While shaving on the morning of February 28, 1938, a man named Philip got an idea for a short story. The whole thing came to him at once, from beginning to end. It was about the averted suicide of a desperate man named George, who, with a little help from a heavenly friend, finds out what would have happened had he not been born. Excited, Phil hocked his little fable to editors everywhere.
No one wanted it.
But Philip Van Doren Stern never gave up. He printed 200 copies of his 24-page mini-epic and gave them as Christmas gifts to friends, including his Hollywood agent, in 1943. In the parlance of Facebook, this is when it got “liked.” Big-time.
A producer at RKO Studios thought Cary Grant might be a good fit for the role of the suicide wannabe. Mr. Grant begged to differ. Three different scripts were churned out, but none captured the charming spirit of Stern’s original. On September 1, 1945, RKO head Charles Koerner off-loaded all three scripts, plus Stern’s original pamphlet, for the lowly sum of $10,000 to a successful director who had recently returned from a four-year stint serving in World War II, when he had made pro-American documentaries to boost morale for the U.S. war effort.
His name was Frank Capra.
Colonel Capra had just formed an independent production company called Liberty Films, and he brought in new writers (Michael Wilson, Dorothy Parker, Jo Swerling, and husband-and-wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) to adapt Mr. Stern’s Christmas story, which he renamed It’s a Wonderful Life.
Another returning veteran by the name of James Stewart, whom Capra had cast in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
and You Can’t Take It With You,
was tentatively climbing his way back up the Hollywood caste system. Both Stewart and Capra hitched their fortunes to the tragicomic tale of George Bailey, an all-American Bob Cratchit. It was Liberty’s first production.
It’s a Wonderful Life opened two weeks before Christmas, in 1946. In spite of an aggressive marketing campaign, Capra’s labor of love earned mostly so-so reviews and proved itself a dud for investors. Liberty Films produced only one other film, Capra’s State of the Union, in 1948, before shuttering its doors. Postwar America had changed. Moviegoers thought they were paying for a light romantic comedy, not a Dante-esque vision of drunkenness, despair, and suicide. Nominated for five Oscars, it came home with none. The British press savaged it. Frank Capra might well wish that his creation had never been born.
So how did a movie that stumbled so badly out of the gate end up a champion?
There are many explanations. Two things happened that Capra took as signs his film had accomplished what he dreamed for it. First, the personal, often emotional, fan letters started rolling in. Less than a year after the film’s anti-climactic debut, the warden of San Quentin prison mailed him a bag stuffed with more than 1,500 letters scrawled by inmates; the letters told of the film’s impact on them. For decades to come, the letters kept arriving, and Capra personally answered every one of them. He knew that his movie had reached “his people.”
The second thing that gave his movie a wonderful life was network television. A 1974 clerical error put it into public domain, and the rest is symphony. To this day, with each successive Christmas season, its fan base grows as parents introduce their kids to the film that has become a holiday-season institution. The American Film Institute ranks It’s a Wonderful Life number one in the category of “America’s Most Inspiring Movies” and number nine in the list of the best American films of all time, where it easily beats such mega-hits as Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., and The Godfather II.