At the beginning of December, the UO Libraries and Cinema Studies presented a public screening of the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), along with a small complementary exhibit. It’s a Wonderful Life has an important connection to UO: included in Special Collections and University Archives are the papers of the author who wrote the short story that became the basis for the movie’s screenplay.
Philip Van Doren Stern, a historian of American history, recounted that one morning while shaving in 1938, he had the idea for a story that became The Greatest Gift. Stern tried to publish the short story in several magazines without success, so he had 200 copies printed in 1943 and distributed them to friends and family as a Christmas greeting. One copy eventually found its way to Hollywood, where it caught the attention of RKO studio staff. The studio paid Stern $10,000 for the story in 1944 (equivalent to nearly $139,000 in 2014). Eventually, Frank Capra hired several writers to write the screenplay based on the story.
Released in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life was both Frank Capra’s and James Stewart’s first movie after the end of World War II. Although the movie received mixed reviews, it was successful in box office revenues for 1947, the year of its general release.
It’s a Wonderful Life was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but it lost out to the most successful picture of 1947, The Best Years of Our Lives. It did, however, win an Academy Award for Best Technical Achievement. This was for the development of a new method of creating artificial snow on motion picture sets. RKO’s head of special effects, Russell Sherman, invented a new compound of water, soap flakes, foamite, and sugar. Previous to this invention, snow on movie sets was made up of corn flakes painted white. The crunching sound made by actors walking on this “snow” required that scenes with dialogue be re-dubbed later.
In the late 1970s, the copyright to the movie was inadvertently not renewed. It’s a Wonderful Life was then aired on TV and became a beloved Christmas classic, a position it still enjoys today. Frank Capra, who died in 1991 at age 94, once stated, “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen… The film has a life of its own now… I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud.”
Stern is credited in the film: “Based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern.” Materials in the Philip Van Doren Stern Papers relating to movie include the original manuscript for his short story, newspaper clippings, numerous publicity documents, reviews, souvenir programs, and a reminiscence by Stern about writing his short story.
Below are more images related to The Greatest Gift and It’s a Wonderful Life. Access larger resolution images by clicking on each one:
Linda Long, Manuscripts Librarian