(PCM) Back in 1943, author Philip Van Doren Stern was unable to find a publisher for his short story “The Greatest Gift” and was about to give up hope of ever getting his work out to readers. In a last ditch effort he ended up printing 200 copies of the story and gave them out as Christmas presents to his family, friends and colleagues.
As luck would have it, Van Doren Stern’s short story would end up in the hands of a movie producer and he immediately purchased the film rights. The story came to the attention of RKO producer David Hempstead, who showed it to Cary Grant’s Hollywood agent, and in April 1944, RKO Pictures bought the rights to the story for $10,000, hoping to turn the story into a starring role for Grant. RKO created three unsatisfactory scripts before shelving the planned movie, and Grant went on to make another Christmas movie staple, “The Bishop’s Wife”.
At the suggestion of RKO studio chief Charles Koerner, Frank Capra read “The Greatest Gift” and immediately saw its potential. RKO, anxious to unload the project, in 1945 sold the rights to Capra’s production company, Liberty Films, which had a nine-film distribution agreement with RKO, for $10,000.
The story was eventually adapted to the film “It’s A Wonderful Life” which eventually became a traditional holiday classic, however when it was first released back in 1946 it did not perform all that well at the box office. It is now considered one of the most loved films in American cinema.
Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, “It’s a Wonderful Life” found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.
The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be if he had never been born.
Seneca Falls, New York claims that when Frank Capra visited their town in 1945, he was inspired to model Bedford Falls after it. The town has an annual “It’s a Wonderful Life festival”in December. In mid-2009, The Hotel Clarence opened in Seneca Falls, named for George Bailey’s guardian angel.
On December 10, 2010, the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum opened in Seneca Falls, with Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the movie, cutting the ribbon. Philip Van Doren Stern said in a 1946 interview, “Incidentally, the movie takes place in Westchester County. Actually, the town I had in mind was Califon, N.J. ” The historic iron bridge in Califon is similar to the bridge that George Bailey considered jumping from in the movie.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is considered one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made. It was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made.