Wondrous Facts About It's A Wonderful Life

By Grace Taylor

Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Karolyn Grimes in It's A Wonderful Life. (National Telefilm Associates/Wikimedia Commons)

It Wasn't Destined To Be A Christmas Classic

It is hard to imagine now, but It's A Wonderful Life was a dud at the box office, not even making back its $6.3 million budget. Maybe a holiday tale about a suicidal man just wasn't what people wanted right after the end of World War II. Likewise, critics found the movie corny, though the Academy had some foresight when they gave the film five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

In fact, the reason it became the go-to Christmas movie in the first place was because the film's performance was so lackluster that the people in charge of keeping up the copyright were careless enough to let it slip into public domain in 1974. Always looking for cheap content, several television channels scooped up the movie and ran it for little cost on their stations around Christmastime. Whether it was nostalgia, an appreciation for the story, or the movie just being drilled into our heads over and over again, the film became a fan favorite over the following decades.

Robert J. Anderson as young George Bailey. (National Telefilm Associates/Wikimedia Commons)

The Blood Was Real

Poor George Bailey had a hard time hearing, partially due to an ear infection after he saved his brother but also because he was slapped in the ear by the pharmacist as a child. In fact, he was slapped so hard, you can actually see blood pouring out of his ear in the film. It's not movie magic: Actor H.B. Warner apparently got a little too "method" in the scene and really boxed the child actor, Robert J. Anderson, hard enough to make him bleed. They both stayed in character, however, and after the scene, Warner apologized and hugged the boy, who didn't hold it against him. "He was very lovable," Anderson later told the L.A. Times. "He grabbed me and hugged me, and he meant it."

But The Snow Was Fake

You may think Jimmy Stewart is sweating through the final act because his character is going through some major stress, but really, it's because much of the movie was filmed during the summer in Los Angeles, and during a major heat wave, no less. Because so much of the movie's climax revolves around Stewart running through the town in the snow, the studio couldn't use the old tricks of fluttering out cornflakes because of the loud crunch they made when stepped on. Ever the innovative bunch, the special effects team decided to make their own "chemical snow" out of foam, sugar, and soap. It was so successful that their unique mixture became the staple fake snow for years to come.

Colonel Stewart receiving the Croix de Guerre with Palm in 1944. (U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)

Jimmy Stewart Was Going Through A Lot

At the time of filming, Jimmy Stewart had just gotten back from his service in World War II, where he worked as a B-24 command pilot. (He went on to serve 27 years and eventually reached the rank of major general.) Stewart flew an impressive 20 flights over Nazi Germany—most pilots didn't make it past their eighth mission—but was left in deep emotional turmoil over the men lost under his command. He was naturally drawn to the story of a man struggling with the meaning of his life while suffering through his own PTSD and found it almost alarmingly easy to tap into his emotions during filming, saying of his tearful praying scene on the bridge, "As I said those words, I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. That was not planned at all."

Capra Thought It Was His Best Work

Frank Capra was already a Hollywood legend when the movie came out, having directed such classics as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It Happened One Night, and You Can't Take It With You. However, even when critics rolled their eyes and moviegoers stayed home, Capra still believed It's A Wonderful Life was his greatest work. In fact, he admitted later to playing it in his house for his family every Christmas. Despite its slow ascent in the cultural zeitgeist, by the time he died in 1991, it was already considered one of the American Film Institute's Greatest Films of All Time, even earning the number-one spot for Most Inspirational Film. Even today, the film still garners millions of views every time it plays on television.

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Grace Taylor