We have three men to thank for the classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
- Philip Van Doren Stern, author of the short story that inspired the movie;
- Frank Capra, the immigrant who produced the film;
- Jimmy Steward, aka George Bailey.
Prior to the release of this perennial favorite, none of them were having a wonderful life.
The 1930s and 1940s, the decades in which the short story and the movie first appeared in public, were challenging for most Americans. Barely a decade after the Great Depression that left millions desperate, the second world war erupted in Europe, eventually drawing in the USA. It was not a wonderful life for families who lost sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers in the war. It wasn’t a wonderful life at home either as people made sacrifices large and small to support the war effort.
As we approach the end to the drama and trauma of 2020, it may help boost this year’s sagging morale to take a peak behind “It’s A Wonderful Life,” starting with the short story that launched one of my favorite Christmas season flicks.
Philip Van Doren Stern
This beloved film is based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1939 short story, “The Greatest Gift.” He was already a well established author and editor when a dream inspirited him to write the 4,000 word short story. When he failed to find anyone willing to publish it, he ran off 200 copies and sent them out as Christmas cards in 1943.
Stern wanted readers to see the value of each person’s life, especially in the midst of challenge, conflicts, and crisis. What an appropriate message for 2020 – aka the Year of COVID-19. Reader’s Scope eventually published the story in 1944. That same year Good Housekeeping ran it as, “The Man Who Was Never Born.” Stern eventually published it as an illustrated book which is still available from Simon and Schuster as The Greatest Gift.
Sicilian immigrant Frank Capra bought the movie rights and convinced a reluctant Jimmy Steward to take the part of George Bailey. It’s hard to imagine a Christmas season without this movie, but if our broken immigration system had not granted Frank Capra’s family entrance into the United States, we would likely not have this classic treasure. Capra, born in 1897 in Sicily, immigrated with his family to New York in 1903. His family traveled by train from New York to California, where Frank’s older brother lived. Capra recalled that they ate only bread and bananas for the duration of the trip, because that was what they could order with their limited English.
When World War I broke out, Capra enlisted in the Army and became a naturalized citizen in 1920. Influenza sent him back to his brother’s California home to recuperate. While there, he answered a call for a movie extra, which began his film career. By the 1930s he was considered Hollywood’s most successful director, but in the years prior to that, he lived a rags to riches series of failures and successes.
He was frequently unemployed, writing short stories no one wanted to publish and tutoring the son of a wealthy gambler for a place to live. After several failed directing attempts, he was so desperate he became a hobo, riding the rails. After a decade of filmmaking ups and downs, he directed the 1931 melodrama America Madness, the precursor to the 1947 “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The American Film Institute put “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the top of their “100 Years . . . 100 Cheers” list, naming it the best film ever made.
Jimmy Steward – aka George Bailey
Jimmy Steward played George Bailey in his first movie after returning home from the war. He was suffering with what today we’d label as PTSD. Author Ned Forney wrote about how Steward’s war experiences shaped his role as the desperate George Bailey. Both the actor and the character struggled to overcome what appeared hopeless situations. As a pilot Steward felt enormous stress to prevent the death of his comrades. By the end of his service he suffered what then was called, “flak-happy,” that is shell shock, or battle fatigue.
Steward’s given hope to millions with his gentle spirit and compassionate words. The agonizing dilemmas confronting George Bailey were all too real to Steward. Those closest to the production of the movie observed Steward wasn’t acting as much as re-living the trauma he’d faced as a pilot in the war. Until Capra approached him to take the role of Bailey in the movie, Steward was considering giving up acting.
We’re nearly through with a year that I suspect all of us would like to forget though I doubt we’ll ever forget this one. We can find aspects of our lives that are wonderful, in spite of all the challenges and disappointments we’ve experienced. I am grateful for the perseverance and fortitude of three men who have gifted us a movie that offers hope and inspiration year after year. Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” is high on my list of ‘must watch’ holiday movies this year. How about you? It can still be a wonderful life when we find ways to help each other along the way to a new and hopefully much better next year.
I’m pleased to announce Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale or Two Cultures is now available in electronic and print form at these places:
Bookshop.org (Supporting local Indie Bookshops)
Audio book coming soon!