The “Christmas Classic” Has Meaning All Year Long

Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In November of 1939, the American author, editor and Civil War historian Philip Van Doren Stern sat down to write an original short story based on a vivid dream that he couldn’t forget. Stern completed the 4,100-word tale in 1943, but, unable to attract a publisher, he refashioned his story into a 21-page Christmas present that he shared with 200 of his close friends and family at the end of the year. Titled “The Greatest Gift,” the booklet somehow found its way to Hollywood, where RKO Pictures studio chief Charles Koerner recommended it to director Frank Capra, who immediately understood the heart of the slim plot. Capra, who had enjoyed spectacular success in the ’30s, creating American cinematic classics such as “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” had just emerged from military service in World War II where he had made seven U.S. War Department documentaries and was looking for a new project to announce his return to commercial filmmaking. Capra immediately began cobbling together a working script with the help of a cabal of other screenwriters who drifted in and out of the production over the next year.

The story, which he revised throughout the filming and renamed “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was deceptively simple. George Bailey, a small town dreamer with outsized ambitions, is trapped within the confines of his hometown. Every attempt he makes to break out of his provincial life is thwarted and he eventually settles down to a familiar yet dull routine as a husband, father and small town banker. And yet, under the patina of his life bubbles the flickering flame of his boyhood dreams: Littering his living room are cardboard and paper models of bridges and skyscrapers crafted by the inner architect that he longed to become. Things come to a head, however, when George’s absent-minded uncle misplaces an $8,000 bank deposit ($100,000 today) that was meant for the coffers of the Bailey Building and Loan on the very day that the local bank examiner arrives. Facing financial ruin and prison, George totters on the brink of suicide when he mutters to himself that he wishes he had never been born.

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Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.

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