Jimmy Stewart has a reputation as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood and 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life has become a timeless classic, rewatched every year. However, the shoot was fraught with tension and “insecurity” all the way from the director Frank Capra, down to the writers and the stars. When the film was released, Stewart was so angry and upset he never worked with Oscar-winning co-star Donna Reed ever again.
The film, is about a good but troubled man, George Bailey, who is contemplating taking his life when a trainee angel Clarence sets out to show him how much his life has helped others.
The shoot was equally troubled. Capra worked on the screenplay with writers like Frances Goodrich and her husband Albert Hackett but was very demanding and also went to other writers behind their backs. Goodrich called the director “that horrid man” while her husband referred to him as “a very arrogant son of a bi**h.”
Meanwhile, Stewart may have been perfect casting as George, but he was very unsure about returning to acting after a distinguished army career during World War II.
Mary Anne added: “So, there was this insecurity on the set and mum was really not that well known. I mean, she was only 25 and I think signed her MGM contract at 21.”
In fact, Reed had been a standard Hollywood contract player, appearing in countless minor roles after signing on in 1941. Her wholesome girl next door looks and personality had made her very popular with GI’s overseas during the war.
Stewart’s regular co-star Jean Arthur was first offered the role of Mary, but was battling health issues. The likes of Olivia de Havilland and Ginger Rogers were also considered. The latter turned the film down because she thought the role was “too bland.”
Eventually, Capra asked MGM to loan him Donna Reed, standard practice between studios in those days. The actress found herself on a set filled with tension, according to her daughter, and then was made to feel like a scapegoat when the film performed badly at the box office.
Despite it’s enduring popularity today, on release It’s A Wonderful Life only took $3.3million on a $3.2million budget. Hollywood films typically double their budget with production and marketing costs, so need to take twice their original budget to just break even.
Mary Anne said her mother “didn’t understand why there was so much insecurity and then Jimmy Stewart couldn’t understand why the movie didn’t do well, but that’s why they never did another movie together. He blamed her, because she wasn’t as well known.”
Reed would go on to win the Best Supporting actress for 1953’s From Here To Eternity and then achieve new levels of fame and acclaim starring in The Donna Reed Show from 1958.