Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! (Zephaniah 3:14-20)
The ancient people of Israel were living in exile, under the rule of foreign rulers, when the prophet Zephaniah spoke these words of encouragement to people who weren’t in a singing mood.
George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” knew what that was like. He was at the end of his rope. Singing was the last thing on his mind. By the end of the movie his hopes are restored. The words of the film title ring true for him.
The popular film is based on a short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1939 as “The Greatest Gift.” Stern graduated from Rutgers in 1924 and began a career in advertising. He then switched to publishing, becoming best known for his authoritative books about the Civil War.
He was already a well established author and editor when a dream inspirited him to write the 4,000 word short story in 1939. When he failed to find a publisher for it he ran off 200 copies and sent them out as Christmas cards in 1943.
Stern’s persistence paid off. His story was published in 1944 in Reader’s Scope magazine. It also appeared as “The Man Who Was Never Born” in Good Housekeeping that same year. It was then released as a book with illustrations and is still available from Simon and Schuster.
The first motion picture rights to the story were bought by RKO, with Cary Grant slated to play George. That plan didn’t work out. Frank Capra bought the rights and Jimmy Steward reluctantly agreed to play the part of George.
Life was full of challenges in the 30’s and 40’s when Stern planted the seeds for the film “It’s Wonderful Life” with his short story about the value of each person’s life in the midst of challenge, conflict, and crisis. It’s a message we still need to hear.