It’s a Wonderful Life – The Real Story

Opened December 1946

“It’s a Wonderful Life” opened in theaters across the country in December 1946. This much-loved family Christmas film was based on a short story called,  “The Greatest Gift”. The initial tickets sales were disappointing, and early reviews were mixed.

The Movie Lost Money

The original film did not make a profit, and actually lost money. It was only many years later when the film became part of  the ‘public domain’, it was allowed to be broadcast without royalty fees. It was during this re-release that television audiences made the film a yearly Christmas tradition in their homes.

“The Greatest Gift”

(the book that inspired “It’s a Wonderful Life”)

Philip Van Doren Stern began writing “The Greatest Gift” in 1939. Stern was a respected historian and was well known for his books and articles on the Civil War. He was born in a small town in Pennsylvania into a family of modest means, his mother Anne was a housewife and his father was a travelling salesman.

Philip Van Doren Stern (1900-1984)

“The Greatest Gift” was his first attempt at fiction. He wasn’t able to find a publisher, so Stern printed 200 copies and sent them to friends as Christmas gifts.

“The Greatest Gift”, by Philip Van Doren Stern, written 1939

One of these copies found its way to a producer at RKO Pictures, who offered to buy the motion picture rights. RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures, was an American film production and distribution company operating from 1929 to 1959. A Producer at RKO showed the story to actor, Cary Grant, who said he’d be interested in playing the lead role. During these talks, RKO sold the rights to Director Frank Capra’s movie production company, Liberty Films, for $10,000. It was Frank Capra who adapted the story for the big screen. 

Jimmy Stewart

Actor, Jimmy Stewart, played the lead character, George Bailey. Stewart was not sure if he wanted to accept the part. He had suffered some very traumatic experiences during WWII and for a while he considered giving up acting altogether, thinking that it was frivolous and not a worthwhile way to spend his life. When Stewart read the script, he was drawn to the story and agreed to do the film.

Photo: Jimmy with his parents and younger sisters, Mary and Virginia.

Jimmy Stewart’s family in 1918 – (young Jimmy is seated beside his father)

Early Life

James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, the eldest child born to Elizabeth Ruth Jackson (1875–1953) and Alexander Maitland Stewart (1872–1962) Stewart’s father ran the family business, the J.M. Stewart and Company Hardware Store, which he hoped Jimmy would take over as an adult. Raised a Presbyterian, Jimmy was a devout church-goer for much of his life.

Stewart became the first major American movie star to enlist in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. During the war he was promoted to the rank of Major following a mission to Germany, in January 1944. He was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross while he served as Deputy Commander, as well as the distinguished Air Medal. He was promoted to full Colonel in March of 1945, becoming one of the few rise from Private to Colonel in only four years.

Jimmy Stewart receiving a medal in 1944, for his service in WWII

It’s a Wonderful Life

The Story

The plot centered on Bailey, a forlorn man who was considering suicide and wished he had never been born. In the story Bailey meets his guardian angel, who grants him his wish. Bailey soon realized that if he were gone it would leave a gaping hole in the lives of all his family and friends. This was a turning point that brought a renewed love for life and joy in living.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” opened the first Christmas after WWII ended. Even though the movie ended on a high note, the film didn’t immediately resonate with audiences. “Our movie just got lost,” said Stewart.

After 1974, the copyright for the movie lapsed, and television stations could broadcast the film at no cost.

A whole new generation watched the film, and its popularity soared throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Over 80,000 people purchased a video cassette recording of the movie in 1986. In 1987, that number nearly doubled.

A Christmas Tradition

Watching the film became a Christmas tradition for many families.

Later in his life, Jimmy Stewart remarked that “It’s a Wonderful Life” was his favourite movie, of all the films made.

Jimmy Stewart’s ‘real’ family

Photo 1954: Jimmy Stewart with his wife, Gloria, and their children Ronald, Michael, Judy and Kelly

Jimmy married in 1949 to his sweetheart, Gloria Hatrick. He waited until he was in his forties to marry, and so he was known for a while as ‘the great American bachelor’.

They bought a home in 1951, raised their family, and lived there happily together until Gloria’s death in 1994. Jimmy passed away three years later, of a heart attack, at the age of 89, on July 2, 1997. President Bill Clinton commented that America had lost a “national treasure … a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot”

Stewart is remembered for portraying the “every-man” character in his movies. His virtuous on-screen persona along with his real-life devotion to his own family made him a lovable representative of the male ideal, and he was considered to be one of the best-loved figures in twentieth-century popular culture.

Five of Jimmy Stewart’s films —Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Rear Window (1954), and Vertigo (1958)— are registered on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is considered to be one of the greatest Christmas-themed movies ever made.

Enjoy this much-loved movie with your family, and make it part of your own Christmas traditions!

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

3 comments on “It’s a Wonderful Life – The Real Story

  1. Noreen Tyers says:

    Love that picture, I still have to print off the stories from my Family Christmas Book, for my Grandsons , and the cousins, for you, as soon as the time permits. noreen..

  2. Noreen Tyers says:

    Hi Arlene.

    I should have a book of Lines reasty ro be mailed in a few days. Could you let me know where to mail it too.

    Hope you enjoy the lines , it is what I give to my grandsons, and my Christmas.. It is fun and a way to mark down some family stories.


  3. Noreen Tyers says:

    Noreen Tyers 21:41 (0 minutes ago) to arlene Hi Arlene.

    I should have a book of Lines reasty ro be mailed in a few days. Could you let me know where to mail it too.

    Hope you enjoy the lines , it is what I give to my grandsons, and my Christmas.. It is fun and a way to mark down some family stories.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s