Holiday Classic Film, And Book It Came From, All Started With A Dream

Closing scene from It's A Wonderful LIfe

Closing scene from "It's A Wonderful Life"

(Republic Pictures)

Many know the Frank Capra film ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ as a beloved holiday classic, but few are familiar with the book from which it came.

A few years before its 1946 release, an author and war historian named Philip Van Doren Stern had struggled to get his short story published, even in a magazine. 

In the ‘The Greatest Gift’, a man named George Bailey is shown what the world would have been like without him.  Stern’s daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson, said the inspiration for the book came from a dream he had in 1938.

Illinois Public Media’s Jeff Bossert talked with Robinson about the story, how her father heard from Capra, and the dream that inspired her father’s vision.

Both Director Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart called the cherished holiday classic their favorite film.

Stern’s book was recently reissued by Simon and Shuster, with an afterword written by Robinson.

Story source: WILL

I was three years old at the time and so the idea did come to him during the night and he wrote the following The idea came to me complete from start to finish and he said what he had to do he couldn’t publish it now although he knew it was he thought it was a great story but he said I’m not good enough yet to publish it. What he had to do he said was to learn to write it. He wrote something like wrote or edited something like forty books but this one he just treated specially because he thought it was so important to get it right and then he couldn’t get any magazine to show it he hadn’t an agent who tried. Nobody would touch it. And so he published two hundred twenty four page little pamphlets with a story in it and sent them out of Christmas cards for nine hundred forty three. And I remember delivering some of them to my teachers and friends to friends who are children from families of a variety of backgrounds and religions. So my father who was himself from a mixed religious background explained to me then that while the story takes place at Christmas time and we are sending it as a Christmas card to our friends it is a universal story for all people at all times. So right after that it was March one thousand nine hundred four when I entered the telephone one evening in our house in Brooklyn and it was a Western Union operator who asked to speak to my father . I was old enough to know in one thousand nine hundred four that we see the a telegram often meant bad news. So my father took the phone listened to the operator read the telegram and then turned to my mother saying hold me up I can’t believe it. I thought something terrible had happened but it was a telegram from my father’s agent announcing that she had received an offer from a quite well known studio for the movie rights to the greatest gift. And from then on there were discussions and my father agreed and the planning began at that time in Hollywood.

Doing this kind of like during the war he was.

That’s right and he was the head of the armed services editions planning the and getting out the little book that the military people who are out fighting could have a little book that fit right in their pants pocket. Not particularly known for its fiction he’s known for his basically his civil war writings he wrote a lot of really remarkable books about the Civil War and other things and it was in one thousand nine hundred three that he decided he had to write the dream then because it was the middle of war and he felt it had to be done. People had to read it .

Later on when when the movie was finished and shown and people began to like it and so forth he began to you know get letters or telephone calls or whatever from people but that was some time later. But both the steward and Capra wrote very nice letters to my father.

It’s a Wonderful Life was not a box office success. Not in the beginning it certainly was.

Yeah I just wonder if you have any thoughts about that why it was not popular at first I don’t know actually I’ve wondered about that.

I really don’t know the answer. Well the country had just been through a war and until the last few minutes that there are some dark things a man contemplating suicide not oh yeah I think what happened over time is that the American public just became more understanding and began to think that their own background and their own life in the U.S. had something to do with this. I think over time it just kind of grew.

You’re in a very very different line of work from your father but one of the things about him that you found in yourself.

Well yes it’s a little different I mean it quite different. You know we were very close and he lived quite a long time so you know I knew him very well . It was a little different because he wrote a lot of different kinds of things all sorts of things. But the greatest gift was really just you know something that he wrote but he just thought it was the most important thing he could do in my case it’s quite different because I’m not meant apologist by training and and I also am an advisor to various finance ministers and other kinds of top level people who need advice but that that’s a different situation because there I wasn’t looking for the same things he was although there’s an overlap for sure.

Nice to talk to somebody who has a connection to the story on the movie because I have you know obviously watched it over and over and over since about the early eighty’s when I first discovered it is amazing you know I don’t think I have ever met a person who saw it and didn’t keep on seeking.

Maybe they just don’t tell me that they really hated it. I haven’t gotten gotten there.