Movie Legends: Did It's A Wonderful Life Originate as a Christmas Card?

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: It's a Wonderful Life originated as a Christmas card.

All this month, I'll be doing Christmas-related Movie and TV Legends!

The Frank Capra film, It's a Wonderful Life, is one of the most beloved Christmas films of all-time (although, at the time of its release, the FBI actually investigated the film to determine whether it was secretly intended as Communist propaganda)...

The 1946 film tracks the journey of George Bailey (played by James Stewart), a small town banker with a wife, Mary (Donna Reed), and three children who is distraught after discovering, through a mistake of his absentminded uncle (and the duplicity of the rival bank owner in town, Mr. Potter, played with delicious evil by Lionel Barrymore), that his bank is probably going to go under and he is likely going to be branded a thief due to his uncle misplacing thousands of dollars in bank deposits (Mr. Potter found the missing money but is keeping his discovery a secret). The anguished Bailey decides that he is worth more to his family dead than alive (due to his life insurance policy), so he plans to kill himself, believing that he had little real impact on the world. An apprentice angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who is still trying to earn his wings, shows up and demonstrates to George the folly of his ways by using magic to show George what the world would have looked like had George not been born. George is shocked that everyone in town is much worse off without him (his wife even becomes an unmarried...librarian!!! Okay, not all of the twists and turns land with the same force). Seeing how miserable everyone is without him and how miserable he is seeing them and not being able to be near them (and the whole "erasure of his three kids from existence" deal), George embraces life and he heads home to be with his family on Christmas (luckily, the townsfolk all love George so much that they're more than willing to make up the missing money for him).

Great stuff and it ends with George's daughter mentioning that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his/her wings, and George realizes that Clarence has been made a full-fledged angel.

Okay, now that I've rehashed the plot of a movie that you all already know by heart, let's get to the legend, which is whether the movie really began its life as a Christmas Card, of all things.

The truth is...sort of, but not really. However, it is close enough that it is still an amazing story.

Philip Van Doren Stern came up with the idea for his novella, The Greatest Gift, in 1939, when the idea came to him in a dream. He worked on it for the next four years. The story tells the tale of George Pratt, who basically had the same experience that George Bailey went through, only he is shown the alternate reality by just a mysterious Stranger and not an angel.

Anyhow, Stern kept showing the novella to various publishers but no one was interested in it. Finally, Stern essentially gave up and took the 200 copies he had made up of the story (presumably to show publishers) and gave them to his friends and family as Christmas presents in 1943....

That's really not a "Christmas Card," right?

The book eventually made its way to the attention of RKO Studios producer David Hempstead, who recommended the project to Cary Grant for a movie. The movie rights were sold to RKO in 1944. They couldn't get a film done (Grant later went on to do a different Christmas movie, The Bishop's Wife, in 1947). They sold the rights to Frank Capra in 1945. Stern than published the book himself in 1945, ahead of the movie's release in 1946. Once It's a Wonderful Life was released and was a moderate success at the time (only growing in stature as the years went by), Stern then managed to find a number of different companies willing to publish his story.

So while it might be on a bit of a technicality, I have seen in many different places the story as "It's a Wonderful Life was based on a Christmas Card," and that's a pretty major "false" part of the story, right? So I'm going with the legend as...


Thanks to Adam for the suggestion!

Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of film. Click here for more Christmas-related Movie and TV Legends.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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