Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Story Behind It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life -- that's the movie where we learn that being a librarian is a fate worse than death, isn't it? I have to confess, I've never seen the movie all the way through, so I may have it wrong.

Browsing the new fiction table at the bookstore yesterday, I saw one of those slender, bright red books that seem to proliferate at the holidays. Normally, I barely notice these books that appear to exist solely as desperation gifts. This one was The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale. But it was the author's name that caught my eye. Philip Van Doren Stern was a major figure in the book I'd recently finished. In When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, a terrific book about the program that sent millions of pocket-sized paperbacks to Americans fighting overseas,  Philip Van Doren Stern was a major character.  As the general manager of The Armed Services Editions, he helped select which titles would be reformatted for military use, edited and anthologized some editions, and oversaw the entire project.

The Greatest Gift is only 64 pages long, and half of
those 64 pages are an afterword by Stern's daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson. She describes how her father wrote the story in 1939. His agent tried to place it in one of the many magazines that published fiction at the time, but was not successful. She told Stern that no one was buying fantasy stories these days. Finally in 1945, Stern self published 200 copies of the story and sent them to his friends and family, along with that year's Christmas cards. Frank Capra saw it and immediately wanted to make a movie of it.

Capra, who had interrupted his successful career as a Hollywood director to join the Army, had spent the war making propaganda films. He was at loose ends on his return to civilian life, as so many returning soldiers were, and making a film that recalled the pre-war days seemed just the ticket. But it was not a hit with audiences, who overwhelmingly preferred William Wyler's movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, which was released at the same time as It's a Wonderful Life. Wyler, also a returning war veteran, tapped into what audiences wanted, with a story of three men who were having difficulty transitioning to civilian life.

Capra and Wyler are among the five directors that Mark Harris has written about in his book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Five Came Back is a detailed and often dramatic look at how five civilians, from different backgrounds and generations, adjusted to war, and then adjusted to peace when they came back to a very different America. Either Five Came Back or When Books Went to War would be a great gift for history fans.

As for that scene in It's a Wonderful Life at the library, it turns out that in the original short story, George's wife, Mary, was not destined to become an old maid librarian (horrors) if George had never been born -- she simply married someone else.

The Christmas Gift: A Christmas Tale
by Philip Van Doren Stern
Simon & Schuster, 2014

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II
by Molly Guptill Manning
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
on sale December 2, 2014

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
by Mark Harris
Penguin Press, 2014 


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