The holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t a big hit when it hit theaters in 1946. It was nominated for several Oscars but didn’t win any. Then it was kind of forgotten, until it was rediscovered by a new generation who grew up watching it every December on TV.
Today it’s hard to imagine Christmas without revisiting George and Mary Bailey and their “drafty old house,” as he calls it, in Bedford Falls.
George and Mary walk past their future house, when it’s still empty and in disrepair:
Bedford Falls was a huge set built on the RKO Ranch in Encino, California. It took two months of construction and was one of the longest sets ever created for a movie. It ran 3 city blocks with 75 stores and buildings and covered 4 acres.
They transplanted 20 full-grown oak trees into the town to make it look like it had been there much longer than it had.
The remains of Bedford Falls on the RKO ranch were razed in the mid-1950s. There are only two surviving locations–the swimming pool in Beverly Hills High School and the Martini house in La Cañada Flintridge, California.
Capra’s inspiration for Bedford Falls was reportedly Seneca Falls, a small town in New York (you can read about it in this interesting article: The Real Bedford Falls). They have an annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival there every December.
For the winter scenes, the special effects crew used 3,000 tons of shaved ice and created “chemical snow.” Until then, movies used cornflakes painted white, but they made so much noise when actors walked on them that the dialogue would have to be dubbed.
The movie won an Academy Award for its snow. They really were special effects, too. It was filmed during a heat wave in California.
Mary Hatch’s house, where George visits and angrily insists that he never wants to get married:
Capra always had only one George Bailey in mind: Jimmy Stewart. But W.C. Fields was considered for the role of Uncle Billy (who was ultimately played by Thomas Mitchell). Jean Arthur passed on the role of Mary before Donna Reed was offered the part. And Henry Travers was considered for several roles in the movie before he became Clarence.
After their honeymoon gets abruptly canceled, Mary sets up an impromptu “bridal suite” in the abandoned house they once threw rocks at:
Zuzu loves flowers, and her bedroom shows it! Her headboard, nightstand, dresser, and the crib next to her all have flowers on them.
I love this scene, when she refuses to take a nap because she wants to look at the flower she brought home from school. When a few petals falls off, she tells her dad to “paste them back on.”
It’s a Wonderful Life began as a short story called “The Greatest Gift,” written by Philip Van Doren Stern. Unable to find a publisher for his story, he made 200 copies and sent them out to family and friends in his Christmas cards in 1943.
Word of the short story spread and RKO Studios bought it for $10,000, intending to turn it into a movie with Cary Grant as the suicidal man who learns how precious his life really is.
Several unsuccessful scripts later, Grant moved on and filmed another holiday favorite, The Bishop’s Wife, instead.
But then Frank Capra read the story and felt it had the potential to “encapsulate everything I was trying to say in all of my films,” as he said in an interview. “That every man is born to do something.”
He bought the script from RKO for the same $10,000 they had paid and changed the title to It’s a Wonderful Life. He later called it his favorite of all his movies.
I must have seen this movie a million times over the years, but I still get teary at the happy ending. Did you know the script originally called for it to end with him on his knees, saying the Lord’s Prayer? They decided to bring the entire town into the final scene instead. Hard to imagine it any other way!
This movie always makes me happy, even after all these years. And it really does make you think about what your life is about and what you can do to make the world around you a better place, doesn’t it?
More Houses from Classic Christmas Movies I’ve Featured:
- Home Alone
- National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
- Christmas in Connecticut
- A Christmas Story
- List of All Movie Houses