“A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.” ~Harry Bailey
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” staring James Stewart as George Bailey. Originally a flop at the box office, it has found a place in the hearts of millions over the decades. What you may not know is the movie has strong ties to New Jersey, and even more so, my beloved Belleville.
Frances Goodrich was one of the screenwriters of this classic. Born in Belleville and raised in Nutley, Goodrich attended Collegiate School in Passaic, New Jersey, and graduated from Vassar College in 1912. Quite an accomplishment for a woman at that time. She married writer Albert Hackett in 1931 and the two together wrote some of the most memorable stories in the last century.
The couple received Academy Award for Screenplay nominations for The Thin Man, After the Thin Man, Father of the Bride, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. They also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for their play The Diary of Anne Frank.
The screenplay and movie was based on the short story The Greatest Gift written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1939. After being rejected by multiple publishers, Van Doren self-published 200 copies and gave them out as Christmas gifts in 1943. RKO purchased the story, where it was passed around until Frank Capra saw its potential. Capra worked with a few screen writers to prepare it for filming; Goodrich and Hackett were two of the writers on that small team.
Philip Van Doren Stern was born in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania and grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey and attended Lincoln High School in Jersey City before graduating from Rutgers University. He was a historian and author of some 40 works, and was best known for his books on the Civil War and was widely respected by scholars on the subject.
In 1938, inspired by Dickens’ A Christomas Carol, Van Doren penned The Greatest Gift. The author’s “Bedford Falls” is modeled on the charming town of Califon, also in New Jersey. The historic iron bridge in Califon is similar to the bridge that George Bailey considered jumping from in the movie.
So while the entire country can continue to love this iconic movie, New Jersey, and Belleville, can have pride in the story’s original writers.