How “It’s a Wonderful Life” Almost Never Happened

Three generations of a1940s-era family gathered in their in their Christmas-decorated living room, gazing hopefully at a older man who has just walked in.

James Stewart and Donna Reed, center, in a famous scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo: RKO publicity still.

Elizabeth Brown is a reference librarian in the Researcher and Reference Services Division. This article appears in the Library of Congress Magzine, Nov.-Dec. 2022.

Perhaps the most beloved Christmas film of all time got its start during a morning shave.

Philip Van Doren Stern, while getting ready for work one day in 1938, had an idea for a story: A stranger appears from nowhere to save a husband and father from a suicide attempt on Christmas Eve, restoring his joy of living by helping him realize his value to others.

Stern, an author and editor, eventually wrote a draft that he polished periodically and, in 1943, shared with his literary agent. It didn’t sell.

But Stern still liked the little story, so he had 200 copies printed as a pamphlet titled “The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale” and sent most of them out as holiday cards — and two to the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress.

Photograph of the two page spread of "The Man Who Was Never Born," the basis for the film "It's a Wonderful Life." The color illustration on the left page shows a man with eyes closed, hands clasped in prayer

Good Housekeeping ran this short story in January 1945, “The Man Who Was Never Born,” which became the basis for the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Serial and Government Publications Division.

The next year, RKO Radio Pictures bought the film rights for $10,000 as a vehicle for Cary Grant. Film rights helped: The story was published by two magazines and as a book in 1944 and 1945.

But film scripts proved unworkable, and RKO sold the rights to Frank Capra’s newly formed Liberty Films. With a new script, a new star in Jimmy Stewart and a new title in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the film finally got made.

Despite earning five Oscar nominations, “Wonderful Life” lost money and, in 1948, Capra sold Liberty Films to Paramount. Ownership of the film changed a few more times and, in 1974, National Telefilm Associates failed to renew its copyright. With no royalty fees required, TV stations aired the film repeatedly, and “Wonderful Life” became a holiday favorite — while earning nothing for its owner. In 1994, its next owner, Republic Pictures, restored the copyright through court action, and Paramount bought it back in 1998.

Today, Library collections hold items that chronicle the “Wonderful Life” story: the original Stern pamphlet, magazines that published early versions of the tale, the continuity script from the film, promotional posters for the movie and more.

What a wonderful life it has been for a story that nobody wanted to publish. (You can read more about the life of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in this post by Samantha Kosarzycki, a former legal intern in the Copyright Office.)

Typewritten first page of "It's a Wonderful Life" script

 The first page of the script of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Motion Picture, Film & Recorded Sound Division.

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4 Comments

  1. Israadawood
    December 21, 2022 at 9:58 am

    Fantastic story ❤️

  2. Marry Dao
    December 21, 2022 at 10:04 am

    I hope to see or to read this story

  3. Marry Dao
    December 21, 2022 at 10:51 am

    Good to know. No comment

  4. Dan Salerno
    December 21, 2022 at 12:13 pm

    Thank you for this timely note! I’m a huge fan of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It remains my #1 Christmas film, by far, and one of my top 10, overall.

    I’ll be forever grateful to Neal Gabler who introduced this film to me via Channel 13 (PBS for New York City). It was somewhere in the early 1980s and I was living in NYC.

    Gabler, in his introduction, explained most of what Neely Tucker included in the blog post.

    Isn’t it marvelous that this particular film has such a rich miraculous history!

    Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays!!!

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