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!
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.
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."
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 to shoot. The set was later razed in 1954, and only two locations survived; the gymnasium at Beverly Hills High School which is still in operation today, and the Martini house, at 4587 Viro Road in La Canada Flintridge, California.
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.
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." 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.
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 when the "Spanish Flu Pandemic," spread on the filthy battlefields of the First World War, claimed millions of lives around the world.
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!"
After the film was finished, it was broadcast coast to coast by CBS and in other parts of the world by the 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, but although not a box-office success, it became immensely popular and a Christmas classic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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; Vaseline hair tonic; Penetro cough syrup; Pepto-Bismol; Bayer Aspirin ("for colds and influenza"), and The Saturday Evening Post.
When Uncle Billy knocks over a trashcan, his cries "I'm all right! I'm all right" were ad-libbed by Thomas Mitchell. The actual noise was made by a clumsy stagehand knocking over equipment but it sounded so authentic to Frank Capra he left it in; he still had it augmented though with added sound effects.
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 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 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, California. The area is now a residential neighborhood.
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 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.
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.
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?"
Prior to the Los Angeles release of It's a Wonderful Life, 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.
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."
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 "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).
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.
Mr Potter's bodyguard never talks; he just stands there with a hand on Potter's wheelchair. The character doesn't even get a name. He isn't always mentioned in scenes with Potter in the novelization, but he's always there with him in the film.
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 Martini's own a goat.
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.
Bedford Falls is a fictional town in the state is New York (as seen on the death-certificate telegram received by Mr. Gower). It is a combination of two real town names: Bedford Hills (in Westchester County) and Seneca Falls (midway between Rochester and Syracuse). Elmira is said to be near Bedford Falls, this statement is true of Seneca Falls.
One of the reasons H.B. Warner got the part of the pharmacist, Mr. Gower, was because he actually studied medicine before going into acting. He was also in some of Frank Capra's other films, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can't Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). The character's name Gower derived from Capra's employer Columbia Pictures, which had been located on Gower Street for many years. Also on Gower Street was a drugstore that was a favorite for the studio's employees.
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.
Mr. Potter is never caught as the thief who embezzled $8000, which he apparently gets to keep. This is very unusual for an American "Hays Office Code" approved film in the days when this board almost always compelled movies to show the criminal being punished or at least being deprived of all loot by the end of the picture.
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.