The Greatest Gift: The Original Story That Inspired the Christmas Classic It's a Wonderful Life (1943)
It was the story I had been looking for all my life!
A good man, ambitious. But so busy helping
I'm sure your family does it too, sit around watching It's a Wonderful Life and speaking all of the lines moments ahead of the characters. Younger folk may not recall that in the early 80's, before Republic Pictures reclaimed the copyright to the movie, it was on literally dozens of times from Thanksgiving to New Years every year. And we all watched it, every single showing. Somehow the upbeat message about the individual's capacity to change the world for the better achieved a special resonance in those heady Reagan Era days of promise. Now it's shown on a network just once a season as an attempt at Event programming, but every red blooded American family owns a videotape and pops it in at least a few times over the holidays.
Turns out, the movie was based on a story by respected Civil War historian, Philip Van Doren Stern (one assumes he's from The Van Doren family of Quiz Show fame). The story sprang full blown from Van Doren's head while he was shaving on the morning of Feb. 12, 1938. He rewrote it several times and then in 1943 sent it to his agent to see if he could get a magazine to buy it. Unbelievably, they all turned it down. So he had a couple hundred copies made and sent them to friends in their Christmas cards. Someone showed the story to Frank Capra when he was looking for a project after the War ended and, if the quote above is to be believed, he instantly realized that he had an American classic in his hands.
The story itself is much more spare than the movie. Characters like Uncle Billy, Violet Bick, Ernie and Bert and even Mr. Potter are all missing. But the essential tale, of George Pratt contemplating suicide and a guardian angel intervening to show him the effect he has had on the lives of others, remains. This is one of those rare instances where a movie actually improves upon the written version, but the story is still quite affecting and has obvious historical interest.
MOVIE GRADE: A+
-WIKIPEDIA: Philip Van Doren Stern
-ESSAY: Premiere of a Christmas Classic It’s a Wonderful Life had its first screening on 20 December 1946 (Mathew Lyons, 12 December 2022, History Today)
-REVIEW ESSAY: It’s a Wonderful Life: the perfect Christmas film?: The 1946 classic is a timely reminder that affection and loyalty can surface in the most difficult of circumstances (Alexander Larman, 12/21/20, The Critic)
-ESSAY:George Bailey’s America (JACK BUTLER, January 6, 2022, National Review)
-ESSAY: Is It Really A Wonderful Life?: George Bailey's Dark Side (Patrick J. Deneen, December 19, 1997, Commonweal)
-ESSAY: Christmas With Capra: Classic Films for Our Troubled Times (Louis Markos, December 14th, 2021, Imaginative Conservative)
-ESSAY: George Bailey Is A Localist Hero: Heroes aren't perfect, but they always save their towns—and, most importantly, the people who live in them. (Carmel Richardson, 12/24/21, American Conservative))
Book-related and General Links:
-OBIT: PHILIP VAN DOREN STERN DIES; A SPECIALIST ON CIVIL WAR ERA (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
-IAWL Bibliography (annotated bibliography of Frank Capra's masterpiece1946 film It's a Wonderful Life)
-ARTICLE: Christmas classic had an unpromising start (Bob Thomas, Associated Press Writer)
-BOOKS GO TO WAR: IX. COLLECTING ASE'S ARMED SERVICES EDITIONS
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd