When Philip Van Doren Stern passed away in 1984, his New York Times obituary eulogized him as “a historian, novelist and editor who was widely respected by scholars for his authoritative books on the Civil War era.”
But while Stern authored a number of historical titles – including “They Were There: The Civil War in Action as Seen by Its Combat Artists,” “Secret Missions of the Civil War,” and “An End to Valor: The Last Days of the Civil War” – his most notable work was a short story that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Civil War.
It was titled “The Greatest Gift.” And its plot came to Stern in a dream, he said.
The short story takes place on Christmas Eve. It’s main character is a man named George Pratt who feels he has little show for his life; who is so overcome with despair he thinks his life no longer worth living.
As George stands on a bridge, seriously considering jumping to his death, a stranger happens by. He strikes up a conversation with George, who confides that he wishes he had never been born.
The kindly stranger tells George his wish has been granted. He was never born. Understandably skeptical, George returns to town. When he arrives, he finds that things have changed.
No one knows him. His friends are wayward. And his family is the worse off because George played no part in their lives.
His younger brother Harry tragically died in an ice-skating accident because George wasn’t there to save him. His wife Mary settled for a husband with whom she did not have the happiness she had with George.
So George returns to the bridge where he finds the stranger who granted his wish. The stranger tells George that he had been given the greatest gift – the gift of life – but took it for granted. Chastened, George begs the stranger to return him to his life.
The kindly stranger agrees and George returns home to find things back to formal. He realizes he has much to show for his life; that it has been well worth living.
Though Stern was a published author, he found no takers for his short story. So he published it himself as a 21-page booklet, which he sent to friends as a Christmas present.
Stern’s short story eventually came to the attention of RKO Pictures, which purchased the movie rights. RKO subsequently sold the rights to Liberty Films, Frank Capra’s production company.
Capra renamed the screenplay for Stern’s short story “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The main character was renamed George Bailey. And the unnamed stranger on the bridge became an angel named Clarence.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” premiered 70 years ago this month, with James Stewart playing the starring role. Seven decades later, the American Film Institute not only includes the beloved Christmas classic on its list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time, it also ranks “It’s a Wonderful Life” the most inspirational American film ever made.
Capra never imagined his film would become the Christmas staple it is today. “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 1984. “I just like the story.”
The filmmaker did, however, have an ulterior motive in making “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as he acknowledged in a 1946 interview. It was “to combat a modern trend toward atheism.”
In a first-person account published in 1987 by Guideposts, Actor Jimmy Stewart said that out of some 80 films he made during his cinematic career “It’s a Wonderful Life” was his favorite. He also told the funny story of how Capra pitched the picture to him.
“What it boils down to,” Capra explained, “this fella who thinks he’s a failure in life jumps off a bridge. The Lord sends down an angel named Clarence, who hasn’t earned his wings yet, and Clarence jumps into the water to save the guy. But the angel can’t swim, so the guy has to save him, and then…”
Capra stopped, then said to Stewart, “This doesn’t tell very well, does it?”
And Stewart jump up, he recounted, and told Capra: “Frank, if you want to do a picture about a guy who jumps off a bridge and an angel named Clarence who hasn’t won his wings yet coming down to save him, well, I’m your man!”
It turned out to be a divine appointment. “Good as the script was,” said Steward, “there was something else about the movie that made it different.”
For instance, he said, there was the poignant scene at a little roadside restaurant where George Bailey is at the lowest point in his life. Capra was shooting a long shot of the actor slumped in despair.
Following the script, Stewart raises his eyes, as in agony, and pleads, “God… God…dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God…”
As the actor spoke those words, he testified, “I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears, I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all, but the power of prayer, the realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless, had reduced me to tears.”
There may be someone reading this message this Christmas who is in agony. Who is at the end of his or her rope. Who is wracked with feelings of loneliness or hopelessness. Who may even think life no longer worth living.
Let him or her look to our Father in heaven. He is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. He will make a way where there seems to be no way. And that is not just the stuff of movies. It’s the hope of those of us who believe in Him whom the Father sent to dwell among us – whose birth we celebrate today.