It's a Wonderful Life: What happened to the cast after the 1946 Christmas movie?

15 December 2023, 13:28

It’s a Wonderful Life movie trailer

By Mayer Nissim

It's a Wonderful Life is one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time.

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Despite its incredibly bleak set-up, Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life has become one of the most beloved, uplifting Christmas movies of all time.

The movie is led by James Stewart in one of his most memorable roles, playing banker George Bailey who contemplates taking his own life on Christmas Eve as his world comes crashing around him, before the intervention of his guardian angel.

It seems impossible to consider now, but on its release the film was a commercial and – despite five Academy Award nods – received mixed reviews from the critics.

Its copyright lapsed in 1974, leading to Scrooge-like executives screened it because they didn't have to pay licensing or royalty payments.

James Stewart as George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life
James Stewart as George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. Picture: Getty Images

That helped the film become the classic we all know today, and it regularly and rightly tops best ever lists of Christmas films and movies full stop.

But what happened to the main cast of the movie after its release in 1946. We take a look.

James Stewart (George Bailey)

James Stewart
James Stewart. Picture: Getty Images

James Stewart won his third Best Actor nod at the Oscars for It's a Wonderful Life, but its poor commercial and critical performance had Stewart doubting his incredible acting ability.

He returned to both radio work and to Broadway, playing in Mary Coyle Chase's Harvey in July 1947, and also continued making movies veering from the hits (Call Northside 777, The Stratton Story) to misses (On Our Merry Way) and maybes (Alfred Hitchcock's Rope).

That pattern continued, and some of the highs were the best of his entire career. Hitchcock collaborations Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo were among his very best, as were Oscar-nominated performances in the movie version of Harvey and Anatomy of a Murder.

There were many Western hits (How the West Was Won and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and popular comedies, before effectively retiring at the start of the 1980s.

After suffering a fall in late 1995, he was later hospitalised in February 1997 for an irregular heartbeat. He contracted a thrombosis in his leg, leading to a pulmonary embolism He died of a heart attack on July 2, at the age of 89.

Donna Reed (Mary Hatch Bailey)

Donna Reed
Donna Reed. Picture: Getty Images

Donna Reed's biggest role after It's A Wonderful Life had to be her Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity in 1953, picking up the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Lorene.

Under the studio system she flitted between projects for MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros and Paramount, not quite getting the size of roles her talent deserved.

She juggled these parts with a bigger spot on television, heading up The Donna Reed Show from 1958 to 1966, playing the matriarch Donna Stone in the hit comedy.

Reed died at the age of 64 of pancreatic cancer on January 14, 1986, just three months after being diagnosed with the disease.

Lionel Barrymore (Henry Potter)

Lionel Barrymore
Lionel Barrymore. Picture: Getty Images

Few characters in movie history are as dastardly as robber baron Mr Potter, played to villainous perfection by Lionel Barrymore.

Lionel was not far off 70 when he played the role, but still did plenty of good work after It's A Wonderful Life, appearing opposite Clark Gable in Lone Star in 1952.

He had many other hats other than acting, and worked as a graphic artist and writer, penning the historical novel Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale in 1953.

Barrymore suffered a heart attack died on November 15, 1954, at the age of 76.

Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy)

Thomas Mitchell
Thomas Mitchell. Picture: Getty Images

It was poor Uncle Billy's mishap with the $8,000 of loan money that led to George's fall, and Thomas Mitchell did a fine job setting things in motion.

Prior to It's A Wonderful Life, Mitchell had earned two Oscar nods for Best Supporting Actor. He followed his nomination for The Hurricane in 1937 with a win for Stagecoach in 1939

After his turn as Uncle Billy he continued to act, and not just on the big screen.

He won three Emmy nods, picking up a win for Best Actor in a Drama for The Doctor in 1952. He also won a Tony for Hazel Flagg on stage in 1953, earning the Triple Crown of Acting.

The TV and movie credits continued over the next decade, and his final movie was a reunion with Frank Capra as Judge Henry G. Blake in Pocketful of Miracles.

Mitchell contracted cancer of the abdomen and died at the age of 70 on December 17, 1962 in Beverly Hills.

Henry Travers (Clarence Odbody)

Henry Travers
Henry Travers. Picture: Getty Images/Alamy

The quirky heart at the centre of It's A Wonderful Life is Clarence Odbody, the second-class angel in want of his wings.

Actor Henry Travers had previously earned an Oscar nod for Mrs Miniver in 1942, but only had a handful of other roles after his angelic turn before retirement.

They included roles in The Flame and Beyond Glory, with his final role coming in 1949 as Judge Bullfinch in The Girl From Jones Beach.

He died at the grand old age of 91 of arteriosclerosis on March, 5 1874.

Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey)

Beulah Bondi
Beulah Bondi. Picture: Alamy

Beulah Bondi has a long career before It's A Wonderful Life, starting off as a child star in the theatre and becoming established on Broadway.

She transitioned to film with great success, and struck up a fine working relationship with James Stewart. It's A Wonderful Life was the FOURTH time she'd played his mum on screen, in fact, following Of Human Hearts, Vivacious Lady and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

After playing Mrs. Bailey she continued to act on the big and small screen, as well as on stage.

She had TV roles on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Howard Richardson's Ark of Safety on the Goodyear Television Playhouse , a well as a guest role on Perry Mason in 1963.

To many, she'll be remembered as Martha Corinne Walton on The Waltons, for which she won an Emmy Award in 1976

She died from pulmonary complications after breaking her ribs following a fall at the age of 92 on January 11, 1981.