In the darkest season of the year it brings us cheer.
We turn to it each passing year.
It is sentimental without being saccharine. It is serious without turning sour. It is catastrophic but provides the ray of hope we all need when we feel the darkness closing in around us.
It is the film that almost did not happen, a box office long shot in the 1940s based on a story rejected again and again, a film faltering at the theaters before finally recognized for the Christmas classic it became, watched by millions around the world now to give us faith in the dark season of winter, to teach us that our lives matter however insignificant they may seem, to help us find heroism in the smallest of sacrificial acts.
The film’s unlikely rise to stardom itself reveals how fate can pivot from a series of bad turns to an upbeat ending. In 2011, the American Film Institute ranked It’s A Wonderful Life as #1 in its list of the top 100 most inspirational films.
As the year 2020 comes to a crashing close, the film fills our screens once again so we can vicariously experience the life journey of one man – and his temporary loss of identity — to better understand what makes us human and what makes us resilient.
But the story of the film began with another story whose fate was also unclear.
I discovered that story three years ago when a small red book with golden letters on its cover appeared mysteriously at the hearth at Christmas time. It was called The Greatest Gift. I had no idea what it contained. The Greatest Gift, now available to buy at the click of a button on Amazon, revealed the original story that the wildly popular film we ritually watch every year was based on.
One night Philip Van Doren Stern, 37, went to bed and had a dream. It was 1938. He woke the next morning with the story still fully intact in his memory.
Stern, a writer, liked the story in his dream. He wrote it down.
The dream was about a man who thought his life was insignificant, who thought he had not made his mark in the world, who thought life had passed him by and he had not made a name for himself, who saw his friends leave this insignificant dot-on-the-map town and make more of themselves.
The man stood at the top of a bridge. He was looking down over the rail of the bridge to the waters below, shoulders hunched, with a desperate scowl on his face.
It was nighttime. The man knew the bridge well. It flowed over the river he knew well. He had walked to the bridge from the town which he knew well, where he had been born, where he’d played on its playgrounds and had eventually assumed a low-level banking position and married his high school sweetheart and had a family and kept the bank running well for all the members of the community.
The man’s mind was racing with self-incriminating thoughts, filled with naysaying voices that railed about what a failure he was.
The man had come here to consider going over this bridge. He stared down. He was alone.
At least he thought he was alone.
A voice startled him from behind.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said the voice.
“Wouldn’t do what?” answered the scowl-faced man.
“What you were thinking about doing,” answered the stranger.
The man turned to find a stout pink-cheeked bright-eyed man standing in a shabby overcoat and a moth-eaten fur cap. The little man stared at him quizzically. The stranger explained that he knew the man intended to jump over the bridge, and asked him what he could do to help. The man rebuffed the offer. Instead he snarled, “I just might as well be dead… Sometimes I wish I were. In fact, I wish I’d never been born.”
The man in the shabby overcoat now granted the man who had climbed to the top of the bridge his wish to never have been born. He could now return to the town – a mere shell of himself — and see up close what life would have been like there in his absence. The little man vanished, leaving behind a satchel full of new cleaning brushes so that the man on the bridge, named George, could use them to introduce himself as a traveling salesman whenever he greeted those who would no longer recognize him.
In this alternative unlived reality, George discovered his high school sweetheart had married a man who became a drunk and abusive. The town bank had collapsed after a corrupt boss ran away with the money. His brother had lost his life in a childhood accident because George had not been there to save him. His parents failed to recognize him because George had never been born. They still mourned the loss of his brother.
George was astonished to discover the life-saving impact of all his small acts, an impact that rippled out through the entire community. He was horrified to realize the devastation his town had suffered in his absence, and was now clear-eyed about how his sacrifices had assured its survival and integrity.
In a second meeting on the bridge, George begged the stranger – whom he now recognizes as an angel — to return him to life. What followed is what some have called “the most uplifting ten minutes in cinema history.” With his request granted, George raced hysterically through town in a state of Ebenezer Scrooge-like euphoria, greeting everyone and every landmark along the way, and racing home to wildly kiss his wife and wake the children from their sleep. The story ends when George discovered the cleaning brush he had left behind on the sofa, remembering the brief time he had not existed, and recalling the angel who had given back to him the greatest gift of all – the gift of life.
Stern, who had dreamed the story, tried to publish it. No one would take it.
He waited five years. It was 1943. Then he printed 200 copies of the story as a 21-page Christmas holiday card for his family and friends. He called it The Greatest Gift.
A year later the phone rang. A film studio had gotten hold of Stern’s little story. The producer was wild about it. The movie that resulted – It’s A Wonderful Life – became the holiday classic we all watch today on screens around the world.
The film embellished Stern’s parable-like story with a full storyline making the emotional stakes higher for every character involved, while faithfully adhering to the spirit and message of The Greatest Gift.
In the film version, George, played by Jimmy Stewart, is not simply sick of the “crummy little town” he lives in and his apparent insignificance in it. He is on the brink of bankruptcy. A rival avaricious banker Mr. Potter stands poised to buy out his business. For years George has been the only hope for the town’s less fortunate families to take out small loans and build homes for their families. If Potter succeeds, he’ll put George’s clients in slums and overcharge their rent. The community that George helped will implode and die. His own family will be destitute.
George climbs to the top of the bridge at this point too, and when he is granted his wish to “never have been born,” he discovers with the help of an angel named Clarence the awful fate of the town left entirely to Mr. Potter’s nefarious profiteering schemes. George begs Clarence to be returned to life. He rushes home to discover his wife has rallied the community to provide funds to save his business, his brother has returned home from war a hero, and Clarence has returned to heaven having earned full angel honors there.
“Strange, isn’t it?” Clarence tells George before the story’s end. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Eighty years after Stern had his dream, families all over the country – including mine – have taken his angel’s message to heart and turn on It’s A Wonderful Life again.
The story, despite its imperfections and dated stereotypes, still holds sway over us because of its timeless message.
Christmas is coming. I have set the tiny red book under the Christmas lights. I will open up The Greatest Gift again on Christmas morning. It seems a particularly good year, with all its sickness, lockdowns, economic upheaval, and isolation, to spend another day with Clarence and George.
We need the hope they offer to get us through the darkness of winter.