Origins: “It’s A Wonderful Life”

It’s A Wonderful Life is a slice of Americana.  A small town guy with big city dreams sacrifices his goals for his friends, family, and community in Bedford Falls, New York.

George Bailey wants to travel across the globe.  He wants to build bridges and skyscrapers.  But most of all, he wants to escape his sleepy upstate New York town.  Fate intervenes, however.  George takes over his family’s business – Bailey Brothers Building & Loan – after his father passes away.  He gives his college money to his brother Harry.  And he fights against Henry Potter, the most powerful man in Bedford Falls.  Think Scrooge, but even meaner.

When George’s Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000 during a trip to the bank, George contemplates suicide.  His family could cash in his life insurance policy to protect the business.  As George is about to jump off a bridge into a river, Angel Second Class Clarence Oddbody jumps.  Clarence’s cries for help distract George from his problems, at least long enough for George to dive into the river to save Clarence.

An offhand comment by George inspires Clarence to show him what the world would be like if George Bailey had never existed.  Despite his self-loathing at not achieving his dreams, George learns that his life deeply affected his friends and family.  As Clarence tells him, George really had a wonderful life.

Philip Van Doren Stern wrote the story upon which It’s A Wonderful Life is based – The Greatest Gift.  But Stern’s magazine agent could not attract interest.  So, Stern self-published the story.  He had the story printed on pamphlets.  It took up 24 pages.  Then, he ordered 200 copies as replacements for Christmas cards to friends.  Stern’s Hollywood agent was a recipient – he sold the story for $10,000.

The Greatest Gift contains several elements used in It’s A Wonderful Life.  The theme, for example, remains constant.  George appreciates his life after he sees the alternative for his friends and family had he never been born.  Other elements include George saving his brother from drowning when they were kids, George crashing his car into a tree before he wished he had never been born, and George contemplating suicide on a bridge.

In Stern’s story, George is a bank clerk with the last name of Pratt instead of Bailey.  His wife, Mary, has the maiden name of Thatcher.  In the film, it is Hatch.

Marc Connelly, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets wrote early scripts of It’s A Wonderful Life.  Frank Capra and collaborators Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich deserve credit for creating the classic in its final form.  Capra directed the movie and Jo Swerling received an “Additional Scenes by” credit.

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