Voted as the “most inspirational film of all time” by the American Film Institute, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of the holiday season, bringing together generations old and young to celebrate the joys of life’s small pleasures. Known as the quintessential Christmas movie, the story of the film’s humble origins help to establish its mythos even further, making it seem like a magical marriage of circumstance and ambition.
Released in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII, It’s a Wonderful Life is directed by Frank Capra, the same filmmaker behind the previous likes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It Happened One Night, and stars Capra’s longtime collaborator James Stewart. Though the script is credited to three screenwriters, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra himself, its beginnings went far back to 1938.
Philip Van Doren Stern was an American author, editor and civil war historian born in 1900, working as a member of the planning board during WWII where he helped resize popular books to fit into the pockets of military uniforms. Living out his life as a writer, he is most well known for an idea he conjured in 1938 called The Greatest Gift, a story conjured from a dream that mimicked Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that would forever change the world of cinema.
The 4000-word short story took four years to complete and in 1943 he set out to find a publisher for his story, though unfortunately found little success. After months of unsuccessfully trying to find a publisher, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to gift his short story to his friends and family, sending out 200 copies of the story printed on a 21-page Christmas card, a little like a wild, elaborate round-robin letter.
As his daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson remembered: “I was in the third grade and remember delivering a few of these cards to my teachers and my friends,” with her father desperate to find a publisher, or at least develop an interest in his magical short story. As Marguerite further recalls, “My father, who was himself from a mixed religious background, explained to me that while this story takes place at Christmas time, and that we were sending it as a Christmas card to our friends, it is a universal story for all people in all times”.
One of these letters ended up in the hands of David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, who bought the motion picture rights for $10,000 in 1944. Despite attempting to adapt the project, The Greatest Gift was later sold to Frank Capra’s production company, Liberty Films, where it was adapted into It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946.
Whilst many films start off as novels, TV shows or even poems, it is certainly rare for a film to be based on a Christmas card, albeit a long, sprawling and elaborate one. Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Karolyn Grimes, It’s a Wonderful Life remains a Christmas classic to this very day.