From ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ to ‘Rudolph’: The Pennsylvania connections to the holiday classics you love

American actors James Stewart (1908 - 1997) as George Bailey, and Donna Reed (1921 - 1986) as Mary Hatch Bailey in a promotional still from 'It's A Wonderful Life', directed by Frank Capra, 1946. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

By The Keystone Staff

December 13, 2023

Did you know that some of the most classic Christmas movies have Pennsylvania connections? Read on to find out what they are.

Some of the most well-known Christmas movies of our time have connections to our great state.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Jack Frost” star famous Pennsylvanians Jimmy Stewart and Michael Keaton, respectively.

All of your favorite Rankin and Bass productions, like ”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” were made in part by a man who was born in Philadelphia (Jules Bass). “Die Hard” (yes, it’s a Christmas movie) and “Elf” were written by Pennsylvanians.

“Happiest Season” was filmed in Pittsburgh and Grove City, and “Trading Places” was filmed in Philadelphia. “Trapped in Paradise” is set in Paradise, Lancaster County, and a key scene in “Home Alone” is set in Scranton. 

It’s worth mentioning that the ultimate purveyor of basic cable holiday fare, the Hallmark Channel, has produced several Pennsylvania-set Christmas movies over the years, with a new one called “Miracle in Bethlehem, PA” set to debut on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries Dec. 21.

Let’s take a look at some of the Pennsylvania connections to these classic Christmas films.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, a 38-year-old man who has given up his dream of leaving his small hometown of Bedford Falls and traveling the world. Instead, he lives a traditional life in Bedford Falls, where he works at a bank, and has a wife and four children. Just days before Christmas, things go awry at work, and George decides he’s “worth more dead than alive” and attempts to kill himself. George’s guardian angel, Clarence, saves him and shows him what life would be like for others in Bedford Falls if George had never been born. Stewart, who was born and raised in Indiana, in western Pennsylvania, later said George Bailey was one of his favorite roles. The movie opened to mixed reviews 74 years ago, and didn’t make enough at the box office to break even on production costs. But now it airs on television every year and has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

All of Your Rankin & Bass Favorites (1960s, 1970s, 1980s)

For three decades, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass produced stop-motion films that have become many Americans’ favorites. Rankin, who lived in New York City his whole life, and Bass, who was born in Philadelphia, met in the Big Apple in the 1940s. They formed Rankin/Bass Productions and worked with Japanese animators to bring stories like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” and “The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus” to television. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has been telecast every year since Rankin and Bass produced it in 1964, which makes it the longest running Christmas TV special of all time, according to the Television Academy Foundation.

“Trading Places” (1983)

Eddie Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine, a homeless grifter, who switches places with snobby commodities trader Louis Winthorpe III, played by Dan Aykroyd. The switch is engineered by WASPy, racist commodities brokerage firm owners Randolph Duke (played by Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (played by Don Ameche); Randolph bets Mortimer that Valentine can be just as successful as Winthorpe with the right surroundings and encouragement, and Winthorpe would resort to robbing people if he lost his job, home, fiancée, and friends. The movie was filmed in various places in Philadelphia, including City Hall, 30th Street Station, Independence National Historical Park, Community College of Philadelphia, the Curtis Institute of Music, the Italian Market, Rittenhouse Square, and various private residences. Critics praised the movie, which has an 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It remains popular in the US and internationally (one Italian television station airs it every year on Christmas Eve).

“Die Hard” (1988)

One of the screenwriters of this popular Christmas movie, Steven E. de Souza, is from Philadelphia. De Souza, who is also credited with writing “48 Hours” and “The Running Man,” is one of the few screenwriters whose movies have earned more than $2 billion at the box office.A reader reminded us that the secondary villain in “Die Hard” (reporter Richard Thornburg) has a very similar name to the former governor of Pennsylvania, Dick Thornburgh), though we don’t know if de Souza and fellow screenwriter Jeb Stuart did that on purpose. Thornburgh, a Republican, was governor when filming started on “Die Hard,” so it’s possible.

“Home Alone” (1990)

Macaulay Culkin stars as Kevin McCallister (his most famous role), a little boy who is accidentally left at home alone when his family goes on a trip to Paris. He has a great time, ordering pizza and watching movies, until two burglars (played by Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci) attempt to break in. While Kevin is battling the burglars with booby trips, his mom (played by Catherine O’Hara) races home to Chicago from Paris via the Scranton airport (not the real AVP, mind you). When she’s unable to book a flight home she catches a ride with a polka band led by Gus Polinski (played by John Candy), and they drive across the state on their way to Chicago.

“Trapped in Paradise” (1994)

Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey, play brothers Bill, Dave, and Alvin Firpo. Around Christmastime, Dave and Alvin get paroled and released into Bill’s custody. They head to Paradise, Pa., to do a favor for a fellow inmate, and decide to rob the local bank when they see it’s light on security. The move was not filmed in Paradise, Lancaster County, but rather in Toronto and five other towns in Ontario, Canada.

“Jack Frost” (1998)

Michael Keaton (“Batman”) stars as Jack Frost, a musician who spends more time away from home than in it as he tries to make it big. He dies in a car crash a couple days before Christmas and comes back to life as a snowman a year later. In snowman form, Jack gets a second chance to spend time with his wife Gabby (played by Kelly Preston, “Twins,” “Jerry Maguire”) and his son Charlie. Keaton, who was born and raised in suburban Pittsburgh, said he signed on for the movie because he “thought it had a nice message,” and he had never been in a nice family holiday movie and thought it would be good to be in one.

“Elf” (2003)

Philadelphia native David Berenbaum wrote this family Christmas movie, which established “SNL” favorite Will Ferrell on the big screen and allowed actor Jon Favreau to flex his directorial chops. Berenbaum said in Netflix’s “The Holiday Movies That Made Us” docuseries that he loved watching Christmas movies as a Jewish kid in Philadelphia. When he moved to Los Angeles to try to start his screenwriting career, he said, he missed the seasons. “LA threw me for a loop. During Christmas time, it was just hot and weird,” he said. “So to make myself feel more like it was home, I would rent all these Christmas movies.” Rewatching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” inspired Berenbaum to write “Elf.”

“Happiest Season” (2020)

Kristen Stewart (“Panic Room,” “Twilight”) plays Abby, and Mackenzie Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire,” “Terminator: Dark Fate”) plays Abby’s girlfriend Harper. As they’re on their way to visit Harper’s family for Christmas, Harper tells Abby that her parents don’t know she’s a lesbian. Harper’s parents think Abby and Harper are just roommates, and Abby is coming home with Harper because she’s an orphan with nowhere else to go for the holidays. Mary Steenburgen (“Elf”) and Victor Garber play Harper’s parents. The movie is being touted as one of the first queer romantic holiday movies. It was filmed in Grove City and Pittsburgh.

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