The holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t really a hit when it premiered 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.
Let’s take a look back at the old Bailey house where so many of us spend the holidays each year…
George Bailey’s Drafty Old House in Bedford Falls
George and Mary walk past their future house when it’s abandoned and throw rocks at the windows.
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 Seneca Falls, a small town in New York.
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 because 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 empty house:
We see Mary fixing the place up and hanging a pretty toile wallpaper…
…but then we never see that paper again, do we?
Zuzu loves flowers, and her bedroom shows it! Her headboard, nightstand, dresser, and the crib all have flowers.
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.”
We only get this glimpse of the kitchen:
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.
Did you know the script originally called for a final scene with George on his knees, saying the Lord’s Prayer? They decided to bring the entire town into the final scene instead. Now it’s hard to imagine it ending any other way.
I must have seen this movie a million times over the years, but I still get teary at the ending when the angel gets his wings!
I took these screenshots while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Visit my Houses Onscreen page to see the other movies I’ve featured, listed A-Z.
It’s my favorite movie. They are showing it on Christmas Eve in the 1928 movie palace in my town. Thanks for featuring it.
jennie w. says
Just watched this last night. It’s one of our family traditions to watch this every year. I cried about five different times. My 12-year-old son say it’s in his Top 5 Favorite Movies. He also said that none of his friends have ever seen it! Isn’t that a shame?
My husband is a lot like Jimmy Stewart in this movie and it always makes me cry at the end thinking about what a good, kind-hearted man George Bailey is and what a good, kind-hearted man I’m married to.
And yes, I’m totally gorgeous and amazing just like Donna Reed! 🙂
Kathy Strader says
I’ve always liked this move because the people seem real. In most old movies the characters seem a little stuffy and upper crusty. The people in this movie behave the way people really act. Always loved it. It makes me cry every time I see it.
Jalon Burton says
What a wonderful tour of a wonderful movie of a wonderful life… ok, I went there. But this is a wonderful tour. I love all the ‘behind the scene’ info and the great still shots with descriptions. Thank you so much for adding to this ‘wonderful’ holiday season (ok, I had one more in me!)
Have a great day!
I agree that has always been my favorite movie! Thank you for adding this “wonderful” tour!
Brandon @ Southgate says
One of my favorites! I haven’t seen it yet this year…thanks for reminding me I need to make time this week for it!
It is a tradition with my family every year at least 1 time, often more. Thanks for the tour. It make me wonder if some of the building on the set were used in other movies.
thank you julia!! one of my favorite movies. we always make seafood gumbo & settle in to watch It’s a Wonderful Life on christmas eve. i have always loved that old house (real or not), as well as the rest of bedford falls. i can’t wait to read about the real bedford …..so enjoying all of the christmas movie houses, such a nice early chrismas gift. thanks again!
nanne in columbus, indiana
Stephanie Durdan says
I’m posting my comment BEFORE I even read this post! 🙂
LOVE that house and that movie. I want to rescue every sad, neglected and abandoned home out there. Make them loved & lived in again!
Now, onto reading your post.
I love this movie. It’s a “right to the heart” story that is timeless. Yes it’s true, one person does really matter.
Thank you so much for featuring my favorite movie. I’ve seen it, like many, more times than my age, which is considerable, and never tire of watching it. Last year, we saw it at an historic movie house. Mary, above, you are going to love it on Christmas Eve in the 1928 palace. I was a bit surprised to find myself with tears streaming down my face, as I’d seen it so often.
This year, for a birthday gift, my husband took me to a live performance of It’s a Wonderful Life – a radio production. I just blogged about it yesterday. It was, well, it was wonderful. . .
. . . and I can’t sign out without mentioning that we drove into Seneca Falls on a trip to Boston three years ago. We became suspicious at a coffee house, ZuZu’s Cafe, or something like that. Well, it boasted being the town that was the inspiration for the movie and had us convinced, especially when we saw the bridge; surely the bridge that George contemplated suicide on.
I love movies, i love Christmas movies but this classic never held my interest. What is wrong with me? Maybe it is the black and white. And the house reminds me of the Adams Family. I think I am the only person I know Thayer hasn’t seen the whole movie.
Can’t type today either.
I just watched this movie for the 107th time two nights ago and found myself thinking, “Julia should do something on this.” So glad you did! It IS a wonderful film, and I love the message that ordinary people are heros because of the impact they have on the ones that get the glory. How many people’s lives have we touched and NEVER known??? So affirming!
Amanda @ Serenity Now says
I can’t watch this movie without crying!!! Love love love it! (and the house too) 😉
Last December after our yearly ritual of watching this,I thought the message is even more relevant now than in the Forties! I’ve mentioned It Happened on 5th Avenue before and highly recommend it as one of the over-looked little gems from the same era with a terrific message. Peace to all of us who are hooked on houses and old movies!
Thank you so much for featuring this movie on your blog. “It’s A Wonderful Life” is my favorite Christmas movie and my family watches it ever year. Not only is the house wonderful, but so is the message. It really makes you think about your own life. At least this movie does for me whenever I watch it. I’ll tell you what, classics will never get old.
I have never watched this movie all the way through. I’ve seen most of it in bits and pieces but I am vowing to watch all of it in one sitting one day this week! Another old movie I just watched for the first time is “Meet Me in St. Louis”, I loved it and can’t believe I had never seen it before.
Thanks for the post!
I love this movie and the actors in it. Sometimes I wish they would just colorzie the old ones and give us a choice between black and white and color…I’d probably watch it in both!
One of my favorite Christmas movies. I did notice from your pictures that the wallpaper looks very similar to Mary’s house that she grew up in. (maybe)
I thank you for such a wonderful blog. 🙂
Jenny Allworthy says
Thanks for the great post Julia. Did anyone else ever wonder if Ernie and Bert on Sesame Street were named after Ernie and Bert in this film? I always get a laugh out of that!
My favorite Chrismas movie!! Love the house!
This movie is certainly in my top 10, at least. I was really glad to read that Jennie W.’s 12 year old says it’s in his top 5. That’s very good to hear, as I was saddened to find out how many young people have never even seen the movie. Hands down, it’s my favorite Christmas movie, and always has me crying by the end. Does anyone remember when Target had a Wonderful Life Christmas village for sale years ago? I was planning to collect the buildings over time, buying one a year, but after I had collected two, they discontinued it. They were very well made and only cost about $15 a piece. They also had a mailing with a collector’s item, and I bought a 50th anniversary of the movie Christmas tree, and a Civil War memorial statue for the town square which says Bedford Falls. I’m sure there are probably collectable sites that still have the pieces available, but after my initial disappointment, I’m happy with what I have. I think it would be great for Target to bring it back for others though. Anyone else collected any of these or seen them anywhere?
There are many items on Ebay if you enter Target It’s a Wonderful Life Village. Mostly people and some houses and the bridge. It might be one way of collecting them 1 or 2 at a time throughout the year. You can also to an internet search to see if you can get a list of what was made.
From what I saw I love the houses but can’t add one more collection to my home.
Don Knispel says
I enjoyed your article Julie! It really is difficult to imagine Christmas without watching iawl at least once…
C. Joy says
Of course the house is real. I know it so well – I’ve almost driven my husband crazy looking for it. I am just sure I can find it somewhere (with gardens, garage and pool). Thanks for this post. Merry Christmas.
This is my Dad’s favorite Christmas movie! I have so many fond memories of watching it with him every year growing up. I love it! We quote different parts a lot in our family, especially the part about “paste it, Daddy”. So cute. 😉
That’s so surprising that it wasn’t popular at first! How sad.
I love the drafty old house. 🙂
I just love this movie. I also love Remember the Night, another Christmas movie that is shown on Turner Classics every Christmas. You would love the house in that too!
Holiday Affair is on Turner Classics tonight too!!!!
[email protected] of Laughter says
Thank you Julia! I *adore* this movie too and I am so happy that you wrote this post so I could learn more about it! I am fascinated with 40’s-60’s and the clothing, family life and all things domestic! It seems like a simpler, happy time and it also references the period when my grandparents were a young married couple. Such a wonderful post and the pictures you shared are fabulous! Merry Christmas! Angie xo
[email protected] says
One of the problems with the movie when it came out was that it was released in July; they completely overlooked the Christmas aspect to the film. One of my absolute favorites!
melissa*320 sycamore says
My most favorite post you have EVER published. 🙂 LOVE, love, love. Merry Christmas, Julia!!
Sheila Angeletti says
I just watched this in it’s entirty with my husband. I could have sworn I saw the profile of Irene Ryan in the movie. How would I find out?
Well, I checked her profile on IMDb.com and it doesn’t list “It’s a Wonderful Life” as one of the movies she was in, so I doubt she was. You never know, though, I guess! 🙂
NJ Cellulose Insulation Contractor says
I watched that movie just last week. The home is ‘wonderful.’
Just wanted to post and say I really enjoyed this article and focus on It’s a Wonderful Life house. Very interesting and fun to read. Hope you had a great CHRISTmas and New Years. Thanks for writing!
Congestive Chris says
I’m looking for Holiday Cards with “It’s a Wonderful Life” images/theme. I want to send them out as Holiday Cards this year, and as Thank You cards to my Doctors. You see, I was at the hospital to visit a sick relative about 3 weeks ago. My sister caught me fixated/staring at a high point on a nearby wall in the waiting room and jokingly tapped me on the forehead, as if to say “Snap Out of It”. I didn’t flinch. She ran & got some nurses/doctors, and they quickly determined that I was crashing / having a heart attack (I’m 44 yrs old, and the actual medical term is “Congestive Heart Failure”). In fact, my heart had stopped beating by the time my sister had tapped me on the forehead and the Medical Staff Team came in and brought me into surgery for about the next 6 hours. I like to ride a bicycle for my exercise, so I had some good arteries in my legs & arms to use to replace the blocked arteries attached to my heart. I ended up receiving a Quintuple Bypass surgery and walked out of the hospital under my own power 10 days after the attack & surgery (the Staff was really quite surprised at my positive turn-around time). While in the Recovery Area after my surgery, 24-36 hours later, I had some TERRIBLE DREAMS (kind of like George’s). The nurses/doctors told me it was the anaesthesia causing my Terrible Dreams, but I know better ;-). Regardless, that Medical Team of Doctors & Nurses brought me back to Life and I’d like to send them Thank You / Holiday Cards with the “It’s a Wonderful Life” theme. Can anyone tell me where I can buy these? Thank you!
Matt Royer says
I love this movie too,and the house has a starring role too. This house is also in one of my other favorite films, The Magnificent Ambersons from 1942. Its a great film and this house opens the film when the narrator is talking about the town where the movie takes place…
I’m hoping someone can help me I have the It’s a wonderful life houses and I’m trying to find out how much they might be worth but i don’t know where to look does anyone have any clues. Thanks.