Greetings of the Season, Twanians, Twainiacs and Assorted Twain Friends
(we can get the assortment box, with nuts, can't we?),
The selection of "Tom Sawyer" for "It's a Wonderful Life" remains
something of a mystery. Counting Philip Van Doren Stern, who wrote the
1938 short story that was the source of the film ("The Greatest Gift"),
at least ten writers contributed to various versions of the scripts for
"It's a Wonderful Life." The earliest version, pre-dating director Frank
Capra's September 1945 purchase of the story, was by playwright and
Algonquin Round Table wit Marc Connelly. Another early version, by
playwright Clifford Odets, also was completed before Capra's purchase of
the material. Dalton Trumbo, later blacklisted during the Red Scare,
also took a swing at it.
Capra purchased the story after being told of it by RKO boss
Charles Koerner. Capra assigned the script to prolific husband-and-wife
team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich ("The Thin Man," "The Diary of
Anne Frank"), and the director apparently wasn't boasting when he
claimed to have contributed some scenes and dialogue, as well. Capra
then brought in several writers to polish the script, including his
buddy Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson (also blacklisted) and Dorothy Parker
(Connelly's Round Table pal).
The Writers Guild rules of the time were considerably less strict
than today, but, even so, credit for "It's A Wonderful Life" was so
complicated, the script was submitted to the Guild for arbitration. The
final screen credit reads thus:
"Screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and Frank Capra.
Additional scenes by Joe Swerling. Based on a story by Philip Van Doren
Stern. So five of the ten known writers received some credit.
The references to Twain and "Tom Sawyer" are not in Van Doren
Stern's story, nor do they seem to have been in the early scripts
written by Connelly and Odets. They are in the final script (dated March
4, 1947) on file in the Frank Carpa Archives at Wesleyan University.
Clarence is carrying "Tom Sawyer" in that script's opening scene in
heaven (a scene cut in half by Capra, but "Tom Sawyer" survived the cut,
reemerging with Clarence when he jumps into the river to save George).
And in this shooting script used by Capra, the closing-scene inscription
written in "Tom Sawyer" by Clarence was slightly longer than the one we
now know: "Dear George -- This is to remember me by, and to remember
this: no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love,
So the likely suspects for including Twain and Tom are Carpa,
Goodrich and Hackett, Swerling, Parker or Wilson. Even if the writer
could be identified, though, the idea could have come from Capra, Jimmy
Stewart or the cameraman.
It has been the source of much speculation. In the '60s and '70s,
for instance, there was the theory that Capra used the "Tom Sawyer"
reference because Clarence the angel was a benign version of Twain's
angel in the hacked-together, widely read "The Mysterious Stranger" then
believed to represent the author's vision of the story.
During a 1968 appearance at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences, Capra was asked about the Twain reference by a student. This
exchange is from that transcript:
Student: I'm curious about one detail about the angel carrying the Mark
Twain book because this story is, so to speak, the reverse of Mark
Twain's 'Mysterious Stranger," where the boy dies, and in the story you
discover that if he had lived he would have created all kinds of
mischief so it was better that he died. He died also by falling through
and drowning. And I wondered whether this was in Van Doren Stern's story
or how it came to be that he carried a Mark Twain book.
Capra: No, it wasn't in Van Doren Stern's original. It's a detail we
thought of. I've always liked Mark Twain and I thought I'd give him a
plug. (Laughter) It wasn't in connection with a Mark Twain story. It was
not in answer or in any way connected with his.
The more popular theory is that Capra or one of the writers chose
Twain because, in 1946 (and today), no author better represented
Americana and Americans. And they most likely chose "Tom Sawyer" because
he was, by far and away, Twain's best-known character. It's a double
touchstone, grounding the film in something of the past and something
eternal. Remember that Capra and Stewart wanted to make this story after
witnessing the horrors of battle during World War II. They wanted to
make a story that honored the notion that every life has significance.
It's most likely that Twain was the all-American choice for this
small-town tale, although it certainly doesn't hurt that "It's a
Wonderful Life" (like Twain's writing) has some terribly dark, even
cynical corners (think of what becomes to the "good" people of Bedford
Falls when George gets to see life without his influence).
Did Trumbo, Swerling or Parker pick up on the darker aspects of
Twain's writing while still cherishing Twain as the most "human" of
writers? It's possible, but, again, nothing is conclusive.
The influence of Dickens also is profound, after all, from the
Scrooge-like Potter to the framing of a supernatural Christmas story.
Uncle Billy's pet raven is a very Dickensian touch (you were thinking
Poe?). The foolish title character in "Barnaby Rudge" has a pet raven.
Given Twain's influence on American literature, though, it would be
remarkable to think he didn't have some influence on the writers and the
writing of "It's a Wonderful Life." And the inclusion of "Tom Sawyer". .
. well, it's a wonderful choice.
With all best wishes for Christmas, the new year and beyond,