It's a Wonderful Find
A University of Oregon librarian recently uncovered a manuscript of a short story in the Special Collections and University Archives at the Knight Library which provided the basis for the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The manuscript, titled “The Greatest Gift,” was written by Philip Van Doren Stern (1900-1984), and tells the story of a suicidal man named George Pratt, who is about to commit suicide when an angel shows him how worse off the world would be like without him.
Unable to find a publisher, Pratt self-published the story in 1943 and sent it to 200 friends as as Christmas gift. A year later, Stern was surprised to receive a phone call from RKO Pictures, which offered him $10,000 — roughly $125,000 in today’s dollars — for the movie rights to the story.
Stern’s story was transformed into “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey (changed from Pratt) and directed by Frank Capra. Released in 1946, the movie eventually became a holiday classic.
A University of Oregon librarian, Ed Kemp, acquired Stern’s papers in the 1960s. Stern was a noted Civil War historian and edited compilations of works by major American writers such as Edgar Allen Poe. Sterns’ papers fill 14 boxes, occupying 20 linear feet of shelf space.
“The Greatest Gift” was forgotten for nearly 50 years until last year, when UO Manuscripts Librarian Linda Long discovered several drafts of the manuscripts, with numerous hand-written changes by Stern.
“The many drafts of ‘The Greatest Gift’ illustrate how hard writers have to work to craft their material,” Long said. “Even then, it was Stern’s story line, rather than the writing itself, that won him eventual success.
“The manuscript demonstrates how well-known movies often have obscure literary sources that aren’t themselves commercial successes, which makes cinema history all the more interesting.”
Long found the manuscripts while working to catalog and describe library holdings so they can be searched online. UO Libraries received a two-year, $116,127 grant from National Historic Publications and Records Commission for the project.
Information on Stern’s papers is found in the Northwest Digital Archives (NWDA) finding aid and features details about Stern’s papers.
“These finding aids help us get the word out about the amazing variety of primary sources we have in our collections,” Long said. “We encourage students, scholars, and community members locally, regionally, and throughout the world to visit Special Collections, either online or in person, and use the many research materials we have available.”