In 1944, fiction writer Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a short story which he had privately printed in a tiny hardcover booklet. Calling his story, The Greatest Gift, Stern mailed it off to family and friends as a combination Christmas card and gift. One went to his agent who was so touched by the story that she submitted it to various Hollywood studios as the basis for a film. After several months of negotiation, Charles Koerner, head of production at RKO Radio Pictures purchased the story for $50,000. Astonished at the sale price, author Stern later confided in friends, “I thought the studios were crazy for buying it!”
In spite of the author’s skepticism that his simple, short story could be transformed into a full length feature film, Koerner turned the book over to studio writers instructing them to make a screenplay of the story. After spending additional thousands of dollars, none of their attempts satisfied Koerner so he turned to a recently released World War II army officer, Frank Capra, asking him to read the story and offer his opinion.
Prior to the outbreak of war, Capra had already established himself as a popular film director during the 1930s with a series of film comedies such as “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” (1936), “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938), “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” (1939). When the United States entered the war, Capra enlisted in the Army. Wisely the military placed him in charge of the U.S. government’s war documentary series “Why We Fight” (1942-1945).
Although Capra returned to Hollywood from his service in the Army as a retired Colonel who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, he was most anxious to resume his career as a film director. Thus, he eagerly welcomed the opportunity to review Stern’s story. After a careful reading, Capra saw the potential in the story and agreed to take on the project. As a practicing Catholic, he recognized that Stern’s piece would allow him to tap into the Catholic symbolism and imagery so familiar to him. Thus, working with other writers and adding some scenes of his own, Capra created a new title for the film — “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Today, more than five decades after it’s release in 1946, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” continues to touch audiences turning sober-faced adults into tear-sodden wrecks. You don’t have to be a film critic to understand and appreciate the film. When Stern wrote the original story, America was just emerging from the pain of the great depression only to be thrust into a world war. Those great cataclysmic powers striking at the country left many Americans fearful and uncertain about the future. Stern’s story is classic Americanism in which fatherhood is honored, small town values celebrated, greed thwarted, God’s existence validated, a suicide averted and a world war won.
The plot is simple and easy to follow. “It’s A Wonderful Life,” tells the tale of an uncommon common man, George Bailey, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. Forced to give up his ambitions to travel by the necessity of taking over the family business — a building and loan association — he remains at home while his younger brother goes off to war and returns a hero.
The business, which Bailey remains home to run, is itself threatened by a cruel and unscrupulous competitor. Completely depressed and in utter despair, George contemplates suicide but is saved by a guardian angel who responds to George’s cry, “I wish I had never been born,” by showing him how his community and loved ones would have fared if he had not existed. Those images powerfully convince George it is better to have lived. The angel reminds him, “You’ve had a wonderful life.” When George returns home on Christmas Eve he finds that the people in his community have chipped in to save the business.
Although the film continues to attract a new generation of viewers and has become a holiday classic with millions viewing it annually every December, most people are surprised to know that in 1946, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” was a financial failure. In spite of receiving five Academy Award nominations (but no Oscar) and gaining generally favorable reviews, the film lost $525,000, an enormous sum in 1946.
Some believe that America’s postwar atmosphere was not conducive to Capra’s unique blend of triumph over tragedy and goodness conquering greed. Yet, it is a movie with a message which has evolved over the years winning the loyalty of viewers young and old, male and female. And, it is not only favored by fans. Frank Capra declared it to be his personal favorite from among all the films he directed. Jimmy Stewart cites it as his favorite as well.
Rules for Selecting a Story
A major part of the film’s success is the director himself. Capra had a finely tuned sense for themes which would appeal to viewers. He once outlined rules “that I abide by religiously in selecting a story. My first rule is that it must have charm. If a tale leaves you with a glow of satisfaction, it has the quality I seek. Second, it must have interesting characters that do the things human beings do — or would like to do if they had the courage and opportunity. My third and last requisite is that the members of the cast must, in real life, be the nearest thing possible to the characters they are to portray so that their performance will require the least acting.”
Capra’s third rule led him directly to Jimmy Stewart for the lead role of George Bailey. Like Capra, Stewart interrupted his Hollywood career to serve in the Army. Like Capra, Stewart returned home, a decorated war hero, anxious to resume acting. As an unemployed actor, Stewart was thrilled to hear from Capra, not because he felt the movie would necessarily become a box office success but because Stewart desperately needed the work:
“I remember when he called me about the story of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ We had both been out of the service for several months, and I had no offers to play in pictures of any kind, but Frank called me and said he had an idea for a picture, and I went over to his house. He started a rather rambling story about a guardian angel and a man about to commit suicide and wishing he had never been born, and it was all rather confusing. However, I frankly didn’t ask many questions and simply said that I would like, with all my heart, to play the part of George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”
Spontaneous Changes on Set
During the filming, Capra didn’t just shoot what was on paper; he continued to create on the set. One such spontaneous change resulted in the humorous Charleston dance contest. That sequence was shot at Beverly Hills High School. When a crew member mentioned that the dance floor was movable and that underneath it was a swimming pool, Capra said: “I’ve got to use it.” So, the script was altered to include one of George’s rivals at the dance pulling a switch which moves the floor apart.
As George and Mary frantically dance, they are unaware that they are backing off the dance floor and toward a pool. The scene ends with the duo tumbling down into the water followed by nearly everyone present, including the principal.
While the film’s appeal grows steadily, some criticism comes from members of the psychiatric community. An article in the American Journal of Psychoanalysis recently declared that Stewart portrays Bailey as a “supremely divided neurotic” plagued by “incompatible longings.” Also, Freudian theorists are critical over George’s relationship with his father, from whom he uneasily inherits the job of running the building and loan association. “George had a particularly bad case of ‘conflicted identification with the father,’” says New York City psychiatrist Harvey Greenberg, M.D. And, family therapists worry that George is simply an “enabler” and “co-dependent” who covers up for his Uncle Billy’s alcoholism. “He didn’t see that Uncle Billy’s drinking impinged on other people. That’s when acceptance isn’t healthy,” observes California psychologist, Lillie Friedland.
In spite of such modern criticism, most viewers would agree with Julian Myers, a former story analyst at Columbia Pictures who recommended Stern’s story to his employers only to have them turn it down. Myers says: “Let psychologists and others analyze this property. It was written during the pain and depression of early World War II. I believe Stern created all the characters and situations only to provide the setting for his theme: ‘Don’t despair. Your life has value. You have made the world better.’ That was his Christmas message. May we all be motivated by it.”
A True Holiday Film Classic
Regardless of debate among psychologists, the fact is that “It’s a Wonderful Life,” has become a true holiday film classic. Many fans make it a yearly practice to view the film on Christmas Eve just as Frank Capra did until his death in 1991. Interestingly, the characters Bert and Ernie, on the popular children’s television program, “Sesame Street” were named after Bert the cop and Ernie the taxi driver in the film.
In many ways, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a national treasure. Through it, Capra portrayed good versus evil, made a hero out of an obscure person, and reminded all viewers that the virtues of small-town America can overcome the greed and power of the wealthy. Frank Capra succeeded in creating a movie which inspires viewers to live with love and hope and to value their lives by knowing that one person can indeed make the world a kinder, gentler place.
Rev. Parachin, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), writes from Tulsa, Okla.