‘It’s a Wonderful Life’: Behind-the-Scenes Facts About the Star-Studded Cast

Coming off the Christmas season, many of us have watched and rewatched the 1946 Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life several times. Directed by Frank Capra, the filmmaker behind such classics Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life stars James (also known as Jimmy) Stewart as George Bailey and Donna Reed as Mary Bailey. We put together some of our favorite tidbits about the old Hollywood stars that appear in the holiday season favorite.

It's a Wonderful Life poster
The poster for the 1946 Frank Capra movie It’s a Wonderful Life | Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Stewart had to be persuaded to be in the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Even though Stewart seems like a perfect fit for the role of George Bailey, Lionel Barrymore (the actor who played Mr. Potter) had to persuade the Capra-film star to accept the role in It’s a Wonderful Life. As Stewart had just returned from World War II, he did not feel up to taking on the challenge. It’s a good thing Barrymore was there to convince him otherwise; not only would the film not be the same without that aw-shucks, every-man, Jimmy-Stewart quality, Stewart has also stated that George Bailey is his favorite of all of the characters he’s played.

Frank Capra cast ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ based on experience – in more ways than one

H.B. Warner, the actor who played the pharmacist, Mr. Gower, was not cast for his acting alone. Warner had in fact studied medicine before deciding to pursue acting—and Capra stated this helped Warner get the role.

Mr. Gower
H.B. Warner as Mr. Gower | CBS via Getty Images

Oh, and does the character’s name sound familiar to you at all? It will if you live in Los Angeles: Capra worked for Columbia Pictures, and its studio was located on Gower Street at the time. Columbia’s employees also frequented a drugstore on Gower. So, that’s how that name ended up in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Robert J. Anderson (childhood George Bailey) really put his blood, sweat, and tears into the role

According to iMDb, H.B. Warner was drunk in real life when they shot the scene where his character, Mr. Gower slaps little George (played by Robert J. Anderson) for not delivering the medication. Also, those slaps weren’t playacting; Warner really hit the boy and caused him to bleed. And you thought child actors in the 90s had it rough. However, Warner rushed to hug Anderson after Capra culled cut, and hugged the boy.

One of the quotes from the movie resonates with Stewart’s real life

Remember that line in It’s a Wonderful Life where George goes on and on about how he wants to go to a university so he can “learn how to build things?” Stewart was the perfect actor to play this sentiment in a real and grounded way. In real life, the actor attended Princeton University, where he majored in architecture.

It's a Wonderful Life
James Stewart, Donna Reed, Larry Simms, Jimmy Hawkins, and Carol Coombs in It’s a Wonderful Life | RKO Pictures/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Unlike Capra’s other films, the director took a lot of the writing of It’s a Wonderful Life upon himself. In writing George Bailey’s character, he used American banking icon A.P. Giannini as a big influence. Giannini is known for inventing many forward-thinking (and currently-utilized) banking methods. For example, when Giannini began offering his services to the middle-class, (instead of just the elite), he was one of the first to do so. George Bailey has this looking-out-for-the-little-guy quality in spades.

Frank Capra wanted to cast Jean Arthur, who starred in his previous films

Donna Reed was not the director’s first choice to play George Bailey’s love interest, Mary. Capra wanted Jean Arthur, the actress who had appeared in his previous films Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take It with You, to appear alongside Stewart. Arthur turned down It’s a Wonderful Life, however, because she had already been cast in a play on Broadway.

Donna Reed was perfectly cast as Mary in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

It's A Wonderful Life portrait
James Stewart and Donna Reed pose for a publicity portrait for It’s A Wonderful Life | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Despite Capra’s original wishes, it seems like Stewart and Reed were born to play George and Mary Bailey. It’s a Wonderful Life is set in the small, fictional town of Bedford Falls. Both lead actors in the film grew up in small cities themselves. Reed is from a little town in Iowa called Denison, while Stewart hails from rural Pennsylvania. Barrymore, (a.k.a. Mr. Potter in the film) even challenged Reed to milk a cow on set. Reed, a country girl through and through, won that bet—and proved she was the perfect Mary Bailey.

Kissin’ in the movies – oh my!

The scene in which George and Mary kiss for the first time unnerved Stewart. It was the first time he kissed a woman onscreen after returning from World War II. However, Stewart nailed it in one take. The passionate embrace was so real (and passionate) that censors later cut part of it. Ah, the 40s!

It's A Wonderful Life still
James Stewart as George Bailey and Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Donna Reed can break her own windows, thank you very much

In the iconic scene of It’s a Wonderful Life where Mary and George walk home from the dance together, the two throw rocks through the windows of an old house and make wishes. Capra originally hired a marksman to shoot the window out (instead of making Donna Reed hit the window). But no marksman was needed; the cast and crew were amazed when Reed broke the window by throwing the rock herself. The Iowa girl had a trick up her sleeve (and a strong arm in that sleeve): Reed was a baseball player back in high school.