In 1943 author Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a short story with a Christmas theme.
He entitled it The Greatest Gift. Try as he did to sell the story, no publisher was interested in buying it. So what Van Doren couldn’t sell he decided to give away. At his own expense the disappointed author printed 200 copies of The Greatest Gift. He placed them inside Christmas cards, and mailed them to his friends and family. His efforts to publish a story seemed to be a failure.
But not quite. One of Stern’s Christmas cards fell into the hands of an RKO Pictures executive. He convinced the company to purchase the story for $10,000. Although RKO executives saw potential in The Greatest Gift, none of them knew what to do with it. They commissioned three different scriptwriters to work independently on possible screenplays for a film based on The Greatest Gift. All three screenplays were less than satisfying. So RKO cancelled the project. The story sat on the shelf for the next three years. Again, it seemed like a failure.
But not quite. RKO finally brought The Greatest Gift to the attention of veteran director, Frank Capra who immediately saw the story’s potential. He bought it for the same price that RKO had paid – $10,000 – who threw in the three screenplays for free. Capra created a new script of his own but kept elements of the original and the three RKO screenplays. He then gave the story a new name – It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra believed he had a fabulous hit on his hands. He even said “This is the film I have waited all my life to make”!
Frank Capra finished the film just in time for the 1946 Christmas season. But to his profound disappointment, this “greatest film” opened to mixed reviews from the critics. It was a disappointing show at the box office. The film barely broke even and didn’t garner a single Academy Award. Within three months from its opening day, It’s a Wonderful Life was out of sight and out of mind. Its actors and director went on to other projects.
The movie was release again every year for the next decade. Still, for the next 28 years It’s a Wonderful Life was largely unseen and forgotten. Again, the story seemed like a failure.
But not quite. By a strange twist of fate It’s a Wonderful Life was given a rebirth. In 1974 a clerical error prevented the film’s copyright from being renewed and the film entered the public domain.
It’s a Wonderful Life could now be purchased and viewed by any TV station. Immediately, every TV station across America began showing the film. Even multiple times in a single holiday season and its popularity soared. Finally the movie’s message of hope and the significance of every person’s life was powerful. From the 1970’s to even now, watching It’s a Wonderful Life became an indispensable Christmas tradition for millions of Americans. It never won an Oscar nor made a fortune for its creator. However movie historians and critics consistently rank It’s a Wonderful Life among the ten best movies of all time.
Like its main character, George Bailey, this movie could have easily judged itself a failure. Time and again, success seemed to elude this project. Yet today It’s a Wonderful Life is widely recognized as the most beloved movie ever made.
Like George Bailey and the movie, we also may feel as though our life has been a failure. But don’t judge yourself prematurely. God will one day bring all things to light and will reveal the true significance and success of our lives. Our part is to be faithful in our daily tasks and to leave success with God.
Dear Father in heaven, help me to work faithfully in the work to which You have called me. Help me to walk by faith, not by sight, and to leave the results of my work in your hands. Amen.