By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2018-2019, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2018 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
When the calendar moves to December, among the things we can count on are cold weather, very many holiday sales, and far too little time to prepare for the holidays. There are also sure to be plenty of opportunities to overdose on television broadcasts of holiday movies. These holiday movies include musicals such as Holiday Inn and White Christmas, animated films such as A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman, and the stop motion film Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There are several versions of A Christmas Carol, including one with the Disney characters and another with the Muppets. (Who needs Alastair Sim and George C. Scott when we have Mickey Mouse and Kermit the Frog?) There are comedies such as Elf, Home Alone, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and there are sentimental movies such as Miracle on 34th Street and The Polar Express. There is also the movie A Christmas Story, which is both humorous and sentimental and is set in a house that, in real life, is in Cleveland. Of all the holiday movies, the one that is arguably the most inspirational and uplifting is It’s a Wonderful Life, because this movie’s story conveys the message that every person is valuable, even those whose lives seem ordinary and humdrum. But one little-known aspect of this movie is that it has a definite connection to the Civil War. One connection between It’s a Wonderful Life and the Civil War is that Jimmy Stewart, who had the male lead in It’s a Wonderful Life, also had the leading role in a 1965 movie named Shenandoah, a fictitious story about a Virginia family during the Civil War. But that movie is maudlin and insipid, and there is a connection between It’s a Wonderful Life and the Civil War which is much more substantive than that.
The story for It’s a Wonderful Life was written by a man named Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern was born on September 10, 1900 in Wyalusing, a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania. Stern grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Rutgers University, and spent most of his adult life in New York City. He worked as a publishing editor, and during World War II he was general manager of a program that printed paperback editions of books that were small enough to fit in the uniform pockets of U.S. servicemen. Stern spent the last eight years of his life in Florida and died on July 31, 1984 at the age of 83. On the morning of February 12, 1938, while he was shaving, Stern had the idea for the story that became It’s a Wonderful Life. Although the idea for the story came to Stern like a bolt from the blue, laying out the entire story on paper became an excruciating endeavor. It was five years of writing and rewriting before Stern had a finished version of the story, which he named The Greatest Gift and which centers on a main character named George Pratt. Despite great effort, Stern could not find a publisher willing to take on the story, and in December 1943, Stern, at his own expense, had his 4,000-word story printed as a booklet, which he sent to 200 of his family and friends as a holiday card. In fact, Stern’s only child, Marguerite Stern Robinson, hand-delivered some of those cards when she was in the third grade. Somehow one of those cards made its way to a movie producer at RKO Studios named David Hempstead, who was intrigued enough to consider the story for a movie. But after more than a year and three scripts that were deemed inadequate, RKO unloaded the rights to the story to a small, independent film company that had recently been formed by a man named Frank Capra. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Capra brought in some other writers to work on the screenplay, and these writers successfully adapted the story, which was renamed It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie opened in December 1946 and received mixed reviews. It also received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director, but won only one, the Technical Achievement Award, which was conferred because of a method for simulating falling snow that was developed for the movie. The movie’s popularity following its release was disappointing. Ironically, It’s a Wonderful Life did not reach the lofty status it now holds until its copyright was not renewed in 1974. This allowed television stations and networks to broadcast the movie without paying royalties, and in subsequent years the movie was broadcast numerous times during the holiday season, sometimes at the same time on different television channels. The immense viewership that resulted led to an enormous increase in popularity as people became enthralled with the movie’s story and message. In 1993, through some legal maneuvering, the copyright again became enforceable, and now the movie is broadcast on a much more limited basis.
As is generally true for movie classics, there is a large amount of interesting trivia associated with It’s a Wonderful Life. For example, when the rights to the story were held by RKO Studios, the actor who was being considered for the role of George Bailey was Cary Grant. Also, in the scene in which George and Mary make wishes by throwing stones through the windows of an abandoned house, Frank Capra had someone ready to break the window on cue when Mary threw her stone. But Donna Reed hit the window and shattered the glass with her throw, and on her first try. Reed actually had an accurate throwing arm due to years of playing baseball in her youth. Reed’s accurate throw was an unexpected moment during the filming. Also unexpected, at least for Lionel Barrymore, was losing a $50 bet with Donna Reed that she could milk a cow. Reed grew up on a farm in Iowa, where she learned how to milk cows, and when she mentioned to Barrymore that she could do it, he challenged her, and she proved herself with a cow that was on set. Barrymore would not have lost such a bet, if another actress who was considered for the role of Mary had not turned it down. The actress who turned down the role of Mary was Ginger Rogers, because she considered the character too bland. One person who did not turn down a role in the movie deserved a bonus for hazardous duty, and that was Robert Anderson (not the commander of Fort Sumter, but the actor who played young George Bailey). According to Anderson, in the scene in which Mr. Gower slapped George, the slaps were so hard that blood actually came out of Anderson’s ear. After the scene was filmed, H.B. Warner, the actor who played Mr. Gower, comforted Anderson. Warner played a much more non-violent character in the 1927 silent film The King of Kings, which was directed by renowned director Cecil B. DeMille. In that film, Warner played Jesus Christ.
Seneca Falls, New York considers itself the inspiration for Bedford Falls. But Philip Van Doren Stern, who grew up in New Jersey, said in an interview that the town he had in mind for his story is Califon, New Jersey, which has an iron bridge over a river, similar to the bridge in the movie from which George Bailey planned to jump. Similarly, the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie are thought to be namesakes of the movie’s characters Bert the cop and Ernie the taxi driver. But Jim Henson’s writing partner, Jerry Juhl, claimed this is not so. Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played Zuzu, said that she never saw the movie until 1979, more than 30 years after it was made. Grimes may have waited decades before watching the movie, but anyone who watches the beginning of It’s a Wonderful Life hears a cryptic reference to Philip Van Doren Stern’s original story that became the basis for the movie. In the opening lines of the movie, when the assignment to rescue George Bailey is being explained to Clarence, Clarence is told that George intends to throw away “God’s greatest gift.” Later in the movie, when Clarence explains to George that he has been given “a chance to see what the world would be like without you,” Clarence calls that opportunity “a great gift.”
One perhaps surprising piece of trivia about It’s a Wonderful Life is that it came under scrutiny by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee. A 1947 FBI memo noted that two of the writers who worked on It’s a Wonderful Life were “very close to known Communists and on one occasion in the recent past…practically lived with known Communists.” The memo further noted that a witness, whose name was redacted, “stated in substance that the film represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.” In other testimony, “[redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”
After all of the foregoing information about It’s a Wonderful Life, anyone reading this is probably wondering when the connection between the movie and the Civil War is going to be explained. The connection between the movie It’s a Wonderful Life and the Civil War is this. Philip Van Doren Stern, the person who wrote the story that was used for It’s a Wonderful Life, wrote an impressive number of non-fiction books about the Civil War. Among Stern’s Civil War books are Prologue to Sumter: The Beginnings of the Civil War from the John Brown Raid to the Surrender of Fort Sumter, When the Guns Roared: World Aspects of the American Civil War, An End to Valor: The Last Days of the Civil War, Soldier Life in the Union and Confederate Armies, They Were There: The Civil War in Action as Seen by its Combat Artists, The Confederate Navy: A Pictorial History, Secret Missions of the Civil War, The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee: The Man and the Soldier, and The Man Who Killed Lincoln: The Story of John Wilkes Booth and his Part in the Assassination. Stern also wrote a novel about the Civil War titled The Drums of Morning. In its review of Stern’s Civil War novel, The New York Herald Tribune called it “the long overdue fictional answer to Gone with the Wind.” In contrast to Gone with the Wind, which romanticizes Georgia slaveholders, The Drums of Morning focuses on abolitionists in New England and Illinois. Philip Van Doren Stern was such an accomplished and acclaimed writer of Civil War history that the headline of his obituary in The New York Times does not mention his contribution to It’s a Wonderful Life, but calls Stern “A Specialist on Civil War Era.” The text of Stern’s obituary notes that he was “widely respected by scholars for his authoritative books on the Civil War era.” Although Stern’s most widely viewed piece of work is the story that became It’s a Wonderful Life, the work for which Stern was most highly acknowledged were his books about Civil War history.
There is a memorable scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey is beginning to come to the astounding realization that his world has been shockingly altered. George learned that the town in which he lived has come to be dominated by the greedy, heartless man whose devious, vicious schemes George had successfully thwarted. George watched as the pharmacist, Mr. Gower, was ridiculed by a large group of people, because Mr. Gower had made a mistake with a prescription that led to the death of a young boy, even though George remembered that he had made Mr. Gower aware of the error, and Mr. Gower had corrected it. George was told that his family’s company, for which he sacrificed all his dreams to keep afloat, had gone out of business. George’s own mother coldly expressed to him that she had no idea who he was, and she even referred to George as a stranger. George went to the house where he lived with his wife and children, but that house was uninhabited and dilapidated, and he was told that his children, Tommy, Pete, Janie, and Zuzu, had never come into existence. After experiencing all this, George stared wide-eyed in frightened astonishment at the gruesomely distorted world in which he now found himself, and the angel, Clarence, said to George, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” The implicit message in Clarence’s statement is that there often are obscure connections in unexpected places. The movie It’s a Wonderful Life has such a connection. From now on, when you watch that movie, you will know that it has a little-known connection to the Civil War. As thoughtful as it might be to point out this connection to other viewers of the movie, even if you do this, you will probably not receive your angel wings. But if you do make people aware of this connection, then, when it comes to your wealth of knowledge about the Civil War, you may very well be toasted as the richest person in town.