This year, I’ve managed to see my favorite holiday film TWICE: Once, with live orchestra playing the score, courtesy of the amazing Mrs Heathen; and then again, at home on the couch, with the aforementioned Mrs Heathen. This is probably the optimum viewing frequency, and certainly exceeds the level of delight on offer in, say, 2014, when we watched it in the HOSPITAL with COMMERCIALS like ANIMALS.
Anyway, I yammer on about this film nearly every year here, so this time I thought I’d make it more interesting. How about TEN COOL THINGS about It’s A Wonderful Life?
1. Tabloid Fodder!
Let’s start with the somewhat seedy: Gloria Grahame, who plays the sultry Violet Bick in the film, was basically an early Hollywood plastic surgery casualty (it left her upper lip paralyzed), and to really put her on the tabloid map she also managed to make her third marriage spectacularly scandalous: it was to a man who had previously been her stepson.
2. Pharmacist Savior
Mr Gower the druggist — played by H. B. Warner (1875 – 1958) — appeared in a number of Capra joints, which is of course not surprising now. However, being in this particular film, or even Capra’s films generally, isn’t his main claim to film fame: he played Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The King of Kings in 1927.
3. Well, it was kind of rascally.
Mary’s annoying suitor in the high school dance scene — the fellow who ultimately opens the gym floor, sending the Charleston contest into the pool — was played by Carl Switzer, better known to you as Alfalfa on the Little Rascals. Mr Switzer, sadly, didn’t end well.
4. Hopefully, her life had flavor ’til the end.
The last surviving adult cast member, near as I can tell, was Argentina Brunetti, who played Mrs Martini. She was born in 1907, and passed away back in 2005.
5. (Some of the) Kids are Alright
That said, there ARE still several child actors from the film known to be alive, and a few with no clear answer on the subject. Three of the the Bailey’s kids are still with us.
Carol Coombs Miller (“Janie”, who played the piano) was born in 1935 and is enjoying retirement in California.
Jimmy Hawkins (“Tommy,” who burped) was born in 1941; he also worked with Donna Reed on her eponymous show years later.
Most famously, Karolyn “Zuzu” Grimes (b. 1940) still makes appearances in connection to the film.
Larry Simms, who played Pete, passed away in 2009 at the age of 75.
It’s not clear if the actors who played the young versions of George and his cronies are still around, but none turned out to be famous enough for this to be easily discoverable.
6. The bird’s on wikipedia.
I’ve always been fascinated with Uncle Billy’s pet raven, and it turns out the raven ITSELF was famous. Jimmy the Raven worked in hundreds of films!
7. Did you further know….
Remember the pool under the gym floor mentioned above? Yeah, it’s real — and it still exists. It’s at Beverly Hills High School.
8. There is, sadly, no Sesame Street connection
It’s often repeated as truth, but there’s nothing on record to suggest that Jim Henson deliberately named his iconic odd-couple Muppet roommates after the cop and the taxi driver. However, the filmmakers absolutely do lampshade this in a brief moment from Elmo Saves Christmas.
9. The Barrymore Family Tree has fewer steps than you might expect.
We all know about the Barrymores, and that Lionel Barrymore so completely embodies the mean old rich miser Mr Potter here, right? What I didn’t know, and was surprised to learn, is the actual relationship between Lionel and our generation’s Barrymore, Drew. Lionel (1878 – 1954) and his siblings — John (1882 – 1942) and Ethel (1879 – 1959) — were the children of original Barrymore patriarch Maurice. John had a son (also John) in 1932, when he was 50. The younger John gave birth to his famous daughter in 1975, when he was already 42, which is one way to really stretch out those generations. This makes Lionel Drew’s great-uncle, which is WAY closer than I would’ve assumed before hitting Wikipedia.
10. Get me. I’m handin’ out wings!
Finally, my favorite bit of trivia about IAWL is this: Mr Martini’s head bartender Nick — who actually owns the bar in the darker, no-George-Bailey timeline — was played by a character actor named Sheldon Leonard. Leonard had plenty of work as an actor, but he really became far more influential as a producer of early TV shows, including The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy, and others.
In fitting tribute, he’s memorialized in every episode of one of today’s most successful sitcoms. Houston native Jim Parsons plays Sheldon Cooper, and Johnny Galecki plays Leonard Hofstadter.