Happy holidays, dearest Germs! In honor of this joyous season, I thought I’d change up this month’s Old Hollywood Spotlight. Instead of focusing on a single actor or actress, I want to focus on a movie that embodies the spirit of Christmas. Not only is this film beloved all over the world, but some might even go so far as to say that Christmas just isn’t complete unless you watch this movie at least once every year. So, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you Old Hollywood Spotlight: It’s a Wonderful Life (1947).
Like many movies, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an original story thought up by some writer in Hollywood. Instead, It’s a Wonderful Life was adapted from the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. However, the process of turning the story into a movie was not an easy one. For starters, Van Doren Stern found himself with what seemed like an impossible task of trying to sell “The Greatest Gift.”
After sending it to countless magazines and receiving nothing but rejections, Van Doren Stern decided to take matters into his own hands by turning his short story into a “21-page Christmas card that he sent to 200 of his friends in 1943.” Yes, you read that correctly: a 21-page Christmas card. To say that Van Doren Stern was extremely dedicated in seeing his story succeed would be a severe understatement, but all his hard work paid off. Someone at RKO Pictures saw the card and immediately recognized the story’s potential as a movie. But it would be another three years before audiences would see It’s a Wonderful Life come to life on the silver screen.
Today, when audiences think of the movie’s iconic character, George Bailey, they can think of no other actor playing the part than Jimmy Stewart. But in truth, Stewart wasn’t the first choice to play George; under RKO’s direction, the production company wanted Cary Grant to star in the movie. Those plans were ultimately scrapped, and the rights to “The Greatest Gift” were once again for sale. In the end, it was Frank Capra’s production company that purchased the rights, and the famed director wasted no time in putting together his cast, approaching Jimmy Stewart with the chance to star in what would be Jimmy’s first movie in six years.
In 1945, Jimmy Stewart was just returning back from fighting in World War II, and he was hesitant to jump back into the movie business. But after he heard Capra’s pitch, Jimmy knew he had to be a part of the movie. In fact, he told Capra, “Frank, if you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?” Production on the movie soon began, with the majority of the filming done in the sweltering heat of July. With Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore also attached to the cast list, everyone anticipated the movie to be a blockbuster hit, especially Stewart, who wrote Van Doren Stern a letter expressing his delight at the story:
“More important than anything, thank you for giving us that idea, which I think is the best one anyone has had for a long time. It was an inspiration for everyone concerned with the picture to work in it, because everyone seemed to feel that the fundamental story was so sound and right, and that story was yours, and you should be justly proud of it.”
But audiences didn’t seem to appreciate It’s a Wonderful Life as much as everyone else did. The movie “placed 26th in box office sales for all films released in 1947,” netting a total profit of $3.3 million — almost half a million dollars less than the cost it took to film the movie. So how did It’s a Wonderful Life become such an iconic classic? Well, we have copyright laws to thank for that! In 1974, the copyright for It’s a Wonderful Life expired, and the movie entered the public domain. Networks capitalized on this chance and began showing it on a constant rotation on TV during the holiday season. As the movie continued to reach more homes through the magic of television, audiences fell in love with it. Pretty soon, It’s a Wonderful Life became one of those great classic movies that everyone needs to see at least once in their lives.
And, as they say, the rest is history.