Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Behind the Scenes of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and THE BISHOP’S WIFE!

You’ve watched the films a million times, you’ve laughed, you’ve cried… wanna go behind the scenes? Let’s sneak a peek backstage at It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife! Oh and need some help toweling off, Jimmy? We’re right here!

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That’s not your run-of-the-mill fake movie snow Jimmy’s dabbing away during the 90-plus-degree shoot in mid-July—that’s state-of-the-art fake movie snow! Director Frank Capra, an engineer by trade, was fed up with the white-coated cornflakes that usually subbed for snowflakes, which crunched so noisily underfoot they often drowned out the dialogue, requiring hours of redubbing.

So he toiled away in the lab with RKO’s special effects man, Russell Sherman, to create a blissfully silent concoction called Phomaide, which combined the foam used in fire extinguishers with water and sugar. And then they blew some 6,000 gallons of the stuff all over the set, which was a wonder unto itself: 75 houses, stores and factories, a parkway lined with 20 full-grown live oaks, and a Main Street running three full city blocks, all sprawled across four acres. At the time, it was the largest set ever built for a movie.

The one crucial element it almost didn’t have? James Stewart—just back from the war, battling depression, grappling with uncertainty about his future, and not all that sure he was up to playing a role that hit a little too close to home. The man who talked him into it? None other than Mister Potter himself, Lionel Barrymore.

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Oh and these scenes from rehearsals will give you some idea of what the temperature was really like—not only on the set but between Stewart and Donna Reed, who eventually warmed up to each other even though Jimmy was originally skeptical about Capra’s choice to play Mary Bailey. (Okay now think hard: Can you picture anyone else in that role? Granted, we have the benefit of hindsight and fifty or sixty viewings.)

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A year and a half later, Cary Grant laced up a pair of ice skates for his role as the Angel in The Bishop’s Wife though a shorter, bespectacled stunt double did most of the heavy twirling. (Two of the kids from It’s a Wonderful Life also made the trip: Karolyn Grimes packed away Zuzu’s petals to play the bishop’s daughter, and Bobbie Anderson, who was young George Bailey, popped up in the snowball-fight scene.)

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For a film with such a celestial story arc, it was bedeviled with complications right from the start. Grant was originally cast as the Bishop, with David Niven as the Angel and Teresa Wright in the title role. But producer Sam Goldwyn took one look at director William Seiter’s original rushes, hated what he saw, and fired him. (For his part, Seiter had earlier directed an undersung Christmas miracle called I’ll Be Seeing You; that full movie is here.)

By the time they were set to re-shoot with a new director, Henry Koster, Wright was pregnant and was replaced by Loretta Young, and Grant had prevailed upon Koster to let him swap roles with Niven and play the Angel. How could the director resist, when Grant looked like this parked behind a harp?

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But preview audiences were still unhappy with the result, and Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were brought in to punch up the script. That helped win over the critics, but moviegoers mostly ignored this little Christmas gem when it finally opened. Maybe because by then, it was February.

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Or maybe people were just trapped inside their houses. Here’s how New York City, for instance, looked when The Bishop’s Wife premiered there in 1948, in the midst of one of the snowiest winters on record for much of the country. No need for Phomaide here!

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And on that downy-soft note…  may all your Christmases be white! (Unless you don’t want them to be. Or you live in a place where that would just be, well, odd.)

5 Comments

  1. A charming and interesting article.

    Sarah Edwards appears in both pictures as well. She’s the organist Mrs. Duffy and Mrs. Hatch (Mary’s mother).

  2. I love how simply written and well-informed all your articles are, Janet. This one is no exception.. Amazing! 😀

  3. Marko

    My family are watching this on Saturday 29th December 2018 at 22.30 hours. How lovely to see those photos of a bygone time… Amazing back story to its production. thank you for your time on this… Marko, the family and Archiie the dog, London, England.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Marko!!
      Wishing all of you a Happy New Year, from my family here in New York (and my great-grandfather was from Liverpool)!

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