Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
During the holiday season in 1943, author and historian Philip Van Doren Stern mailed out 200 copies of a short story to family and friends as part of his annual Christmas card. Van Doren Stern had been trying unsuccessfully to have the story published for four years. That story, entitled “The Greatest Gift,” grabbed the attention of a producer over at RKO Pictures, David Hempstead. He passed it on to Cary Grant’s agent, who loved it as well. RKO bought the rights to “The Greatest Gift” for $10,000 in 1944, hoping to turn it into a film starring Grant. Unfortunately, a version starring Grant was shelved after three disappointing attempts at writing a script. The actor went on to star in another holiday classic, The Bishop’s Wife.
Frank Capra was given a copy of “The Greatest Gift” by RKO studio production chief Charles Koerner. By then, Capra was already one of the most beloved directors of American cinema. His films such as It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were well-received by audiences and achieved box office success. Capra was immediately interested in the project, and RKO sold the rights to the story to his production company Liberty Films in 1945. Capra worked with several famed writers including Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets to rework the script, now titled It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a Wonderful Life centers around George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), a businessman who seeks to get out of his small town of Bedford Falls and see the world. He takes over his family’s building and loan business when his father passes away, helping those in need be able to own their own homes. When the business misplaces a large amount of money and George fears that he may be jailed, an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) steps in to help. The evil Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who owns half the town attempts to cash in on George’s misfortune along the way. Feeling he would be worth more dead than alive, Clarence tries to remind George just how many lives he’s touched by showing him what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.
The filming of It’s a Wonderful Life was a huge endeavor. An enormous set was constructed on RKO’s studio lot to create the town of Bedford Falls. The set was four acres, with a main street spanning three city blocks (300 yards) comprised of 75 different buildings (including a residential neighborhood). Since the film took place during different seasons and time periods, it needed to be extremely adaptable. The RKO Radio Studio Special Effects Department created a new kind of “chemical snow” for the movie, so that the actors would not need to dub their dialogue after filming. Previously, fake movie snow was made up of crushed cornflakes that cracked noisily as the actors walked over it. The effects department won a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science for this breakthrough effect in 1947.
When the film was first released at Christmastime in 1946, it was not an instant classic. It’s a Wonderful Life placed 26th in box office revenues for the year, making only $3.3 million. The movie remained unnoticed for decades until the late 1970s. Networks began airing the film during the Christmas season, and it grew to become a holiday staple. New audiences fell in love with It’s a Wonderful Life, gaining praise among critics and moviegoers alike. “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Director Frank Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.” Today, the film endures as a beloved classic. As Jimmy Stewart stated years ago, “the movie is about hope, love, and friendship.” The holidays are often a vulnerable time for many, It’s a Wonderful Life is a reminder to all that of the power of “the common man.” One person can and does make a difference, there is always hope and the desire to do the right thing.
It’s a Wonderful Life was filmed in 90 days from April – July of 1946. The scene shot on the bridge where Clarence saves George Bailey was on a day where it hit 90 degrees outside. Look carefully and moviegoers can see Jimmy Stewart sweating during the scene.
Originally, a hired marksman was brought in for Donna Reed’s scene where she throws a rock into the window of the Granville House. Everyone on set was amazed when Reed herself threw the rock and broke the window with perfect accuracy. She had played baseball in high school and had an incredibly strong throwing arm.
Donna Reed, originally from Iowa, was a farm girl at heart. Lionel Barrymore did not believe her and bet her $50 that she could not milk a cow on set. She did, and Barrymore paid up the $50 for losing the bet.
Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Frank Capra each stated this is their favorite film of all the ones they each made.
It’s a Wonderful Live airs on Christmas Eve at 8pm EST, on NBC.
What’s your favorite holiday movie? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.