It's a Wonderful Life
Directed by Frank Capra
Release Date: Tuesday, January 07, 1947
Director: Frank Capra
Producer(s): Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
By Nell Minow
When people tell me about their favorite movies, one title is mentioned more often than any other – “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Director Frank Capra was known for “Capra-corn,” warm-hearted films that paid tribute to the common people. James Stewart was one of his favorite leading men. Their films together included “You Can’t Take it With You,” the Oscar-winner for Best Picture in 1939, followed by “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1939. Then both men went to war.
After World War II ended, Capra and Stewart wanted to return to work in Hollywood, but both were determined to make a film that made a meaningful statement in the context of a world redefining itself for peacetime. Capra found their next film in a Christmas card. A man named Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a story called “The Greatest Gift,” about a despondent man who had a chance to see what his community would have been like if he had never been born, and sent it to his friends as a holiday greeting in 1943. Capra wanted to make it into a film.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Stern’s daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson, about her father and the story that inspired “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“My father started writing it much earlier, in the late 30’s. What inspired him to write the story was that the whole thing came to him in a dream that he remembered and wrote down. He tried writing it over the years and was not happy. He tried it several times. Then he finally wrote it and his agent tried to sell it to magazines and nobody would take it,” she told me. “It was a complete departure. It’s the only one he ever did like this. He was mostly known as a Civil War historian, but he had very wide interests. He wrote books on pre-history and prehistoric art, he wrote The Annotated Walden, books on cars, all kinds of things. He edited a lot of books and wrote various thoughtful introductions. He was fond of Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, and [essayist] Thomas De Quincey. He had a very large library and read many different authors. He was very widely read.”
Dr. Robinson talked to me about her father’s breadth of interests. “An interviewer asked him what he was interested in and he said, ‘I’m interested in knowledge!’” Perhaps it was Stern’s study of the impact that individuals had on history that led to the dream that became the story. “He had a very open sense of how to look at all sides. Although he was a very staunch Union supporter he nevertheless wrote books where he looked very carefully at both sides of everything and all aspects of everything. He wrote many books about the Union side, but he also wrote The Secret Missions of the Civil War, Soldier Life in the Union and Confederate Armies, a book on Robert E. Lee, and a book on the Confederate Navy – he wanted to see all sides of the picture.”
She told me how touched she was by the film and its impact. “It was meaningful to all those who made it. And I’ve had so many people tell me it’s their favorite movie. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they do, age, race, income, religion, nationality, politics, all kinds of people want to talk about how much they love it and how much it means to them. Two people, neither of whom I knew very well, came up to me and said, ‘You can’t imagine how significant this movie is to me, because I was about to commit suicide and then I saw it, and I didn’t.’” In her afterward to the book, The Greatest Gift, Dr. Robinson writes about three themes in the film that continue to be especially important today. One is the issue of “financial inclusion.” Another is “the awesome power of apparent insignificance.” “The business about the insignificance is very important. George wished he had never been born. It was only after he learned for himself what the world would have been like without him that he begs to be returned to his life. Clarence, his guardian angel, then grants George's wish,” she said. The third relates to David Brooks’ article, “Social Animal.” She explained that the article raises the question “about which is better, to have freedom and adventure or roots and connections. [Brooks] comes down strongly on the side of roots and connections, which is certainly related to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”
I asked her if she had a favorite scene and she responded, “It’s all my favorite!”