Frank Capra found the idea for his now-classic holiday film, It’s a Wonderful Life, in a story written by Philip Van Doren Stern. I discovered this past week while researching the film for another post that the author is a fellow Rutgers College alum. Philip Van Doren Stern, Class of 1924, was hit with the story’s premise in 1938.
The story came to him fully formed. A depressed man on the edge of suicide gets the chance to see how the world would be had he never been born.
It took him five years to get the story on paper in a form he liked. He was already an author and publishing executive but couldn’t find a publisher for the story.
He self-published it with the title “The Greatest Gift” and just sent it out to 200 people as a 1943 Christmas card. The card made it to an executive at RKO Radio Pictures. They bought the rights for $10,000 and planned to make a movie starring Cary Grant. That film never got made and the sorry sat on a shelf for a few years.
In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra wrote, “It was the story I had been looking for all my life! Small town. A man, a good man, ambitious. But so busy helping others, life seems to pass him by … Through the eyes of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he never been born. Wow! What an idea. The kind of an idea that when I get old and sick and scared and ready to die—they’ll still say, ‘He made The Greatest Gift.’ ”
Capra’s Liberty Films acquired the rights in 1945. The movie opened in December 1946 to mixed reviews but was nominated for five Academy Awards.