“I’m stuck here in this mudhole for life, doing the same dull work day after day…I never did anything really useful or interesting, and it looks as if I never will. I might just as well be dead.
George Pratt in The Greatest Gift
“Even the smallest voice can be heard by millions.”
Before It’s a Wonderful Life became the much loved film It’s a Wonderful Life it was a humble short story that couldn’t find a publisher. Since Philip Van Doren Stern couldn’t get his 4,000 word story titled The Greatest Gift published by traditional means he printed 200 copies on his own and sent them as Christmas cards in 1943. Good Housekeeping magazine published the story in 1944 under the title The Man Who Was Never Born.
Frank Capra somehow got a copy of the story and allegedly said something in line with having waited all his life to find The Greatest Gift. It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946 with Capra directing James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore in the lead roles. The film received five Oscar-nominations a eventually became a Christmas standard. It’s number 20 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies.
The opening hook of the short story of a man contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve fits well one of my favorite writing quotes:
“I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.”
Stern was born in 1900 in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania which even today has less than a 1,000 residents. According to Wikipedia he was raised in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University. When he died in 1984 the NY Times wrote, “During his career as an editor, he worked for Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf.” He also wrote more than 40 historical books including ”The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln” and ”Robert E. Lee: The Man and the Soldier.”
Though today Stern’s books are not widely remember—and perhaps even his name obscured by time—his little story that came to him in a dream has found quite a world wide audience. (According to an article by Daven Hiskey, in 1992 It’s a Wonderful Life was the first American program ever shown on Russian television. It was broadcast to 200 million viewers.)
“It is a story about depression and disillusionment, alcoholism and attempted suicide. And yet for all that, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has just been voted the most inspirational film ever made.”
2006 article in The Guardian
Stern’s daughter Dr. Marguerite Stern Robinson said one of the themes of the story is “the awesome power of apparent insignificance.” In one limited edition of the book Robinson wrote in the forward, “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.”
P.S. It should be pointed that Donna Reed, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, showed Lionel Barrymore how to milk a cow on the set of It’s a Wonderful Life.
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Screenwriting Quote #182 (Richard Krevolin) “All characters are wounded souls…”
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