For millions of Americans, an annual Christmas tradition is watching a timeless classic – a movie with a message that still resonates today.
Each Christmas, TV viewers are treated to one of the greatest films ever made - It's a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra. The American Film Institute has recognized the movie as one of the '100 best American Films Ever Made.' It's also number one on AFI's 'Most Inspirational American Films of All Time' list.
The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards – and received none. It was also a box office bomb. Yet, the message of the movie continues to touch hearts today.
The movie was based on a short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern entitled, The Greatest Gift. Stern wrote over 40 books on the Civil War and his work was widely respected by scholars. The basis of the movie classic was a 4000 word short story, based on a dream Stern had, that began in the late 1930's and was completed in 1943. No one would publish the story so Stern printed 200 copies and sent them off as Christmas cards to friends.
One of the cards found its way into the hands of an RKO Pictures producer, who eventually sold it to Frank Capra for $10,000. In 1945, Capra visited Seneca Falls, New York and modeled Bedford Falls after the town. In 2009, the Hotel Clarence opened in Seneca Falls, named after the angel that helps Bill Bailey, Jimmy Stewart's character.
The film premiered at the Globe Theatre in New York on December 20, 1946 to mixed reviews, with The New York Times writing that the film's weakness was its sentimentality.
When Capra was directing the film, there were several rewrites of the script, including an alternate ending that had Bailey (played by Stewart) falling to his knees and reciting the Lord's Prayer. The script also called for an opening with the entire town in prayer. Eventually, the script was finalized with the ending we all know and love - Bill Bailey's friends arrive and sacrificial give to help their friend in need.
But the power and the universal appeal of the film is made most evident during the scene where, in utter desperation, Bailey whispers a prayer expressing his own frailty as a man and his complete need for God's help. God answers the prayer in a most unique way in the movie – as He so often does in real life.
Frank Capra was very concerned about what he called "the God-haters" in Hollywood. A man of faith, Capra created movies designed to speak to the human heart. In a 1946 interview, he prophetically stated that his Christmas classic was designed to "combat a modern trend toward atheism." I'm not so sure that 'each time a bell rings an angel gets its wings,' but I am sure that each time we prayer, God hears and God answers.