It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is a favorite Christmas film for many people. Some folks don’t like it, because they don’t like Scrooge stories in general. It’s a Wonderful Life been shown on TV so many times it doesn’t really need a review. But the film had its 70th anniversary in 2016, so I think it’s time for an annotation for younger viewers. So here’s my take on some of the sayings and culture in the movie that might need some explanation. It’s a Wonderful Life is based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by American author Philip Van Doren Stern. Bedford Falls may be based on Seneca Falls, NY (Rochester and Elmira are both mentioned in the movie). The sets were recycled from Cimarron (1931) town sets. Clarence the angel has been waiting over 200 years to get his wings. That means he would have died in the 1740s. He’s reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was published in 1876.
George Bailey was 12 in 1919. He catches a bad cold after saving his brother from the frozen pond. In the 1940s, people still believed you could catch a cold from getting chilled. The cold led to an ear infection that led to his loss of hearing. Later in the film, his daughter Zu Zu catches a cold from walking home from school with her coat unbuttoned. In the 1919 street scenes, cars are shown driving on the street. Henry Potter is still using a carriage pulled by horses. Ford began selling the Model T in 1908. The moving assembly line began assembling cars in 1913 and the Federal government passed acts for roads in 1916 and 1921. These developments led to the car being widely adopted in the US. George works for Mr. Gower the pharmacist. His store sells drugs, candy, tobacco, and has a soda fountain counter. The American Soda Fountain Company, founded in 1891, was a large manufacturer of the fountains. The fountain would dispense artificially carbonated water, or soda water, along with flavors. George’s job, making ice cream treats and sodas, was known as a soda jerk. https://www.ourstate.com/from-fountain-to-fore/
“A new magazine! I never saw it before. – Of course you never. Only us explorers can get it. I’ve been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society!” –Mary and George
National Geographic magazine began publishing articles with large photographs in 1905. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/national-geographic-society-founded
In It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Gower’s son dies of influenza while at college. The Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 – 1920 was one of the most famous and killed a huge number of young people. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journal-plague-year-180965222/
In his drunken grief, Mr. Gower makes the wrong capsules to send to a family with diphtheria. Diptheria vaccinations began in the 1920s.
The theater in town is called The Bijou. This was a common name for theaters in the 1900s. It means small and elegant or a jewel.
“Pop, can I have the car? I’ve got to take over a lot of plates and things. –What plates? –Well mom I’m chairman of the eats committee. We only need a couple of dozen! –Oh no you don’t Harry, now not my best Haviland!” –Harry and Mrs. Bailey
Haviland was china produced in Limoges, France for American jewelry stores, popular from the 1860s through 1950s. I have a luncheon set of Haviland that was sold by an old Pittsburgh jewelry store. http://www.havilandcollectors.com/main/index.html Harry is graduating from high school, it’s 1928. George has stayed home to work for four years and he is planning to go off to college. The boy trying to dance with Mary and who opens the pool floor is the original Alfalfa from the Our Gang comedies, Carl Switzer (his photo is also in White Christmas as the Haynes sisters’ brother.) https://www.metv.com/lists/13-things-you-never-knew-about-the-little-rascals George and Mary enter the Charleston contest with a chance to win a loving cup. The Charleston is named for Charleston, SC and became a nationwide phenomenon after it was presented in the 1923 Broadway play, Runnin’ Wild. A loving cup is a usually a large silver cup with two handles. It was used at weddings or other ceremonies to be passed around for everyone to take a drink. It used to be the preferred form for a trophy. https://www.streetswing.com/histmain/z3chrlst.htm The school dance was filmed at Beverly Hills High School which really has a pool under the gym floor.
Gin and champagne are mentioned in It’s a Wonderful Life between 1928 and 1932. Prohibition was from 1919 through 1933, so the characters must be getting alcohol from bootleggers.
“Buffalo gals can’t you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight / And dance by the light of the moon” –Mary and George
Buffalo Gals is a traditional folk song first published in 1844. Buffalo refers to Buffalo, NY. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2014/08/buffalo-gals/ The Bailey Building and Loan is like a savings and loan. Usually they are more focused on home mortgage loans and are “owned” by all the contributors or shareholders.
George and Uncle Billy wear black armbands 3 months after Peter Bailey dies. The armband signifies mourning, which was often observed for a year or more by close family members.
Mary plays Buffalo Gals on a record player. It’s a vinyl 78-rpm record. In those days there was just one song on each side of the record. In the honeymoon scene, she puts a spool on the record player to run her rotisserie chickens! http://web.library.yale.edu/cataloging/music/historyof78rpms
“Well look, I have a big deal coming up that’s going to make us all rich. George, do you remember that night in Martini’s Bar when you told me you read someplace about making plastics out of soybeans? … Well listen, Dad snapped up the idea and he’s going to build a factory outside of Rochester.” –Sam
Wainwright soybean plastic is a bioplastic. Henry Ford made a car from it in 1941. Sam Wainwright ends up making airplane parts with it during the war.
Sam tells Mary and George to put all their money into Wainwright stock and offers him a job. Today that would be called insider trading! Laws have been in place since 1934 making this type of transaction illegal.
After Mary and George get married, they stop in town because something is happening at the bank and the Bailey Building and Loan. During the Depression, banking panics would happen where people would get very nervous about the bank failing and they would all try to take their money out. These happened around the country several times between 1930 and 1933, when Roosevelt began new measures to guarantee deposits. It’s a Wonderful Life is the 6th Capra film featuring Jimmy the Raven. His first gig was in You Can’t Take it with You (1938). When Mary fixes up the old Granville mansion for the Bailey tropical honeymoon, the song playing is Song of the Islands. Here is Harry Owen’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHJLJxqhwOk
“Rent! You hear what he said Mr. Bailey? I own the house. Me, Giuseppi Martini, I own my own house. No more we live like pigs in this Potter’s Field!” –Martini
The poorer people in town rent houses from Mr. Potter. Potter’s Field was the term used for a graveyard for people who couldn’t afford a funeral.
“Like everybody else, on VE day he wept and prayed. On VJ day, he wept and prayed again.” –Joseph
VE Day, Victory in Europe day was May 8, 1945. VJ day, Victory in Japan day, was August 19, 1945. George Bailey would be about 38 years old. http://time.com/3517476/v-j-day-1945-a-nation-lets-loose/
Zu Zu’s name came from a popular Nabisco cookie, Zu Zu Ginger Snaps. Karolyn Grimes played Zu Zu and also the little girl in The Bishop’s Wife.
After the plunge in the river, George and Clarence dry off in the bridge tender’s office. The bridge tender is wearing a belt coin dispenser, probably for making change when drivers pay tolls to cross the bridge. He chews tobacco and has a brass spittoon.
Violet gets dragged out of a Dime a Dance hall by the police. Girls who sold tickets to dance with male customers were called taxi dancers. https://www.streetswing.com/histmain/z3taxi1.htm
The $8000 stolen by Mr. Potter would be worth over $100,000 in today’s dollars.
“Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings! Love, Clarence”
Some great actors in It’s a Wonderful Life
- Gloria Grahame (Violet) often played femme fatale types. Some of my favorites from her film career are Oklahoma!, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Bad and the Beautiful.
- Frank Faylen (Ernie) was one of my favorite actors when I was a child. He was the father on Dobie Gillis and appeared in other tv shows such as That Girl and Beverly Hillbillies.
- Lionel Barrymore (Henry Potter) was brother to John and Ethel Barrymore. He appeared in 222 movies starting in 1905. Some of his famous films are Grand Hotel, Sadie Thompson, and Key Largo.
- Ward Bond (Bert) had such a great face. He can be seen in The Maltese Falcon, Gentleman Jim, and the tv show Wagon Train.
- Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy) was a great character actor. He won an Academy Award for Stagecoach and appeared in many other movies including Gone with the Wind and Song of the Islands.
Resource links for It’s a Wonderful Life
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) from IMDb
- Zu Zu Ginger Snaps
- USA Network schedule
- The Greatest Gift
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You forgot to mention the connection between Bert and Ernie and Sesame Street! But great otherwise
Hey Nancy, The Sesame Street people have not confirmed the Bert and Ernie connection. But it’s fun to think that it is!
Interesting annotation! I am one of those who never cared for the movie, but it was fascinating to read your blog about it 🙂 It just ticks me off because of the injustice.
Hey Beth, Thanks for reading. Yes, it’s really unfair that Potter gets away with it.
You did such a wonderful (pun not intended) joy with bringing this post & this story to light. This is at the top of our Christmas movie list.
Hey Tracy, thanks for your sweet comment! I hope some of the history makes the movie even more enjoyable.
I love old movies and old cartoons. I use that same airplane factory picture in my Social Studies group each year. My students love seeing black & white pictures. I grew up with black and white pictures and remember when we saw pictures and TV in color!
Hey Cynthia, Isn’t that the best photo? I think old movies are a great way to start discussions about history and social studies!
So I hate black and white movies! I know, I know, the shame!! But after all these interesting facts I think I really need to check it out! You’ve officially peaked my interest!
Hey Amber, With It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s not hard to find the colorized version!
This is one of my all time favorite movies! You did a great job with this annotation. I learned some new things.
Oh, Debbie, thank you so much! It was a real labor of love. I hope the annotations help make the movie even more special to people!