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(Credit: RKO Radio Pictures)

Film

The dark truth behind a key scene in 'It's a Wonderful Life'

@Russellisation

Recognised as “the most inspirational film of all time” by the American Film Institute, It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly one of the finest Christmas movies of all time. Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and more, the classic festive favourite was made shortly after the war in 1946 at a time when standards on film sets were a lot more lenient than they are today, allowing for some rather heinous acts to take place. 

Inspiring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Akira Kurosawa and even David Lynch, director of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra was known for his commitment to the filmmaking craft. A prolific documentary maker throughout the wartime period, Capra returned to fictional filmmaking with his inspiring Christmas classic based loosely on Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, following a desperate businessman who is shown the light by a mysterious angel. 

Having helmed the likes of It Happened One Night with Clark Gable, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jean Arthur and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town all before the turn of the war, Capra became known as an icon of the film industry, able to draw in any burgeoning talent he wanted. Many of the actors in It’s a Wonderful Life, in fact, had already worked with the popular Capra, including James Stewart, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi and the influential H.B. Warner. 

It was H.B. Warner who would be well known for an infamous event on the set of the Christmas classic, playing a dishevelled pharmacist named Mr. Gower who torments a young version of the protagonist, George Bailey, played by Bob Anderson. Distraught over a family tragedy, the man rules over the shop as if a terrifying spectre, with the young Anderson recalling that Warner’s method acting meant that he got a little too into the role. 

Allowing the actor to drink on set, Capra wanted to help Warner create a convincing performance as the devastated shop owner, who, at one point, loses his temper with the young actor Bob Anderson. As Anderson told the LA Times, “We rehearsed, and as the day progressed, the louder and more demanding H.B. got. We’d rest for a little while; I’d go back to school. They’d bring me back out, and we’d spar a little more”. 

Defying the modern standards of on-set wellbeing, Anderson added: “He actually bloodied my ear,” noting that he felt Frank Capra forced the scene on him as a way of him “getting it to the Academy Award point”.

As the actor also disturbingly reveals, “My ear was beat up and my face was red and I was in tears. I knew when I went through the door of that drugstore to go behind those pillboxes, I was gonna get knocked on my butt, and it was an emotional high”. 

As just a young child when the scene was filmed, the whole affair puts a damning note on the otherwise classic Christmas film. Despite this, Anderson also recalls that H.B. Warner was also a warming individual, concluding by explaining, “At the end when it was all over, he was very lovable. He grabbed me and hugged me, and he meant it”. 

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