A Civil War Historian’s Christmas Fantasy

(December 6, 2017) One February night in 1938 Philip Van Doren Stern had a dream. Like most of us, his morning memories of it were vague and conflicting. But the 38-year-old Civil War historian also had an interest in fantasy and the macabre, to which the dream seemed somehow connected. The story had something to do with a man who had never been born, or wished he had never been born.

Stern decided to promptly write down his recollections. A narrative began to take shape, which with later revisions became a short story he titled The Greatest Gift. The finished tale leaves many of us with a renewed appreciation for everyday relationships that we have come to habitually take for granted.

Regrettably Stern failed to interest a publisher over the next four years. Consequently, toward the end of 1943 he printed two hundred copies at his expense and enclosed one in each Christmas card envelope he mailed that year. One recipient was a Hollywood agent who asked if she might show it to some studios. To Stern’s surprise RKO bought the film rights for $10,000 in the spring of 1944. By December, Good Housekeeping magazine finally published the story.

Hollywood screenwriters set to work on the manuscript until the essence of Stern’s fantasy shrank into the Third Act. Eventually it would pass through nine writers, including, Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Dorothy Parker and Frank Capra after Capra purchased RKO’s rights for $50,000.

The movie was finally released in 1946 but fell short of break-even on its first run. It rose to 26th place in 1947 box office receipts. Although nominated for five Oscars it failed to win any. Thereafter the rights passed through a series of owners, ending-up at Viacom.

During the 1980s local TV stations began to run it during the Christmas season. They exploited it as opportune low cost programming for time slots not allocated to the network shows. In 1984 an aged Frank Capra commented that the film’s rise in popularity “was the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.” He felt like “the parent of the kid who grows up to be President—but it’s the kid who did the work.” He never expected his kid to become “President.”

By 1998 the American Film Institute ranked It’s a Wonderful Life as the eleventh best movie of all time and rated George Bailey as the 9th most popular hero.

***

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