The year was 1991 and the movie It's a Wonderful Life was in sort of a limbo-land of ownership. The original copyright had lapsed in 1974, and NBC had not yet acquired the rights to the Christmastime staple, meaning that independent stations and cable could show the movie as often as they chose.
In the Tampa Bay area that year, it was broadcast 22 times. Meaning we had plenty of time to discover every nuance about the movie. The result was a series in the Times called "Facts of 'Life" in which we shared fun tidbits about the movie gleaned from watching it and from such sources as Readers Digest and TNT.
As part of our Vintage Times series, we present them here so that when NBC broadcasts the movie on Dec. 20 and Dec. 24, you can spot the bloopers and amaze your family with trivia.
• Who can forget George Bailey running through Bedford Falls in the "snow" to his loving family? But those snow scenes were filmed in July in 90-degree heat. Almost 3,000 tons of ice shavings were brought in to achieve the effect.
• Speaking of that scene, it was filmed at the 89-acre RKO movie ranch in Encino. Calif. There was a main street stretching 300 yards (three city blocks), with 75 stores and buildings and a residential neighborhood.
• Remember the scene where George discovers the $8,000 is missing and he's gone to Martini's, where he begins to pray? In that scene, Jimmy Stewart unexpectedly started crying. But surprised director Frank Capra didn't get a close-up of the tears. He asked Stewart if he thought he could do it again, but Stewart didn't think so because it had been so spontaneous. Rather than make Stewart try it, Capra stayed up all night painstakingly enlarging every frame for 200 feet of film so he could get his close-up of Stewart crying.
• When the film was first released, many people thought the gym floor over the swimming pool had been especially constructed for the Charleston dance scene. In fact, it was filmed at Beverly Hills High School's Swim-Gym, built in 1939 as a federal public works project. The Swim-Gym remains in use today for physical education swimming classes and as the home court for the school's basketball, swimming, volleyball and water polo teams.
• While many people consider the movie a classic, it is not without its faults. You see, there's a scene that doesn't quite add up. When George rushes into the Building and Loan to answer a phone call from brother Harry Bailey, he tosses a Christmas wreath onto a chair. But look closely at the very next scene. He's got a wreath hanging on the crook of his elbow -- even though he didn't go back and pick it up. A classic film flub.
• Lionel Barrymore wasn't riding around in that wheelchair just for the sake of his character. Because of two falls and arthritis, he had been acting from a wheelchair since 1938.
• Stewart and Capra met in 1938 when Capra sought him out for the comedy You Can't Take It with You. The next year they made the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It was Capra who went to Stewart to tell him the story that would become It's a Wonderful Life. Stewart recalled that Capra stopped telling the story before he was through and said, "This ... this story doesn't tell very well, does it?" To which Stewart replied: "Frank, if you want to do a movie about me committing suicide with an angel with no wings named Clarence, I'm your man."
• For both Stewart and Capra, this was their first movie after returning from service in World War II. Understandably, Stewart was worried about his first post-war screen kiss, which takes place during a three-way phone call between George, Mary and Sam. Although the scene was eventually filmed in one long take, Stewart was so flustered over the kiss that he skipped an entire page of dialogue during filming.
• Right before the Buffalo Gals scene, George and Mary had been dancing the Charleston when the gym floor began to part and they fell into the pool below. But who played dirty pool? None other than Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, one of the original Little Rascals.
• The movie originated when director Frank Capra, having returned to Hollywood after coordinating the Why We Fight series during World War II, was handed a short story called The Greatest Gift. Writer Philip Van Doren Stern had sent the story as a Christmas card to his friends. Capra, who called it "the story I've been looking for all my life," changed the name, and filming began in the spring of 1946.