'It's a Wonderful Life': The Stories Behind the Yuletide Classic (Part 1)

In a 1946 interview, Capra described “It’s a Wonderful Life’s” theme as “the individual’s belief in himself,” and that he made it to “combat a modern trend toward atheism.”

“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) began as a short story called “The Greatest Gift.” Pennsylvania-born writer Philip Van Doren Stern, who said that the heartwarming tale had come to him in a dream, was unable to sell it to a publisher, so he sent the story out as a long Christmas card to friends. His agent subsequently sold the fable to RKO pictures, where it went through several transformations.

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In one version a losing political candidate contemplated suicide, only to have an angel convince him to stick around and do good works. Finally it fell into the hands of director Frank Capra, who said it was the story he had been looking for all his life. He purchased it to be the first project for his new venture, Liberty Films (started by Capra in 1945 along with Producer Samuel J. Briskin, and directors William Wyler and George Stevens). With movie attendance booming during the Second World War II, a new independent film company for big name directors seemed like a can’t-miss idea.

Capra had long been an admirer of Amadeo Pietro Giannini, the founder of the Bank of Italy in 1904, renamed the Bank of America in 1928. Giannini earned a reputation for lending money to people other financial institutions had considered bad risks, including immigrants whose property had been destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. A.P. only required a handshake and was proud to say later that he was always paid back. Giannini also believed strongly in the hopes and dreams of some of the street merchants who gravitated into the fledgling film industry, and put his bank’s money behind their ventures.

Based on Giannini, Capra’s 1932 drama, “American Madness,” told the story of a bank president (Walter Huston) who makes lending decisions based more on character than collateral, which causes his board of directors to try and ruin him. The money man is bailed by his less well-to-do friends,who personally benefited from his past generosity. A movie about a bank run had proved too topical to be a big hit in 1932; now, fourteen years later, “It’s a Wonderful Life” would allow Capra to once again tackle a similar theme.

To play the unassuming savings and loan clerk in “Wonderful Life,” Capra wanted Jimmy Stewart, who had previously worked with him in “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938) and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” (1939). Coming back from World War II, the 37-year-old Stewart was no longer the easy going man-about-town he had been in the thirties. The former Academy Award winner for “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) had led a thousand men on bombing missions in the European theater in hard-to-maneuver B-24s. The loud plane engines damaged Jim’s hearing; in later years when people would greet him in public he would sometimes fail to respond. Some would mistake his partial deafness for a cold personality.

Stewart had displayed a great sense of humor when he’d first been inducted into the army; his salary had dropped from the hefty $1,500 a week he was being paid by MGM Studios to twenty-one dollars a month, and he earned his keep as a Buck Private whose duties included peeling potatoes. Upon receiving his first payment Jim immediately sent a check for $2.10 to his agent.

The actor was uncertain after five years away from the screen whether he still wanted to be in the movies; his life in the military at times made him feel like his old profession was insignificant. In 1943, when Stewart had tried to stay in one the best hotels in Madrid, he was turned away because he was an actor. Jim returned back to the military base, changed into his Lieutenant Colonel’s uniform, returned to the resort and was allowed to stay.

“Frank called me one day and said, ‘I have an idea for a movie, why don’t you come over and I’ll tell you?’ So I went over and we sat down and he said, ‘This picture starts in heaven’. That shook me.” James Stewart

When he returned to Southern California in 1945, Stewart took things easily. He refused to re-sign with MGM, despite tearful requests to do so from Metro’s hammy head honcho Louis B. Mayer. Like many World War II veterans, Jim had trouble sleeping and would instinctively duck down whenever a plane would fly overhead. He was content to spend time flying kites, building model planes and going bobcat hunting with Henry Fonda. Fonda had also been up for the George Bailey role; the two war veterans remained lifelong friends despite political differences which had once caused a fistfight between them in 1947. The liberal Fonda and conservative Stewart had promised, and kept their word, never to discuss politics again.

When Frank Capra made his pitch Stewart looked bored, out of it, which caused the director to lose confidence. “Well Jim, it’s about a savings and loan clerk who wants to commit suicide. There’s an angel named Clarence who shows him what life would have been like without him… aw forget it, it’s a stupid idea.” Capra was turning to leave when Stewart put his hand on his shoulder. “Frank, if you want me, I’m your man.” At least that’s how the film’s publicists told it.

“I can remember when nobody believed an actor and didn’t care what he believed.” –Lionel Barrymore

In Part 2 (which publishes tomorrow), we learn why “It’s a Wonderful Life” star Jimmy Stewart fought a bad case of nerves while shooting the film and how director Frank Capra got along with his dictatorial studio boss.

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