If you’ve seen only one Jimmy Stewart film, I’d put money on it being It’s A Wonderful Life, which would’ve surprised both Stewart and director Frank Capra back in 1946.
Shortly after Stewart won what would be his only Oscar for his role in The Philadelphia Story (1940), he was drafted into the U.S. Army at age 32 but was too skinny to pass the physical. Instead of seeing this as his get-out-of-the-war-free card, Stewart bulked up and passed the physical (or possibly bribed the physician) a few months later.
When the United States entered World War II, the military did not want to give the enemy the chance to kill Jimmy Stewart—it would give the Axis powers something to boast about and surely demoralize the American public—so they tried to keep Stewart away from the action.
This was standard procedure for all Hollywood stars in the service.
Jimmy Stewart wouldn’t accept this. He came from a long line of military men, his family having served in every American war going all the way back to the Revolution.
He insisted he do his part, same as every other man.
A skilled pilot, he eventually got his chance to lead men in battle. He lead airmen through 10 successful missions in Germany, losing men along the way and barely making it out alive himself in a few cases.
He ended World War II as a colonel and received the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the French Air Force awarded him the Croix de Guerre.
The war—and the death of flyers under his command—changed Stewart. Like so many others of the Greatest Generation, he did not like to speak of his service.
In the second half of his career, he never made a film that glorified war.
His return was a time for reflection and re-evaluation. He was in his mid-thirties, and his father—who had never approved of his movie career—wanted him to return to Indiana, Pennsylvania, get married and take over the family hardware store.
Stewart spent some time in Pennsylvania and mulled over the offer.
Meanwhile, his friend Frank Capra was feeling similarly disillusioned. Capra had enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. Though he was too old for active combat duty, President Roosevelt tapped Capra for a special assignment—to make a series of documentary films that would explain to the troops and the public why America was involved in World War II and the principles that guided their nation.
Capra produced Why We Fight, a seven part series released from 1942-1945. The first episode won the 1942 Academy Award for Best Documentary, and the entire series is seen as a master class in war documentaries.
When Capra returned, he decided to create his own studio where he could make the movies he wanted without studio heads like Columbia’s Harry Cohn breathing down his neck.
Capra and Stewart (along with Jean Arthur) had worked together previously with great success—in You Can’t Take It With You (1936), which won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), still one of Stewart’s most beloved films and the first for which he received an Oscar nomination.
So when he launched his own Liberty Films, he turned to Stewart to play the lead in his inaugural film, It’s a Wonderful Life.
It tells the story of George Bailey (Stewart), a man with wanderlust who never makes it out of his small town of Bedford Falls. Each time he tries to escape, he is drawn back in by duty to his town or family. He and his uncle run a small savings and loan, the only thing keeping evil old banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) for taking over the whole town and squeezing every last penny out of its hard-working inhabitants. When George’s uncle loses $8,000 of the bank’s money, threatening them both with scandal and jail time, a distraught George decides to throw himself off a bridge so his family can get the insurance money.
Before he can, an angel looking for its wings descends. The angel, Clarence (Henry Travers) shows George how different the world would’ve been if he’d never been born—all the lives he saved and made better through his devotion.
Buoyed by the clarity that his life is rich with family and friends, George returns jubilant to his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and their children, only to find that the townspeople he so often put before himself had come together to give him the lost money.
Those who’ve never seen the film are often surprised by the darkness of George’s potential suicide—it’s much darker than other classic Christmas films like Miracle on 34th Street or White Christmas. But it’s not as dark as some contemporary critics like to pretend—the message is one of hope, and the difference that a single man can make in his ordinary life.
It was a message that Capra thought would resonate with an American audience weary from years of war and relieved by its end.
He was wrong.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of America’s most beloved presidents, had died after a dozen years at the helm of the country. People were worn down by years of rationing, some of which continued. The war had been won, but at a cost of nearly half a million American lives cut down in their prime.
The men who survived came back to a very different world—some had girlfriends and wives who waited for them, but others had moved on. They had to learn to live with the violence they had witnessed and committed. Many had lost their buddies in the war, and found themselves adrift and purposeless when they returned home.
And the women who had tasted freedom while working in the men’s stead weren’t completely sure they wanted to go back to being housewives who never questioned their husband’s opinions.
It didn’t seem like such a wonderful life.
Audiences instead gravitated instead to director William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, an unflinching look at the difficulties of three World War II veterans returning to civilian life.
The Best Years Of Our Lives completely overshadowed It’s A Wonderful Life, winning 7 Academy Awards (including Best Picture/Best Director) and becoming the highest grossing film of the decade.
It’s a Wonderful Life, meanwhile, didn’t recoup its production costs and Liberty Films went bankrupt. Though Capra made 5 more films before officially retiring, It’s a Wonderful Life essentially ended the career of the once three-time Oscar winning director.
The film sat moldering on a shelf, seemingly never to be heard from again.
But It’s a Wonderful Life had its own guardian angel.
Due to a clerical mix-up in 1974, the film’s copyright wasn’t renewed, and It’s a Wonderful Life entered the public domain. This meant that television stations could play the film without paying royalties.
They marketed it as a Christmas movie and started playing it. Again and again.
Audiences began to pay attention.
It’s a Wonderful Life had finally found its moment. Just like The Wizard of Oz, the annual television showings of the film breathed new life into the forgotten film. It became a family Christmas tradition, and lodged itself deep into the hearts of its viewers.
“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Frank Capra said with astonishment at the success that came three decades later. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it.”
But not everyone overlooked It’s a Wonderful Life—or Jimmy’s performance—in 1946.
No less than President Truman praised the film, declaring after viewing if that, “If Bess and I had a son, we’d want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart.”
Be like Jimmy Stewart or George Bailey?
For many, the most decent man in Hollywood and Bedford Falls are one in the same.
Eliot, Marc. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. 2006.
I have written dozens of pieces about this film, from both sides; it’s moral could be considered to be sit down, shut up and don’t have ideas above your station. It certainly upsets many people who want to see it; we used to regularly call social services to the cinema I worked in due to people getting over-emotional about it. Not saying its not a great film, it is, but it’s become something of a monster…
You’re right in that it has become a bit of a blank slate for people to project onto it what they want to. I’ve read dozens of pieces calling it a rebuke of capitalism, and Salon once called it “the most terrifying movie ever made.”
At this point it’s almost beyond the point of whether or not the film is “good”–it’s one of the fewer and fewer remaining pieces of shared cultural history……I’m thinking of that recent Saturday Night Live skit making fun of how people don’t know new movies. “It’s a Wonderful Life” could’ve been one of the setup questions that everyone knew the answer to.
I don’t think it’s Jimmy Stewart’s best film by far, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in it.
I loved this back in the day, and went round ringing the christmas tree bells so that angels got their wings. I haven’t seen it as a grown up so the other stuff passed me by.
It’s funny sometimes to revisit a film you loved as a child and see how much went over your head.
Oh no, leave me with my happy bell ringing! 😀
Don’t worry, it’s still a very happy ending!
It really is impossible to see anyone else in the role but Jimmy. The film really has taken on a mythical aura, and indeed is a must-see each and every year for many. It is always interesting to me when films who didn’t find an audience upon release for one reason or another eventually capture a large number of fans after the fact.