My husband, a generous man when it comes to gift-giving, is lousy at receiving. “Ah, no,” he says when faced with a gift that seems perfect for him. “Thanks, but it’s not for me.” So it was with a small piece of carry-on/roll-aboard luggage I got for him about five Christmases ago. It was never returned but sat on an out-of-reach shelf in his closet until one day when he inexplicably took it down. Since then it’s become his new FAVORITE. A notorious over-packer, he sometimes under-packs just for the sheer joy of using it.
That pretty much sums up the fanfare surrounding one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Anyone who’s a longtime fan of that holiday classic has probably heard that it wasn’t a big box office hit during its initial release. The film received ho-hum reviews; it was nominated for five Academy Awards but didn’t win any. Worse still, it was a money loser attached to some big names: Director Frank Capra, lead actors Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Fast forward about thirty years and somebody takes the film off the shelf. TV stations around the country begin showing the movie, and that’s when it catches on in a big way. At long last–a standing ovation. But dig a little deeper and there’s more to the story. And as a writer, it warms my heart.
The film is based on a short story The Greatest Gift by a little-known writer, Philip Van Doren Stern. (Some people at the time had heard of him, but he was mainly an historian known for his books on the Civil War.) It took him a number of years to write the story, but when he was done and sent it out, publishers weren’t interested. It’s 1943 and he decides to print up 200 copies himself and send them to friends and family as a 21-page Christmas card. A producer who works at a movie studio happens to read the story, purchases it the following Spring, and here we are all these years later. APPLAUSE!
It’s nice that Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Van Doren Stern were still alive to see the film’s delayed success. Capra, Stewart and Reed each claimed that it was the favorite of all their movies. Today the American Film Institute ranks it as one of the 100 best American films ever made. I’m going to say it’s like that handsome, well-crafted piece of luggage I bought my husband. It started out as an idea. Someone believed in it enough to make it. It was good and in time, even non-believers understood its worth.