Frank Capra said that it was his favorite of the many movies he made throughout a phenomenal career. He screened it for his family every Christmas season. Yet it’s initial 1946 release at the Globe Theatre in New York did not bring about yuletide euphoria and visions of sugar plums. It’s a Wonderful Life premiered to mixed and sometimes dismissive reviews, but it went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made, garnering a permanent spot in every list of the top films of the last century.
From its very beginning, it did not inspire great expectations. It was based on an original story “The Greatest Gift”written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1939. After being unsuccessful in getting the story published, Stern made it into a Christmas card, and mailed 200 copies to family and friends in 1943. In 1944, RKO Pictures ran across the story and bought the rights to it for $10,000, hoping to turn the story into a vehicle for Cary Grant. Grant made another Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, instead, and the story languished on a shelf until RKO, anxious to unload the project, sold the rights to Capra in 1945.
Capra, along with several other writers, including Dorothy Parker, created the screenplay that Capra would rename It’s a Wonderful Life.
The town of Seneca Falls, New York claims that Capra modeled Bedford Falls after it. The town has an annual “It’s a Wonderful Life festival” in December, a Hotel Clarence, and the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum. The town of Bedford Falls itself, however, was built in Culver City, California, on a 4-acre set originally designed for the western Cimarron. Capra added a working bank and a tree-lined center parkway, planted with 20 full grown oak trees. Pigeons, cats, and dogs roamed at will.
The dance scene where George and Mary end up in the swimming pool was filmed at the Beverly Hills High School. The pool still exists.