It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) began as a short story called “The Greatest Gift“. Writer Philip Van Doren Stern was unable to sell it to a publisher, so he sent the tale out as a long Christmas card to friends. His agent subsequently sold the fable to RKO pictures, where it went through several transformations. In one version a losing political candidate contemplated suicide, only to have an angel convince him to stick around and do good works. Finally it fell into the hands of Director Frank Capra who cried when he read it, said it was the story he had been looking for all his life, and purchased it to be the first project for his new production company, Liberty Films.
To play the unassuming savings and loan clerk, Capra wanted Jimmy Stewart who he had previously worked with in You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). But coming back from World War II, the thirty-seven year old Stewart was no longer the easy going man about town he had been in the thirties. The former Academy Award winner for The Philadelphia Story (1940) had led a thousand men in bombing missions in the European theater in hard to maneuver B-24s. The loud engines damaged his hearing, in later years people when people would greet him and he would fail to respond, some would mistake his deafness for a cold personality. He was uncertain after five years away from the screen if he still wanted to be in the movies. Sometimes the profession seemed so humiliating. In 1943 when Stewart had tried to stay in the best hotel in Madrid, he was turned away because he was an actor. He went back to the air force base, got his Lieutenant Colonel’s uniform and then they let him in.