IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a 1946 film produced and directed by Frank Capra and based on the short story “THE GREATEST GIFT” written by Philip Van Doren Stern.
The original story THE GREATEST GIFT was written by Philip Van Doren Stern in November 1939. After being unsuccessful in getting the story published, he decided to make it into a Christmas card, and mailed 200 copies to family and friends in December 1943.
The story came to the attention of RKO producer David Hempstead, who showed it to Cary Grant’s Hollywood agent and, in April 1944, RKO Pictures bought the rights to the story for $10,000 hoping to turn the story into a vehicle for Grant.
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RKO created three unsatisfactory scripts before shelving the planned movie with Grant going on to make another Christmas picture, THE BISHOP’S WIFE.
At the suggestion of RKO studio chief Charles Koerner, Frank Capra read THE GREATEST GIFT and immediately saw its potential. RKO, anxious to unload the project, sold the rights in 1945 to Capra’s production company, Liberty Films, which had a nine-film distribution agreement with RKO, for $10,000,and threw in the three scripts for free.
Capra, along with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett with Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker brought in to “polish” the script — turned the story and what was worth using from the three scripts into a screenplay that Capra would rename IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
It’s A Wonderful Life script
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The script underwent many revisions throughout pre-production and during filming. Final screenplay credit went to Goodrich, Hackett and Capra, with “additional scenes” by Jo Swerling.
The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and the contributions he has made to his community.
Despite initially being considered a box office flop due to high production costs and stiff competition at the time of its release, the film has come to be regarded as a classic and a staple of Christmas television around the world.
Theatrically, the film’s break-even point was actually $6.3 million, approximately twice the production cost, a figure it never came close to achieving in its initial release.
An appraisal in 2006 reported: “Although it was not the complete box-office failure that today everyone believes … it was initially a major disappointment and confirmed, at least to the studios, that Capra was no longer capable of turning out the populist features that made his films the must-see, money-making events they once were.”
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was nominated for five Oscars without winning any, although the film has since been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, and placed number one on their list of the most inspirational American films of all time.