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Re: Philip Van Doren Stern
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The surprising Jersey roots of 'It's a Wonderful Life'

http://www.nj.com/education/2017/12/t ... _its_a_wonderful_lif.html

Was George Bailey really a Jersey guy?

Though you won't see many clues when "It's a Wonderful Life" gets its traditional airing on NBC this Christmas Eve, the beloved holiday movie has deep New Jersey roots.

The classic film got its unlikely start as a humble Christmas card sent by a Rutgers University graduate. And its fictional Bedford Falls setting was actually inspired by a small town in Hunterdon County with an iron bridge that became a focal point of the movie.

Philip Van Doren Stern, a history writer who grew up in Jersey City, woke up one morning near the end of the Great Depression with the idea for a story about a suicidal man who is stopped from jumping off a bridge by a guardian angel who shows him the true joy of living.

Stern spent years writing and rewriting the tale, but his agent failed to sell it to everything from The Saturday Evening Post to farm journals.

So, Stern put up his own money to have the story printed as a pamphlet in the midst of World War II. He sent it to 200 friends and family members as a Christmas card.

Three months later, the phone rang at the family's house in Brooklyn.

"Hold me up! I can't believe it!" his daughter recalled Stern shouting as he listened to a Western Union operator read him a telegram over the phone.

Philip Van Doren Stern, a 1924 Rutgers graduate, wrote "The Greatest Gift," a short story that inspired the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life". (Rutgers University archive photo)

His Christmas card story, called "The Greatest Gift", had somehow made it to Hollywood. His agent had sold the rights to his story for $10,000 (the equivalent of about $139,000 in today's money) to a studio that wanted to turn it into a movie.

The story languished for a few years in Hollywood as different screen writers tried to adapt it and Cary Grant toyed with starring in the film. Grant eventually passed and the rights ended up with director Frank Capra, who said he was drawn to the story's message that no one is a failure and no man is poor if he has friends.

Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" -- which premiered 71 years ago this week -- initially got mixed reviews and was considered a box office flop.

But the film, staring Jimmy Stewart as small-town banker George Bailey, steadily found new life over the years as it aired on television and grew into a Christmas classic. (It airs this Christmas Eve at 8 p.m. on NBC. It will also be screened in various New Jersey movie theaters on Christmas Eve, including multiplexes in South Plainfield, North Brunswick and Hazlet.)

Both Capra and Stewart later said the film, the first both made after serving in World War II, was their favorite.

Stewart said in interviews he was heartened to know the movie -- with its iconic scene of him running through Bedford Falls shouting "Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!" -- had become an integral part of the holiday for many families.

"They put up the tree, they get people in, and they all watch 'It's a Wonderful Life'. It's part of the annual ritual now. That means a great deal to me," Stewart said in an interview for the 1986 "The 'It's a Wonderful Life' Book".

An edition of "The Greatest Gift" published in 1996 to mark the 50th anniversary of the film "It's a Wonderful Life". (Kelly Heyboer | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
For the Stern family, the film was a dream come true.

Marguerite Stern Robinson, the author's only child, remembered hand delivering some of the original 1943 Christmas cards to her teachers and friends when she was in the third grade. Her father, who was of mixed religious background, told his daughter the tale was set at Christmas, but was meant to be a universal story.

"Starting with those 200 Christmas cards, my father's story has reached millions of people," Robinson wrote in the afterword to an edition of "The Greatest Gift" published in 1996 for the film's 50th anniversary.

Stern was born in Wyalusing, Pa., but grew up mostly in New Jersey. He went to grammar school and high school in Jersey City, graduated from Rutgers and started his career working in Newark.

Though Capra is believed to have modeled the fictional Bedford Falls in Westchester County in his film after Seneca Falls in upstate New York, Stern said his original story was actually set in New Jersey.

"Incidentally," Stern said in a 1946 newspaper interview, "the movie takes place in Westchester County. Actually, the town I had in mind was Califon, N.J."

Califon, a borough in Hunterdon County with about 1,000 residents, has Victorian-style houses and a small downtown. It also has a historic iron bridge spanning the South Branch of the Raritan River, similar to the one that George Pratt (later renamed George Bailey in the film) considers jumping from in "The Greatest Gift."

A bridge in Califon in Hunterdon County that may have been the inspiration for the bridge George stands on in "The Greatest Gift," the story that inspired the film "It's a Wonderful Life."
In the opening of his story, Stern writes: "The little town straggling up the hill was bright with colored Christmas lights. But George Pratt did not see them. He was leaning over the railing of the iron bridge, staring down moodily at the black water."

Despite the success of the film, Stern's contribution to "It's a Wonderful Life" was not considered one of his biggest accomplishments. When the grandfather of three died of heart attack at age 83 in Florida in 1984, the headline of his obituary in the New York Times read "Philip Van Doren Stern dies; A specialist on Civil War era".

Stern authored more than 40 books, including "The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln." He also worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster and other publishers. During World War II, he was general manager of a service that provided books to soldiers.

Over the years, Stern stayed close to Rutgers, where he graduated in 1924. He was the first in his family to attend college, his daughter said.

He helped found the Rutgers University Press in the 1930s, university officials said. After publishing a book on Abraham Lincoln, Stern was invited back to Rutgers to receive an honorary doctorate during a 1940 convocation ceremony held on Lincoln's birthday.

He was also invited by Rutgers to write a pamphlet in 1941, called "Rutgers University and the American Way of Life", in honor of the campus' 175th birthday.

Robinson, Stern's daughter, wrote that her father knew he had left behind something enduring with his contribution to "It's a Wonderful Life".

"'The Greatest Gift' is as compelling today as it was 50 years ago, because in this little book lies a powerful message about the significance of the lives of all of us," Robinson wrote in 1996. "As for its author, Philip Van Doren Stern, I borrow a line from Harry Bailey: 'He was the richest man in town.'"

Posted on: 12/26 19:15
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Re: Philip Van Doren Stern
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Posted on: 12/26 18:49
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Philip Van Doren Stern
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Hello. This film history person *just* learned that Philip Van Doren Stern, the Civil War Historian and the author of the original story that the movie "It's A Wonderful Life" was based upon, grew-up in JC. Does anyone have any idea which schools he attended & where his home street(s) were? The town directories are, unfortunately, not online and this Margaret Hague born person now lives in NH. Thus, traveling (6 hrs each way) for such a tiny bit of info is not really plausible. Hence, just wondering if anyone has an idea or knows of recollections about where he was schooled/lived? He was born 1899/1900. Thus he graduated from HS ~1916/17 and then went to Rutgers, eventually to Hollywood and finally in Sarasota, FL. So, to repeat, anyone have any info on those bits of his JC Life? Appreciate learning that tidbit concerning 'our' town. Me, St Pat's & Arlington Ave. THANKS

Posted on: 12/25 23:56
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