By Brad Dison
In 1939, author Philip Van Doren Stern awoke from a dream and immediately began jotting down notes. He wanted to write down what he could while it was still fresh in his mind. At first, the dream reminded him of A Christmas Carol, the Charles Dickens novella from 1843. The more he wrote, however, the less it resembled the Dickens tale.
Stern was known for his non-fiction books on the Civil War. During World War II, Stern had resized popular books so they would fit into the pockets of soldiers. He had compiled and annotated works from Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and Abraham Lincoln. He had plenty of writing experience, but he had never written a work of fiction. For four years, in between other writing projects, Stern wrote and edited his story. Finally, in 1943, one hundred years after Dickens published A Christmas Carol, Stern completed his short book. He called it The Greatest Gift.
Despite being a noted historian and author with a catalog of successful books to his credit, could not find a willing publisher for The Greatest Gift. That was almost the end of the story, but rather than discarding the story he had labored over for four years, Stern had another idea. When traditional publisher refused to his book, he did as Dickens did with A Christmas Carol and published it himself. Unlike Dickens, who sold his self-published book, Stern sent his 21-page books that year instead of Christmas cards.
During the 1943 Christmas season, Stern sent out 200 copies of The Greatest Gift to his friends, acquaintances, and even sent copies to his eight-year-old daughter’s teachers and her friends. One of the books reached the desk of a producer at RKO Pictures. He read the book and realized that it had potential. RKO Pictures made a deal with Stern and purchased the rights for an undisclosed amount to turn The Greatest Gift into a motion picture. The producer loaned the book to Cary Grant, who, after reading it, became interested in playing the lead character. For reasons which are not entirely clear, although profit was the most logical motive, RKO sold the rights to The Greatest Gift to Liberty Films, Frank Capra’s production company, for $10,000. Prior to adapting Stern’s book into a screenplay, Capra had directed classic films such as You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Arsenic and Old Lace.
Capra’s film version of Stern’s The Greatest Gift premiered at New York’s Globe Theatre on December 21, 1946. Everyone at Liberty Films had high hopes for the film and began a promotional campaign directed toward Academy Award consideration. It quickly became apparent that the film would be a commercial flop. The film failed to even pay for the cost of its production. In fact, it lost more than half a million dollars and caused the eventual bankruptcy of Liberty Films. Despite its failure at the box office, the film received five Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director and best actor. The film was a box office failure and was also a failure at the Academy Awards. It won no Oscars.
Stern’s The Greatest Gift seemed to be anything but a gift to Frank Capra and Liberty Films. For nearly three decades, the film was ignored and was destined to fade into obscurity. After the failure of Liberty Films, the rights to The Greatest Gift changed hands several times. In 1974, the copyright for the film was not properly renewed. The film went into the public domain which meant that television stations could air the film at no cost.
During every Christmas season since 1974, television stations around the world aired the film on constant rotation. Due to its constant rotation, a whole new generation began to appreciate the ignored film. In 1986, when the film became available on videocassette, more than 80,000 copies of the film were sold. In 1987, customers bought more than 150,000 copies of the new colorized version of the film. After more than four decades, The Greatest Gift was finally a hit.
Even now, 75 years after it was released, the film is still shown repeatedly during the Christmas season. It is now considered one of the greatest films of all time. It is ranked the most inspirational American movie of all time by The American Film Institute.
If Philip Van Doren Stern had not given copies of his book as Christmas cards in 1943 and simply tossed the manuscript aside, we may never have known the story of The Greatest Gift, which Frank Capra renamed…It’s a Wonderful Life.
- The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), May 12, 1946, p.54.
- The Austin American (Austin, Texas), December 8, 1946, p.55.
- The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), December 2, 1984, p.107.
- The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois), December 20, 1987, p.12.
- Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), December 8, 2006, p.33.
- Ashcraft, Jenny. “Classic Holiday Film Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary.” FishWrap. December 2, 2021. blog.newspapers.com/classic-holiday-film-celebrates-its-75th-anniversary/?utm_source=Headline&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Headline-Dec-21.
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