November, 1939. Writer Phillip Van Doren Stern, deeply inspired by a dream vaguely reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, begins work on a story that takes him four years to complete. Finishing it in 1943, he calls it “The Greatest Gift,” believing it to be a “universal story for all people in all times.” It’s a tale about George Pratt, a man who wishes he had never been born, and after a meeting with a stranger, is granted his wish. Seeing life without him, George convinces the stranger to give him his life back, with a new found gratitude for being alive.
Unable to find a publisher interested in printing “The Greatest Gift,” Stern makes 200 24-page copies of his own, electing to send them out as Christmas cards to family and friends. Unknowingly, a copy of his small book finds its way into the hands of David Hampstead, a producer for RKO Pictures in Hollywood, who loves the story enough to buy the rights for $10,000. Initially hoping the story to be a vehicle for Cary Grant, RKOends up shelving the project, incapable of effectively rendering Stern’s story into a good script.
The story, however, is too good to abandon. RKO studio chief Charles Korner shows “The Greatest Gift” to Frank Capra, who by 1945 has become one of America’s most influential film directors. Seeing the story’s potential, Capra buys the rights, gathers a crew of talented writers, revises the script, and directs what has now become a Christmas classic: It’s a Wonderful Life.
It might seem strange to know that initial reception for the January, 1947 release of It’s a Wonderful Life was actually very mixed. The film grossed $3.3 million on a $3.8 million budget, recording a loss of around $525,000 for RKO, and it placed 26th at the Box Office. Its critical reaction was warm, with a fair amount of praise from critics, but Capra considered it a commercial failure. Even the FBI had something to say about it, believing it to be communist propaganda.
It’s a Wonderful Life probably experienced its greatest commercial success from two radio play adaptations: one broadcast on March 10, 1947 by the Lux Radio Theatre, featuring James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Victor Moore of the original cast, and another broadcast two years later on May 8, 1949, by the Hallmark Playhouse, starring just Stewart. While films were still developing as an art form, radio was at the peak of its popularity at the time. And without the forgettable Lionel Barrymore, and several production problems (such as a kiss between Mary and George considered too intense for the screen or references to real places and persons), a radio play got at the heart of the story while bringing it to life with a live performance. But after the 1949 broadcast, and with the end of the 40s, it seemed that public consciousness of It’s a Wonderful Life, too, had come to an end.
However, three whole decades later, in 1974, the copyright had lapsed due to a clerical error. Television stations, searching for movies to air around Christmas, chose to show the film. It took off, growing into a television staple in the late 1970s. Capra described its reception as “the damnedest thing [he’d] ever seen,” delighted by its newfound popularity. The 1940s film remains one of America’s most enduring Christmas traditions to this day.
With the film so embedded in American culture, its annual showings December of each year, one would be hard-pressed to figure out another way to present the story of It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet a renewed interest, initiated by Joe Landry, in revitalizing the story as a radio play has recently emerged. If there are any two pieces of culture that are quintessentially 1940s, they’re It’s a Wonderful Life and radio. What better way to provide a completely new experience of this old classic than to stage and produce live the original 1947 Lux Theatre radio feature?
Well, that’s what RTC is doing. Don’t miss the chance to see the original 1947 radio play script come to life with 6 professional actors playing all the roles. Get your tickets here for the Dec. 5th and 6th shows here: