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The Greatest Gift (story)

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Title: The Greatest Gift (story)  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (It's a Wonderful Life), Pratt (surname), A Wonderful Life (musical), Philip Van Doren Stern, George Pratt, List of films in the public domain in the United States
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

The Greatest Gift (story)

The Greatest Gift
Special edition, 2011
Author Philip Van Doren Stern
Country United States
Language English
Genre Fantasy
Publisher Cluster Publishing Ltd
Publication date 1943 (written)
1945 (published)
Media type Print (Hardback)
Pages 48 pp
ISBN 978-0957025509

"The Greatest Gift" is a 1943 short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern which became the basis for the film It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

The film was nominated for five Oscars and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made,[1] placing number 11 on its initial 1998 greatest movie list, and would also place number one on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time.[2]

Plot summary

The story begins during the Christmas of 1943 with George Pratt, a man who is unsatisfied with his life and ready to commit suicide, standing on a bridge. A strange, unpleasantly-dressed but well-mannered man approaches him, carrying a bag. The man strikes up a conversation and George tells the man that he wishes he had never been born. The man tells him that his wish has been made official and that he was never born. The man tells George that he should take the bag with him and pretend to be a door-to-door brush salesman when he sees anyone. When George returns home, he does as he is told and is shocked to discover that not only is he unknown, everyone who had once knew him took many different & often very worse steps in life because George hadn't been born, including his little brother, who he had saved in a pond accident and instead had perished without George to rescue him. George offers "his wife" a complimentary upholstery brush, which she takes, and then he leaves the house after his wife's new husband tells him to leave. Upon his departure, his wife's son pretends to shoot him with a fraudulent cap gun and shouts, "You're dead. Why won't you die?" George returns to the bridge and questions the man, who explains to him that he wanted more when he had already been given the greatest gift of all: the gift of life. George, now realizing the lesson, begs the man to return the gift of life and the man agrees to it. George returns home to check if the man did, in fact, change everything back to normal. Sure enough, everything is normal and he hugs his wife, and explains that he thought he had lost her. She is confused, and as he is about to explain everything, his hand bumps a brush on the sofa behind him. Without just turning around, George mysteriously knows the brush was the one he had presented to her earlier.


Inspired by a dream, Stern finished the 4,100-word short story in 1943 after working on it since November 1939.[3] Unable to find a publisher, he sent the 200 copies he had printed as a 21-page booklet[4] to friends as Christmas presents in December 1943. Stern privately published the short story in 1945, and it was copyrighted in 1945.[5]

The story came to the attention of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead, who showed it to actor Cary Grant, who became interested in playing the lead role. RKO purchased the motion-picture rights for $10,000 in April 1944.[6] After several screenwriters worked on adaptations, RKO sold the rights to the story in 1945 to Frank Capra's production company for the same $10,000, which he adapted into It's a Wonderful Life.

The story was first published as a book in December 1944, with illustrations by Rafaello Busoni. Stern also sold it to Reader's Scope magazine, which published the story in its December 1944 issue, and to the magazine Good Housekeeping, which published it under the title "The Man Who Was Never Born" in its January 1945 issue (published in December 1944).

The special edition pictured was brought back to life in 2009 by Graphic Image Inc.


At the suggestion of RKO studio chief Charles Koerner, Frank Capra read "The Greatest Gift" and immediately saw its film potential. In 1945, RKO, anxious to unload the project sold the rights to Capra's production company, Liberty Films, which had a nine-film distribution agreement with RKO, for $10,000, and threw in three scripts adaptations for free. Capra claimed the script was purchased for $50,000.00.[7] Capra, along with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker brought in to "polish" the script,[8] turned the story and what was worth using from the three scripts into a screenplay that Capra would rename It's a Wonderful Life. The script underwent many revisions throughout pre-production and during filming.[9] Final screenplay credit went to Goodrich, Hackett and Capra, with "additional scenes" by Jo Swerling.

In the film, the main character George Pratt (George Bailey in the film) was played by James Stewart, the angel Clarence was played by Henry Travers and Mary Thatcher (George's wife, Mary Hatch in the film) was played by Donna Reed. Other characters were talked about in the story, such as, a Potter who owned a photographer studio. His brother Harry, who drowned in a river because George wasn't alive to save him. His parents were also in the story and instead of Mary becoming an old maid like in the film, she married a man called Art Jenkins (Sam Wainwright in the film).


Additional reading

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