It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra’s examination of failure.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Donna Reed, James Stewart & Karolyn Grimes in It's a Wonderful Life.

We all know the story, for it has become a Christmas classic—etched into our collective memory. At its core, It’s a Wonderful Life is a parable of a good, honest man who, after years of struggling to do the right thing, questions his life and the choices he’s made. Teetering on the brink of despair, the protagonist, George Bailey, finally concludes that his life has been a failure. Surmising that it might have been better if he had never been born, he contemplates suicide, only to be rescued by an angel determined to get his wings.

While It’s a Wonderful Life is often referred to as a sentimental movie, the issues it presents—questioning what makes a man a failure or a success—are hardly lighthearted. Perhaps that accounts for the strong reactions it evokes. As the year ends, we tend to take stock of our own lives, questioning our worth and our place in a world that often doesn’t behave as we expect. Like George Bailey, things didn’t go as expected for It’s a Wonderful Life, the movie. But its story would have a happy ending too, emerging to become synonymous with Christmas and one of the most popular films of all time.

The Greatest Gift of All
The original screenplay for It’s a Wonderful Life grew out of a short story (“The Greatest Gift of All”), that, ironically, no one wanted. After it unsuccessfully made the rounds in publishing circles, author Philip Van Doren Stern distributed the twenty-four page pamphlet as a Christmas card. It finally fell into the hands of a Hollywood agent, and eventually made its way to Charles Koerner, the head of RKO Radio Pictures.

Koerner purchased the property as a potential movie vehicle for Cary Grant, but RKO and its writers were unable to translate the dark tale into a workable screenplay. After many fruitless attempts the script was finally shelved and deemed unusable.

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