two of the writers called the finished film "horrid" and refused to see it when it was released. The only one of Clifford Odets' ideas to appear in the finished script was George preventing Mr. Gower from poisoning a boy with the wrong vitamin pills.
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.
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.
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!"
Frank Capra filmed a number of sequences that were later cut; the only remnants are rare stills that have been unearthed. A number of alternative endings were considered, with Capra's first script having George fall to his knees saying The Lord's Prayer (the script called for an opening scene with the townspeople in prayer). Feeling an overly religious tone didn't have the emotional impact of family and friends coming to George's rescue, the closing scenes were rewritten.
In the version of this film which aired on TV in the late 1950s and early 1960s, George's line to the teacher on the phone, "What do you mean, sending her home like that half naked?", was replaced with an alternate take in which he says "What do you mean, sending my kid home from school in the rain?".
The Main Street of Bedford Falls, including the Bailey Bros. Savings and Loan and the Bedford Falls Trust & Savings, was located on the RKO Encino Ranch, west of (but not on) the playing fields of what is now Balboa Park in Encino, California. The actual location of the Bedford Falls Main Street ran east-west from what is now the east side of the 5900 block of Ostrom Avenue, Encino. The area is now a residential neighborhood.
Henry Travers, who plays Clarence, also stars in The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) as Horace P. Bogardus. When George Bailey passes a movie theater towards the end of the movie, that film is being showcased.
The Bedford Falls set made use of 20 transplanted oak trees, and for the winter scenes 3000 tons of shaved ice, 300 tons of gypsum, 300 tons of plaster and 6000 gallons of chemicals. It made use of sets originally designed for Cimarron (1931) and it had a working bank and a tree-lined center parkway. Pigeons, cats and dogs were allowed to roam the mammoth set to give it a lived-in feel. Because the story covers different seasons and an alternate town, the set was extremely adaptable. Filming began on April 15, 1946, and ended on July 27, 1946, exactly on schedule for the 90-day deadline. The set was razed in 1954, and only two locations survived--the gymnasium at Beverly Hills High School (which is still in operation) and the Martini house, at 4587 Viro Rd. in La Canada-Flintridge, CA.
Potter and his bodyguard are always dressed the same. The exception is the scene when Potter's bodyguard wheels Potter into the bank; Potter's bodyguard is wearing a scarf while Potter isn't. Potter's wagon driver also dresses like him.
In the post-production photo of all cast and crew, James Stewart and Frank Capra appear twice, once on the far left and also on the far right. As it was slow taking panoramic pictures, they ran to the other end before the pan reached that point.
Pharmacist Gower's son's death at college is attributed to "Influenza" in the telegram that Young George reads, dated May 3, 1919. This was the year after when the "Spanish Flu Pandemic," spread on the filthy battlefields of the First World War, claimed millions of lives around the world.
According to Robert J. Anderson, H.B. Warner really was drunk during the scene in which Mr. Gower slaps young George. Warner's slaps were real and caused real blood to come from Anderson's ear. After the scene was finished, Warner hugged and comforted Anderson.
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 Peter 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? PETER BAILEY: Potter, you just humiliated me in front of my son.
Both James Stewart and Donna Reed came from small towns; Stewart from Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Reed from Denison, Iowa. She demonstrated her rural roots by winning an impromptu bet with Lionel Barrymore when he challenged her to milk a cow on-set.
The husband-and- wife writing team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett found Frank Capra disagreeable 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.
Clarence's boss (named Franklin in the novelization, presumably named after recently dead "hero-President" Franklin D. Roosevelt) mentions "the greatest gift" in one of the opening scenes. This was the title of the 1944 story which inspired the film.
After the film was finished, it was broadcast coast to coast by CBS and in other parts of the world by the US State Department. It premiered at the Globe Theatre in New York, for the benefit of the Boys Club. Many people loved it and watched it over and over; although it was not a box-office success, it became immensely popular over time and a Christmas classic.
While this film was a box-office flop, it became a cherished holiday tradition in the US. This was because it was repeated dozens of times on many local stations during the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Due to a clerical error in the copyright office of NTA (its then-rights holder) in 1974, the movie's copyright wasn't renewed. The rights supposedly became public domain, so anyone who could obtain a print of the film could broadcast it without paying royalties to NTA, so stations could run the film virtually for free minus the cost of the station overhead. In the 1990s a series of court battles led to NTA'S successor, Republic Pictures, reacquiring the rights to the film by virtue of the source material ("The Greatest Gift") and the film's score, which were still copyrighted. So now NBC exclusively rebroadcasts the film at least twice annually during the holiday season.
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."
Sam makes a fortune in plastics while Harry becomes an engineer at his father-in-law's glass factory. Both of these come out of Frank Capra's own education in chemical engineering; ironically, Capra himself was unable to find a job with his background and, like George Bailey, considered himself a failure for many years.
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 song "Buffalo Gals" was a 19th-century vaudeville song. The "gals" who were asked to "come out tonight" varied according to whichever town the song was being performed in. It could be "New York Gals," "Chicago Gals," or any other suitable town/city name. "Buffalo Gals" became the favorite. A renewed pop cultural interest in this song came about when some people, mostly children, did not realize that "Buffalo" within this song refers to a city, and assumed that "Buffalo Gals" are a tribe of chimeric beast-people (a la The Wolf Man (1941)) or anthropomorphic bison. This misconception was immortalized in an iconic drawing, "The Elephant Man meets the Buffalo Gal," made by humorist Gary Larson around 1980, where such a creature meets a similarly misrepresented manifestation of the title The Elephant Man (1980).
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 (1947), Frank Capra's film was rushed into theaters. The titles were not reshot, and thus bear a 1947 copyright.
Prior to the Los Angeles release of the movie, Liberty Films mounted an extensive promotional campaign that included a daily advertisement highlighting one of the film's players, along with comments from reviewers. The New York Daily Times offered an editorial in which it declared the film and James Stewart's performance worthy of Oscar consideration.
There are several examples of product placement in Gower's drugstore; Coca-Cola; Paterson tobacco pipes; La Unica cigars; Camel cigarettes; Lucky Strike cigarettes; Chesterfield cigarettes; Sweet Caporal cigarettes; Vaseline hair tonic; Penetro cough syrup; Pepto-Bismol; Bayer Aspirin ("for colds and influenza"), and The Saturday Evening Post.
Two of Sesame Street (1969)'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. Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu) insisted that the two Muppets were named as such because the movie was Jim Henson's favorite, Henson's writing partner Jerry Juhl insisted to The San Francisco Chronicle that 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 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."
Bells crop up throughout the film; in the intro music and other background music; Christmas decorations; cash registers; telephones ringing; a bell on Mr Potter's desk; the studio logo; doorbells; The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) is playing at the local cinema, etc.
The WWII experiences of Bert, Ernie, Harry Bailey and Marty Hatch are described during a montage of combat scenes. The audience is told that during the war Ernie the cab driver parachuted into France. However, in the final scene, Ernie is wearing a shirt with the insignia from the 8th Air Force on his left sleeve. Assuming that Ernie had not purchased the shirt second-hand, the only way he would have parachuted into France as a member of the 8th Air Force would be aboard a B-17 or B-24 that was about to crash and the crew was preparing to evacuate the plane. Perhaps the reason why Ernie is wearing a dress NCO's shirt from the 8th Air Force is because James Stewart was a decorated pilot of a B-17 in the "Mighty Eighth" during WWII.
Other actresses considered for the role of Mary Bailey were Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott and Ann Dvorak. Ginger Rogers allegedly turned down the role because she thought the character too bland. When Rogers penned her autobiography, she questioned that decision by asking the readers, "Foolish, you say?"
Uncle Billy's pets are Jimmy, a crow always seen at the bank; hamsters; a dog; birds; a squirrel; a monkey, etc. George had a dog when he still lived with his parents, and one can see a birdcage in his second home, and the Martinis own a goat.
During the bank run scene, Frank Capra rehearsed the scene between James Stewart and Ellen Corby several times. When Corby's character was asked how much money she needed, she replied $17, which was in the script. Just prior to the first actual take, Capra took Corby aside and told her to give Stewart an odd number. He thought it would be funnier. When she said "17.50" to Stewart; he was taken off-guard and impulsively kissed her, which was not in the script. Stewart's spontaneous reply was so genuine that Capra left the scene in the final film.
The term "Potter's Field" is often used to refer to municipal cemeteries where paupers and unidentified bodies are interred. At one point in the film, the Potter housing project in Bedford Falls is referred to as "Potter's Field."
Joseph Walker was the original cinematographer, while Joseph F. Biroc was the assistant. When Frank Capra asked Walker to continue shooting as the sun went down on James Stewart wandering through the streets of Bedford Falls, Walker refused. Capra then asked Biroc if he could shoot the scene, and Biroc replied, "I can." Walker was released by Capra, the scene was shot and Biroc was upped to Cinematographer. Both Walker and Biroc share credits on the film, Biroc listed above Walker.
Bedford Falls is a fictional town in upstate New York (as seen on the death-certificate telegram received by Mr. Gower). It is a combination of two real towns: Bedford Hills (in Westchester County) and Seneca Falls (midway between Rochester and Syracuse). Elmira is said to be near Bedford Falls, but this statement is true of Seneca Falls.
At one stage when George is walking down the street, Uncle Billy calls out "Hey Captain Cook, got your sea legs yet?". Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was an English sea captain who explored many previously-isolated regions including Oregon, Australia, and Hawaii, where he was killed when a dispute with locals turned violent.
In 1986, a colorized version of the film was released to significant controversy. The genesis stemmed from a reneged deal between Frank Capra and Colorization Inc., the producers of this version. Capra was to have invested in half of the colorization work in exchange for creative control and part-ownership. However, Colorization realized that that since the film was supposedly in the public domain, they could do all the work and let Capra go. This helped to create an outcry among filmmakers and their supporters that led to all subsequent colorized versions of films bear a notice stating that they were not authorized by the picture's creators. This version was pulled from distribution in 1993 when the film's copyright was restored, but a new colorized version was produced under the authorization of Paramount Pictures and released in 2007.
The name Henry F. Potter is used for the first time dramatically on film in this picture. The surname of Potter would be used in eight additional film/television productions. Female characters known as Mrs. Potter will appear in six different television/movie productions. The most famous Potter is "Harry" from the series by J.K. Rowling. Another famous Potter is Col. Sherman Potter, commanding officer and surgeon of the 4077th in the TV series M*A*S*H (1972). The television show The Prisoner (1967) and the movie The Longest Yard (1974) have characters in the cast named Potter.
The name Henry F. Potter is used for the first time dramatically on film in It's a Wonderful Life. The surname of Potter will be used in 8 additional film/television productions. Female characters known as Mrs. Potter will appear in 6 different television/movie productions. The most famous Potter is "Harry" from novel series by J.K. Rowling. Another famous Potter is Colonel Sherman Potter, commanding officer and surgeon from 'M*A*S*H'. The television show The Prisoner and the movie The Longest Yard have characters in the cast named Potter.
Mr. Potter is never caught as the thief who embezzled $8000, which he apparently gets to keep. This was very unusual for a Hollywood film of at the time; the Hays Office--the censor--code required that criminals must always be shown to be either punished or made to repent at the end of every film.
After the run on the banks, George and Uncle Billy meet in the Building & Loan back office, where George receives a call from Potter, after which the scene shows George looking to a framed picture on the wall of his deceased father with a caption below that reads,, All you can take with you is that which you give away".
In the original short story the film is based upon, George's last name is Pratt, not Bailey. The short story begins with George on the bridge thinking about suicide. Clarence appears on the bridge, but doesn't dive into the water. George's wife is still called Mary. George makes his wish on the bridge. Clarence gives him brushes from a satchel so George can pretend he's a salesman in Pottersville, and then Clarence disappears. The Bailey Building & Loan went bust after someone made off with the money (Potter in the film), but it was $50,000, not $8000. Mary married someone else. The house they lived in was a wedding present from her father. George's father is still alive and has a dog called Brownie. He tries selling his mother a brush. Mary has a boy and a girl. George's mother is friendlier and lives in a nicer house. Harry drowned when he was 16, on the day he had his picture taken because of a sudden cramp. Instead of George's daughter practicing the same song over and over again, it was the church choir. George tries selling a brush to Mary. She's married to Art Jenkins, a boorish heavy drinker, and they're son takes after him, but she's not an old maid. George runs into Clarence on the bridge. The car's not by the tree, but the damage is when things are back to normal. He doesn't see Harry at the party but at his parents house. He wrestles with the dog. He wakes the kids up and Mary was getting ready to go to church. The brush he sold to Mary appears at the end. There's no mention of Clarence wanting wings, Mr Potter, or why George wanted to kill himself. The short story covers the last 30 minutes of the film. Clarence doesn't carry around a book of Tom Sawyer in the story, just brushes.
Janie asked her mother if now was the right time to play "Hark the Herald Angel Sing" in the final scene, according to the novelization. George thought it the most beautiful carol he had ever heard, and it brought him close to tears; Mr. Carter thought the whole thing ridiculous before giving up some of his own money; Harry was also due back the next day but wanted to come home earlier, and when he said George was the richest man in town, George agreed. When George picked up "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer", he thought Clarence's handwriting was old-fashioned; the novelization's last line is "attaboy Clarence".
George appeals to Clarence because he's the only one who knows him in Pottersville. He can't bear what's happened to his family, friends and Bedford Falls so he wants to live again, in the novelization.