Christmas decorations are being thrown up, festive tunes are everywhere, and our favourite Christmas movies are hitting our screens. Forget the modern offerings of Elf and Home Alone, there’s one true Christmas cracker that’ll punch you right in the feels and gets you all warm and fuzzy inside year after year.
Of course we’re talking about the classic, all-American, feel-good family movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. But how much do you really know about the film?
Where it began…
It all started with a card. Philip Van Doren had spent years trying to get publishers to pick up his book, The Greatest Gift. Fed up of being rejected, Philip printed 200 copies of his story and sent it out as a 21-page card to his friends. And so, It’s A Wonderful Life was born.
The Christmas card worked, and producer at RKO Pictures, David Hempstead, purchased the rights to the movie for a mere $10,000.
Rights for the film didn’t stay with Hempstead for long. After a number of script rewrites, Frank Capa got the movie rights in 1945.
Having started on a Christmas card, the movie we all know and love today isn’t as close to the original as Doren would have liked. More than half a dozen people contributed to the screenplay, and there were more than a couple of fallouts with producer Frank Capa.
On the set
The budget for the film was $3.7 million, and it took just two months to build Bedford Falls. At the time this was the most elaborate set ever created, covering four full acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch. Three million wouldn’t get you very far in the movie industry today.
The unexpected flop
After a slow start when It’s A Wonderful Life was released the momentum unfortunately stopped too. The film was a box office flop, putting Capa $525,000 in debt and struggling to finance his next film. How things have changed.
Hitting the small screen
Despite being a failure in the cinema, It’s A Wonderful Life did amazingly on the small screen. When the copyrights to the film lapsed in 1974, meaning it was royalty-free for anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years, the film became a classic – which is why it was so common for the film to be played during Christmas.
Everyone knows and loves It’s A Wonderful Life as a Christmas movie, but it was actually filmed during a heat wave. Shot in the summer of 1946, the filming had to be shut down for a day because the temperature was too high.
It’s no secret that some of the main characters didn’t see the completed film until years, even decades later. Did you know, when the FBI saw the film they were not impressed? True story. In 1947 the FBI issued a memo saying: “[The film is] communist infiltration of the motion picture industry, the rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”
From a Christmas card tale, a script makeover and a box office fail to TV sensation and classic Christmas film across the world – one man is certainly impressed, and confused. Frank Capa was quoted saying: “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. 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.”