The Greatest Gift

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The Greatest Gift
Special edition to 'The Greatest Gift'.jpg
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 also placed number one on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The story begins during 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 granted 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, people who had once known him took different and often worse paths in life because George hadn't been born. His little brother, who he had saved in an ice-skating pond accident, 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 toy cap gun and shouts, "You're dead. Why won't you die?" George returns to the bridge and questions the man, who explains 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. 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 turning around, George realizes the brush was the one he had presented to her earlier.


  • George Pratt, a suicidal man, who wishes he was never born
  • The Stranger, George's guardian angel, who grants George's wish
  • Mary Thatcher, George's wife
  • James 'Jim' Silva, owner of a real estate company that's selling the bank
  • Arthur 'Art' Jenkins, Mary's husband in the parallel town
  • Pa Pratt, George's father
  • Ma Pratt, George's mother
  • Harry Pratt, George's brother
  • Brownie, Pa and Ma's bulldog
  • Marty Jenkins, Arthur's brother, and thief who stole $50,000 from the bank
  • Hank Biddle, owner of the maple tree George crashed his car into
  • Mr. Potter, owner of a photography studio


Inspired by a dream, remarkably similar to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol published in 1843, Stern finished the 4,100-word short story in 1943 after working on it since November 1939.[1] Unable to find a publisher, he sent the 200 copies he had printed as a 21-page booklet[3] to friends as Christmas presents in December 1943. Stern privately published the short story in 1945, and it was copyrighted in 1945.[1]

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.[4] 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.[5] Capra, along with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker brought in to "polish" the script,[6] turned the story and fragments from the three scripts into a screenplay that Capra renamed It's a Wonderful Life. The script underwent many revisions throughout pre-production and during filming.[7] 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).

Warehouse 13[edit]

In the warehouse 13 episode endless, a brush from the writer of the greatest gift changes the past.


  1. ^ a b c "AFI's 100 YEARS...100 MOVIES10TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  2. ^ "AFI's 100 YEARS...100 CHEERS". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  3. ^ Library of Congress catalog entry for the 1943 edition.
  4. ^ "Tempest in Hollywood", New York Times, April 23, 1944, p. X3.
  5. ^ Capra 1971, p. 376.[incomplete short citation]
  6. ^ Cox 2003, p. 23.[incomplete short citation]
  7. ^ Goodrich et al. 1986, pp. 135, 200.[incomplete short citation]

Additional reading[edit]