The Father Who Wrote The Story That Became “It’s a Wonderful Life”
When people tell me about their favorite movies, one title is mentioned more often than any other — “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Director Frank Capra was known for “Capra-corn,” warm-hearted films that paid tribute to the common people. James Stewart was one of his favorite leading men. Their films together included “You Can’t Take it With You,” the Oscar-winner for Best Picture in 1939, followed by “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1939. Then both men went to war.
After World War II ended, Capra and Stewart wanted to return to work in Hollywood, but both were determined to make a film that made a meaningful statement in the context of a world redefining itself for peacetime. Capra found their next film in a Christmas card. A man named Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a story called “The Greatest Gift,” about a despondent man who had a chance to see what his community would have been like if he had never been born, and sent it to his friends as a holiday greeting in 1943. Capra wanted to make it into a film.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Stern’s daughter, Dr. Marguerite Stern Robinson, about her father and the story that inspired “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“My father started writing it much earlier, in the late 30’s. What inspired him to write the story was that the whole thing came to him in a dream that he remembered and wrote down. He tried writing it over the years and was not happy. He tried it several times. Then he finally wrote it and his agent tried to sell it to magazines and nobody would take it,” she told me. Her father was not a screenwriter or even a fiction writer. “It was a complete departure. It’s the only one he ever did like this. He was mostly known as a Civil War historian, but he had very wide interests. He wrote books on pre-history and prehistoric art, he wrote The Annotated Walden, books on cars, all kinds of things. He edited a lot of books and wrote various thoughtful introductions. He was fond of Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, and [essayist] Thomas De Quincey. He had a very…