If you are among those who count snuggling in front of the television to watch It's a Wonderful Life among your holiday traditions (somebody's failure to renew the film's copyright in 1974 has ensured its network ubiquity every December since), you may be surprised to learn the film has a connection to the University of Oregon. Last year, manuscripts librarian Linda Long made an unexpected discovery in Knight Library's Special Collections and University Archives. As part of a grant-funded project to describe and catalog many of the library's special collections holdings, Long was working her way through 14 boxes of materials related to Philip Van Doren Stern (1900–84) when she came to a heavily revised manuscript for a story that had a familiar ring to it.
Stern, a noted Civil War historian, was the editor of several short story collections and compilations of writings by Abraham Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau, and Edgar Allan Poe, including Viking's The Portable Poe, a popular anthology. His greatest influence on the American psyche, however, is in authoring the only popular Christmas story that begins with its protagonist contemplating suicide.
In 1943, Stern self-published a 4,000-word story, "The Greatest Gift," after spending several years revising it and failing to find a publisher. He sent about 200 copies to friends as Christmas cards. One managed to catch the attention of a producer at RKO Pictures, who bought the film rights from Stern for $10,000. Eventually, director Frank Capra acquired the story—and you know the rest. Capra changed some details—Stern's George Pratt became Capra's George Bailey; Zuzu and her petals are unique to the film—but the story line is unmistakable.
There's a serendipitous charm to the discovery—it's just downright cool that the original manuscript of a story that is so profoundly ingrained in the collective holiday tradition of so many is right here on campus. It also serves as a nice reminder of the value of the university's collections and research resources—and its sharp-eyed librarians.
UO Libraries and the Cinema Studies Program will host a screening of It's a Wonderful Life on December 9 in 180 Prince Lucien Campbell Hall. Register-Guard columnist Bob Welch, who wrote of the discovery at the time, will be on hand to share his experiences using Knight Library's Special Collections and University Archives.
—By Ann Wiens