A Wonderful Life?

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 Stewart, aka George Bailey.

Before 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, Europe’s Second World War erupted, 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.

Once again, we see conflicts all over the globe displacing millions, destroying cities and lives, and turning colleagues and neighbors into enemies. May we find encouragement from the story behind the ever-popular movie “It’s A Wonderful Life. 

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 inspired 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 challenges, conflicts, and crises. What an appropriate message for all of us today. 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.

Frank Capra

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 Stewart – aka George Bailey

Jimmy Stewart played George Bailey in his first movie after returning home from the war. He was suffering from what today we’d label as PTSD. Author Ned Forney wrote about how Stewart’s war experiences shaped his role as the desperate George Bailey. Both the actor and the character struggled to overcome what appeared to be hopeless situations. As a pilot, Stewart 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.

Stewart has given hope to millions with his gentle spirit and compassionate words. The agonizing dilemmas confronting George Bailey were all too real to Stewart. Those closest to the movie’s production observed that Stewart 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, Stewart was considering giving up acting.

Our Turn

We can easily identify events that are distressing, depressing, and desperate. Might we also identify aspects of our lives that are wonderful despite the challenges and disappointments? 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 each 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.

Thank you for taking the time to read about this classic Christmas movie. Share it with a friend or sign up for your own free subscription at HowWiseThen. I will not sell your information. SPECIAL DECEMBER SALE – BOTH MAYFLOWER HISTORICAL NOVELS FOR $35 OR EITHER ONE FOR $22. EMAIL kathrynhaueisen@gmail.com FOR DETAILS.

Mary Brewster’s Love Life and Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures: available wherever books are sold. Bookshop.org/Mayflower; Mary BrewsterAmazon.com/Mary Brewster’s Love Life
Autographed copies are available on my website.

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