Monday, December 23, 2013

The Greatest Gift: The Story Behind 'It's A Wonderful Life'

The story behind the story: The Inspiration for 'It's A Wonderful Life'

By Lars Trodson

If you go back to the beginning, the real beginning, there is no Bedford Falls, no Mary Hatch, no Zuzu or her petals, no Clarence Oddbody, no Sam Wainwright, no Violet Bic and no George Bailey. George Bailey had to be created in order to make all these other people and the town where they lived come to life.

This is the world of “The Greatest Gift,” the original short story on which “It’s A Wonderful Life” is based. Almost none of the characters, and not one with their original name, appeared in the little self-published story, written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943. The story was based on a dream Stern apparently had in 1939. It's a kind of reverse image of a famous story that also appeared in 1939, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," who dreamed not of never having lived but rather of doing great heroic deeds.

Reading “The Greatest Gift” today —it’s widely available online — is interesting for a couple of reasons. It’s not a great work of art, but the shadows and echoes it contains that are now so familiar because of the famous movie that came out of it. It's a cultural curiosity, because "It's A Wonderful Life" has been memorized by its fans, just as people anticipate each line in "A Christmas Carol." The source material also is instructive: the movie is an extreme example of how to turn what is essentially a vignette into a much broader, more fully-realized feature film.

“The Greatest Gift” opens with two simple lines: “The little town straggling up the hill was bright with colored Christmas lights. But George Pratt did not see them.” The town is never named; it's never fully described. Pratt is standing at the railing of an iron bridge contemplating a jump into the dark, swirling water. He is suddenly approached by a “most unremarkable little person” who is “moth-eaten...shabby...paunchy...”

“‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you...”’ the man says to Pratt, and Pratt is alarmed that this stranger is reading his mind. “Give me just one good reason why I should be alive,” Pratt asks. The unnamed stranger gives him a number of reasons, including his wife, Mary, their kids, and George’s “job at the bank.”

George tells the little man that he’s stuck in this “mudhole” of a town and that the army didn’t want him — two facts put in the film — and George suggests things would be better if he hadn’t been born.This is of course the core of the story.

The stranger quickly complies with this request. “You haven’t been born. Just that. You haven’t been born. No one here knows you. You have no responsibilities — no job — no wife — no children.” This a speech that echoes the little speech given by Clarence Oddbody — the angel in the film — when he tells George Bailey: “You have no cards — no papers” — and, of course, no Zuszu’s petals.

The unnamed stranger gives George Pratt a satchel that contains samples of brushes, which he says will open doors that otherwise would remain closed. George Pratt becomes a door-to-door salesman, something that is of course not in the film.

As Pratt walks into town, curiously unquestioning of this oddest of all visitations, he comes across Hank Biddle’s house. This will remind people of an incident in the film. From the story: “He remembered the quarrel that he had when his car scraped a piece of bark out of Hank’s big maple tree. The tree must have been growing there since Indian times.” Fans of the film will recognize this as the tree that George crashes his car into. As in the movie, when Pratt inspects the tree, there is no scar, just as his car disappears when Clarence tells George Bailey he had never been born.

Then we see the changes that happened to people and the town because George Pratt did not exist. The bank where he worked has closed down because a man named Marty Jenkins had “skipped out” with $50,000 of the bank’s money. We learn that George and Marty had applied for the same job at the bank, and George had gotten the job — meaning the money never would have been stolen if George had been born and gone to work at the bank instead of Marty. There was other collateral damage due to George never having been born: Marty’s brother Art never got over the shock of his brother Marty’s theft and disappearance, and so young Art took to drinking.

In "The Greatest Gift," it is Art Jenkins who marries Mary Thatcher, who we know as Mary Hatch in the film. This is of course another unfortunate change that never would have happened had George lived, because he had married Mary before he was erased.

George then visits his parents, kindly, quiet, alone, and George sees that the photograph taken on the day that his brother Harry turned 16 — a picture that both George and Harry were once in. One sentence in this section makes the only reference to another name that is almost synonomous with “It’s A Wonderful Life” as is George Baily: From the story: “[George] remembered how they had gone to Potter’s studio to be photographed together.” That's the only reference to any kind of Potter in "The Greatest Gift." But the photo that George sees, now that he is this mysterious traveling brush salesman, only has Harry in it. George is gone and it turns out that George's parents are mourning because Harry drowned on that “summer’s day” in the pond because George was not there to save him. Of course, in the film, Harry is saved by George on a cold winter's day.

George then screws up his courage and knocks on Mary’s door. She invites him in. George gives her a bright-handled brush was “varicolored bristles.” At that moment two screaming kids burst into the room, including a “little homely-faced girl” — a detail that has the unfortunate implication that if George had lived the kids he and Mary would have had would at least been better looking. The little boy is upset because his sister “won’t die” after being shot with a toy pistol.

The boy asks George who he is and then points the pistol at George and says, “You’re dead. Why don’t you fall down and die?” It’s the most chilling moment in the story. Art Jenkins comes home, drunk, tired, and kicks George out of the house.

When George Pratt returns to the bridge and finds the strange man, he gives a most un-George Baily-like speech: “Change me back — please. Not just for my sake, but for others too. You don’t know what a mess this town is in. You don’t understand. I’ve got to get back. They need me here.” In the film, George wants to return to life so he can be with his family and friends.

The story ends with an unnecessary O. Henry-type twist that doesn’t add much to the story, or even make much sense. Happily, the screenwriters for “It’s A Wonderful Life” kept a few important details and jettisoned the Fuller Brush aspect of the story. The economic themes in the movie — the mechanics of how the Bailey Building and Loan works, the insider trading of Sam Wainwright, the impacts of the stockmarket crash and the Great Depression — are all inventions for the film. Violet Bic, played by Gloria Graham, is wholly a creation of the film, as is the cop Burt, the taxi-driver Ernie and Uncle Billy and his foolish loss of the money. The backstory of the Bailey family, his father's death, the maid Annie, the heroism of Harry, and all of Mr. Potter, are inventions for the movie.

It is testament to the film’s producer and director, Frank Capra, and the writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (the married couple who wrote “The Thin Man” pictures, among others) and Jo Swerling (an accomplished screenwriter of such movies as “Pride of the Yankees” and Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat”) that they took this rickety little story and turned it into a film that manages to capture the grandness and pettiness, the joy and the frustrations, of life. They all, included an uncredited Frank Capra and Dorothy Parker, caught lightning in a bottle. It’s incredible to think that this magnificent screenplay was ignored by the Academy that year, despite the fact that the film was nominated for five other Oscars. 

But thanks to Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Philip Van Doren Stern and all the rest, George Bailey will indeed exist, always.

Lars Trodson's first novel, "Eagles Fly Alone," features Langley Calhoun. The acclaimed mystery can be found at  The sequel, "Tide Turning," will be published in March by Mainly Murder Press.