Give it to God: Jimmy Stewart Bomber Pilot & It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's a Wonderful Life
Jimmy Stewart Is a Bomber Pilot in Europe, Almost Quits Acting, & Reminds Us That No One is Born a Failure. From 1946, It's a Wonderful Life.
Listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood , available everywhere you listen to podcasts! Episode 39 is all about Jimmy Stewart’s Years as a bomber pilot and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

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In March 1941, Jimmy Stewart entered the military service.

To prove he was more than a movie star who wanted to ‘play soldier,’ Jim had to fight every step of the way: he appealed a deferment notice, attempted to gain the ten pounds required for enlistment, and argued his case for acceptance to the Air Corps.  

Eventually, Jim saw combat overseas.  After four years, 20 combat missions, and over two thousand hours of flying B-24 Liberators, Colonel Stewart was honorably discharged, a real-life hero.

Jimmy Stewart WWII
Colonel Stewart is awarded the Croix De Guerre from the French Air Force.

Returning to Hollywood and civilian life was hard for Jimmy Stewart.  After all he’d seen and experienced during the war, acting just didn’t seem so important anymore.  Jim wondered if  he even wanted to resume his Hollywood career.  It wasn’t until the spring of 1946, almost a full year after his homecoming, that Jim began work on his first postwar film.  It wasn’t an immediate success.  But three decades later,  It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) became a holiday classic.

It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life & the Real Jimmy Stewart

Of all his films, Jim loved It’s a Wonderful Life—and it’s message that no man is born to be a failure—best.   The film provided Jimmy the rare chance to juxtapose his boyish charm against his great emotional depth; a depth his years as a bomber pilot overseas only heightened.  

Jim’s best friend Henry Fonda would go so far as to say that It’s a Wonderful Life  offers viewers a glimpse of the real Jimmy Stewart:

“If you want to see the real Jimmy Stewart, you can find him in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Everything is magnified, but that’s the closest you can come to the real Jim.”

It's a Wonderful Life

Or, keep reading.

It's a Wonderful Life
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) plans to travel the world.

The Plot

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) dreams of leaving his small hometown to do something ‘big’ with his life. He loves his family and the tight-knit community of Bedford Falls, but George is really just biding his time before he can:

“shake the dust of this crumby town off my feet and see the world.”

Four years after graduating high school, it looks like his dreams will come true: George finally has the money saved up for his college and travel plans. 

The night before he plans to leave town, George’s father (Samuel S. Hinds) asks if he’d ever consider coming back home to run the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, the business Peter Bailey founded with his brother Billy (Thomas Mitchell).  George balks at the idea of returning to Bedford Falls.  But the respect and love he has for his father, a man who dedicated his life to this small business that’s done so much good for the community, is clear.

It's a Wonderful Life
"You were born older," Peter Bailey (Samuel S. Hinds) tells his son. George is ready to take on the world.

George's Last Night in Bedford Falls...

George spends his last night in Bedford Falls with his younger brother Harry (Todd Karns), attending Harry’s big high school graduation dance.  At the dance, a childhood friend, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), catches George’s eye in a new way.  After dancing into a swimming pool during a Charleston contest, George and Mary spend the rest of the evening together.  They begin to fall in love.

It's a Wonderful Life
George dances the Charleston with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed). The two begin falling in love that night.

But their evening comes to an abrupt halt when George’s father has a stroke.

Peter Bailey dies that night.  George forgoes his trip to Europe to put his father’s affairs in order. He now has just enough time to get to college before the semester starts.


But George’s plans are thwarted yet again when the board of directors at the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan asks him to take over his father’s position as executive secretary.  George turns the board down flat.  

That is, until he learns that the board will vote with Henry F. Potter and dissolve the building and loan if he doesn’t accept the position.

With the exception of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, the selfish and conniving Henry F. Potter controls everything in Bedford Falls.  George realizes that the town would fall apart without the building and loan around, which keeps Potter from owning everything.

So he accepts the position.  

George Bailey stays in Bedford Falls.

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it's a wonderful life
George is a little too convincing in his argument against Potter (Lionel Barrymore) to keep the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan open, and he's offered a job.

Still at Home

George selflessly gives his brother Harry his savings, and sends Harry to college instead.  The boys work it out so that once Harry graduates, he’ll take over the building and loan, giving George a shot at his long-postponed dreams. 

It doesn’t happen. 

Harry comes back to Bedford Falls four years later to introduce his new wife to the family, and inform George of a job opportunity he has elsewhere.  George begins to realize he’ll never leave his small town.

It's a Wonderful Life
George shares his travel plans with Uncle Billy. But when Harry comes home from school with a new wife and job offer, George realizes he'll never leave Bedford Falls.

The realization is solidified—and made a little easier—when George discovers Mary Hatch has returned home.  The two pick up where they left off four years earlier, and soon marry.

It's a Wonderful Life

From the start, married life for the Baileys isn’t easy. 

Just as they leave Bedford Falls to honeymoon, there’s a run on the banks.  George and Mary sacrifice their honeymoon, and stay in town to rescue the building and loan from closure, even using their honeymoon savings to appease panicked customers.

It's a Wonderful Life
George and Mary keep the building and loan open with their honeymoon money.

A Different Life

As the years go by, George and Mary grow their family, and their small business.  The Bailey Brothers Building and Loan thrives under George’s keen, yet compassionate, leadership: he builds Bailey Park, a beautiful neighborhood with homes the residents of Bedford Falls can afford.  George isn’t building the skyscrapers in big cities he once dreamed of, and his family must live on a well-planned budget to make ends meet.  But George is running a successful business, and making a difference in his community.

None of this escapes the attention of Potter.  He desires to break George’s spirit so he can take down the building and loan, and gain complete control of Bedford Falls.

it's a wonderful life

Potter's Revenge

One winter day, Potter sees his chance to bring George down when he runs into Billy Bailey at the bank.  The forgetful Uncle Billy is there to make a deposit for the building and loan, but can’t resist bragging to Potter about the distinguished homecoming of war hero Harry Bailey.  In the process, Billy accidentally wraps the $8,000 he’s supposed to deposit in a newspaper, and gives it to Potter.  When the slimy Potter realizes Billy’s mistake, he doesn’t say a word, and waits for the missing funds to ruin George’s reputation and future.

When George and Billy can’t find the missing money anywhere, George goes to Potter for help.  Potter convinces George he’s worth more dead than alive, and refuses to do anything but inaccurately alert the police that George embezzled $8,000…

it's a wonderful life
Potter convinces George he's worth more dead than alive...

Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class

On this snowy night, George Bailey decides all is hopeless, that the world would be better off without him.  But just as he’s about to jump off a bridge into a violent river—the same bridge George never could cross to get out of Bedford Falls—a man dives into the water, and cries for help.  George puts his suicide plan on hold, and saves the man from drowning.

As it turns out, the man who jumped is actually Angel Second Class, Clarence Odbody (William Travers).  Clarence hopes to earn his wings by helping George see the value of his life.  Clarence does this by literally showing George what the world would be like if he’d never been born.

"Each Man's Life..."

At first, George doesn’t believe what he sees, let alone that Clarence is his guardian angel.  But as George experiences this new Bedford Falls, a Bedford Falls without George Bailey, he begins to believe in Clarence.

It's a Wonderful Life
Clarence (William Travers) shows George what the world would be like if he'd never been born.

“Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole.”

Clarence tells George.  The words are brought home as George sees Mr. Gower, his boyhood boss, ridiculed as the town drunk because George wasn’t there to catch a pharmaceutical mistake; he sees his mother a bitter widow and his Uncle Billy in an insane asylum because he wasn’t there to take over the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan; George witnesses his friend Violet become a streetwalker because he wasn’t there to remind Violet of her worth; George sees the headstone of his brother Harry, dead at age eight because George wasn’t there to save Harry’s life during a childhood accident; and most tragic for George, he sees his wife Mary living her life behind the walls of the town library because she never met George.

It's a Wonderful Life
George realizes he really had a wonderful life, and asks God to let him live again.

It's a Wonderful Life

George pleads with Clarence for help, and asks God to let him live again.

His wish is granted. 

Now that he’s seen the world without him, George views the mundane, and even terrible things in his life, with a new perspective.  He’s grateful just to be alive, to have friends and family that love him.  George sees that despite the unrealized dreams of his youth, he really does have a wonderful life.

George returns home to discover that Mary and Uncle Billy told his friends and neighbors that he needed help.  No other words were needed: everyone pitches in, and the $8,000 is easily accumulated to satisfy the bank examiner.  George is exempt of any punishment.

It's a Wonderful Life

Amidst the community and holiday spirit at the Bailey home, a bell rings, signifying that Clarence earned his wings.  George notices Clarence’s copy of Tom Sawyer in a basket, along with the generous contributions of his friends.  The book is inscribed with some valuable words from Clarence that George will never forget:

“Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

And that’s the end of the film.

it's a wonderful life
Jimmy in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). The film made him a star just about one year before his fight for military induction began.

Stardom and Service

In 1939, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington made Jimmy Stewart a star.

About one year later, on September 16, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instated a mandatory draft of all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six.  On October 29th, the random selection of the first 900 names to be drafted was publicly broadcast. 

Of those 900 names, “James Maitland Stewart” was the 310th called.

Jim had 30 days to report for his physical.  But just before he was scheduled to take the physical, Jimmy received notice that, without requesting it himself, he’d been given a deferment.

Jim chalked the deferment notice up to to the clout of Louis B. Mayer, who, like many studio bosses of the time, pulled strings to keep his valuable stars at home, and out of the conflict overseas. 


But it was a deferment that Jimmy Stewart could not accept.  As Henry Fonda said of his friend:

“Jim came from a family who never shirked their responsibilities when their country was at war, and he wasn’t going to be the first Stewart to shirk.  So he didn’t want the studio to bail him out.  That’s just the way Jim is.”

Jimmy managed to get around the deferment notice, and reported for his physical.  Only now, Jim was told he didn’t qualify for induction: at 6’3’’ and 130 pounds, Jimmy Stewart was, according to military standards, ten pounds underweight, and unfit for service.

If you thought Jim would accept this new obstacle as an excuse to avoid military service, think again.

Jimmy Stewart Gains Weight & an Oscar

Jim appealed the decision, and a second physical was scheduled.  He now had just about three months to put on ten pounds.  

To gain the required weight, Jim began a rigorous routine of weight training at the studio gym.  He also increased his daily fat and caloric intake, with such foods as pasta, milkshakes, and fried chicken.  Consuming so much food was a particularly hard task for Jimmy, who never did enjoy large meals or overeating.

it's a wonderful life
Jimmy with Best Actress winner Ginger Rogers at the 13th Annual Academy Awards, February 27, 1941.

February 1941 was a big month for Jimmy Stewart.  Before taking his second army physical, Jim surprised Louis B. Mayer by wining the Best Actor award at the 13th annual Academy Awards, for his performance in The Philadelphia Story (1940).  The Oscar win made Mayer all the more confused as to why Jim wanted to risk his future in Hollywood.

As Jim later remembered:

“Mayer was just so desperate to say something that would keep me from enlisting…He told me, ‘You’re just giving up this wonderful screen career you’ve made for yourself…you’ll regret what you’re doing…you’re just a bull-headed fella from Philadelphia.’  I didn’t want to correct him and say I was from [Indiana,] Pennsylvania, so I just said, ‘Mr. Mayer, you better believe it.’”

it's a wonderful life

He's In

Just after the Academy Awards, Jimmy reported for his second physical.  It’s debatable just how well his regimen for putting on the weight worked, if at all: Jim was still underweight.  He’d have to count on more than the scale reading to get him into the army. 

Jimmy had a few arguments ready in case he failed this second physical, including a doctor’s note that stated his weight was a family characteristic.  It wasn’t, but that’s how determined Jimmy Stewart was to serve his country.  

As Jim later recalled of his second physical:

“I just walked right up to the officer in charge and said, ‘Why don’t you just run a whole test on me and forget to weigh me?’  He said, ‘But that would be irregular.’  So I told him, ‘Wars are irregular, too.  But there’s a war coming, sure as hell.’  And the officer gave me the test and didn’t weigh me.  I walked—no, I ran—outside, saw [my friend] Bill sitting in his car [to pick me up], and I just shouted, ‘I’m in! I’m in!’”

On March 22, 1941, Jimmy Stewart was officially inducted into the army.  When asked by a reporter just how much weight he’d had to gain to make the cut, Jim responded that it was ‘a military secret.’

Jimmy Stewart WWII
Jim's induction into the army occurred March 22, 1941.

Jimmy Stewart's Constant Battle

So just to recap, even before his induction, Jimmy Stewart had every excuse not to serve his country—a powerful studio mogul pulling strings and literally begging him to stay home, an actual deferment notice, and an arbitrary weight requirement he didn’t meet.  But Jimmy pushed through all these obstacles.  And once in the army, he had to continue pushing.

Shortly after induction, Jimmy applied for admission to the Air Corps.  He was passionate about flying, and had already earned his private and commercial pilot licenses in 1935 and 1938, respectively.  But at age thirty-two, Jim was a full six years older than the standard age cutoff for the Air Corps.  His chances of acceptance were slim.

Jimmy Stewart WWII

Jim pled his case for acceptance to the Air Corps by citing his flying experience, which included 400 hours of previously logged flying time.  In the end, Jimmy’s flying experience was deemed more valuable than his age was limiting.  He was accepted to the Air Corps, and assigned to fly the difficult B-24 Liberator.

Jimmy Stewart WWII
A B-24 Liberator in action. This was the type of plane Jimmy Stewart flew during WWII.

"Static Personnel"

But by 1943, Jim had yet another obstacle to overcome.

  Despite mastering the flying of B-24’s over his two years of service, Jimmy Stewart was still stationed stateside, training pilots.  As he later shared:

“The big problem I had for a long time was that I was older than most of my superiors…as well as a lot of the boys who had the same rank as me.  That made me feel kind of old…and I was only 34!  Then I got to the point where I felt I  was doing nothing but training pilots, while all I wanted to do was the job I was trained for…fly the bombers.”

Jim made inquiries, and learned that somewhere along the line, he’d been classified as“static personnel.”  The military, he discovered, had concluded that the potentiality of Jimmy Stewart, movie star, dying overseas, would do too much harm to morale on the home front.  So they decided to keep Jim stateside for the length of the war.

Jimmy Stewart WWII

Jimmy Stewart Sees Combat in Europe

Jim couldn’t accept his “static personnel” classification, and vocalized his frustration.  And his timing couldn’t have been better.  Colonel Robert Terrill, commanding Officer of the 445th Bombardment Group (Heavy), was looking for a new squadron operations officer, a pilot skilled at flying B-24’s who was also a natural leader; someone who could inspire and lead his men into combat. 

Jimmy Stewart was more than qualified for the position.  He impressed Colonel Terrill, and got the job.  He was transferred to the 445th base in Sioux City, Iowa, and placed in command of the 703rd Bomb Squadron division, which consisted of a dozen B-24 bombers and 350 soldiers and fliers.  

Finally, in November 1943, Captain Stewart and his men arrived in Great Britain, where Jim was based for the duration of the war.

Jimmy Stewart WWII

A Natural Leader

A young staff sergeant by the name of Walter Matthau later recounted what an inspired leader Jimmy Stewart was: 

“I watched the way the crew would relate to him.  They used to relate to him as a movie star for a while, then they’d forget about all that and realize he was one of the boys.  He was marvelous to watch.”

In December 1943, Jimmy led his men on their first combat mission, targeting the German naval base at Kiel.

Jim never forgot his feelings during that first mission:

Jimmy Stewart WWII

“A lot of the missions kind of blend into one, but I remember that first mission quite clearly.  It was the first, and we were all terrified…although no one wanted to admit it or show it.  I had a way of coping, which was to concentrate on all the technical stuff.  You have to keep your mind occupied…to stop it from thinking of the fear.  But the fear is always there…”

Whenever things got tough for Jim overseas, he turned to the 91st Psalm, and the words of his father Alex.  One letter from Alex was of special comfort to Jim the night before leading a particularly stressful mission into Germany.  In this letter, Alex advised his son to:

“Just remember that you can’t handle fear all by yourself, son.  Give it to God.  He’ll carry it for you.’”

Jimmy Stewart Clark Gable WWII
Jimmy with Clark Gable, another star who put his career on hold to serve. Gable was an aerial gunner.

Jimmy Stewart: A Real-Life Hero

Before his honorable discharge in the summer of 1945, Jimmy Stewart became the highest ranking movie star who served during WWII when he attained the rank of full colonel, an achievement rarely met in the efficient four years it took Colonel Stewart to rise from private status.  By the time of his honorable discharge, Colonel Stewart had logged more than two thousand hours of flying time, led 2o combat missions in Europe, and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals, and the prestigious Croix de Guerre with bronze palm from the French Air Force.

He may have played some extraordinary characters on screen, but offscreen, Jimmy Stewart was a real-life hero.  It sounds cliche, but it’s undeniably true.

Looking back on his military service in a late 1980s interview, Jimmy Stewart shared that:

“[the] military experience that I had was something I think about almost every day, and one of the greatest experiences of my life.  Greater than being in movies.”

Jimmy Stewart WWII
Colonel Stewart is awarded the Croix De Guerre from the French Air Force.

Coming Home

 In August 1945, Colonel Stewart sailed home to America on the Queen Elizabeth.  In typical Jimmy Stewart fashion, he refused to leave the ship until he personally thanked every serviceman on board:

“I just wanted to savor every moment, so I decided to see everyone else off the ship first.  I was hoarse when I finally came ashore, and my hand ached from saluting thousands of times.  There’s this expression of living in the moment.  I didn’t want the moment to end.”

When the moment did end, Jim faced the difficult task of returning to civilian life.  On the career front, Jimmy realized that Hollywood was a new town, different from the one he’d left four years earlier.  Jim and the other stars who put their careers on hold to serve came home to discover a younger group of leading men had taken over in their absence.  

At a mere 37 years old, Jimmy Stewart was unemployable in Hollywood.

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As Jimmy told a reporter at the time:

“I’m just not a young fella anymore.  I guess I’d only be suitable for playing grandfather to Mickey Rooney.”

it's a wonderful life

Going Freelance In a New Hollywood

To add to the confusion, the old studio system Jimmy was familiar with—which signed stars to exclusive contracts with a single studio—was crumbling.  Agent Leland Hayward told his friend that it was time to go freelance. 

It was good advice that Jim took.  Greater pay and more freedom of film and role choice were the long-term rewards.  But initially, all going freelance did for Jimmy Stewart was put him on the bad side of Louis B. Mayer and the other big studio moguls, who feared the end of the studio system, and punished those who hastened its demise.

It would be close to a year before Jimmy Stewart made his first postwar film.

Henry Fonda Jimmy Stewart
Hank and Jim, still best buds after the war, and still building model airplanes together.

Hank and Jim: Still Best Buds

In the meantime, Hank Fonda invited Jim to come live with him and his family.  Jim gladly accepted Fonda’s offer, and set up residence in the miniature but functioning playhouse—complete with working plumbing—that Fonda built for his kids, Peter and Jane.  

As Jimmy fondly remembered:

“it [the playhouse] had all I needed.  It had a bed, a small kitchen and a bathroom.  When Hank built it, he didn’t just build a toy house.  It was the real thing.  Small, but real.  I’m not sure how Peter and Jane took to me putting them out of their playhouse…[and] Hank still loved cats.  The playhouse was swarming with them.”

it's a wonderful life
Hank and Jim in 1947.

For these two friends, both struggling to adjust to civilian life; both uncertain if they’d ever make another film, it was the perfect arrangement.  Building kites and model airplanes together, often in complete silence, was the balm Hank and Jim both needed.

Finally, things took a turn for the better in the careers of both men.  For Jim, that career turn began with a call from Frank Capra

it's a wonderful life
Frank Capra and his partners at Liberty Films: William Wyler, George Stevens, and Sam Briskin.

Frank Capra's Return & the Founding of Liberty Films

Capra, recently returned from military service himself, also felt like a misfit in this new Hollywood.  As Capra remembered in his autobiography [aff. link]:

“Directors can never return to the same Hollywood twice.  After an absence of four years the turnover was astonishing.  I hardly knew anyone.  The new faces were younger, brassier, more flushed with success.  It was most disconcerting to be introduced to an upcoming actress or director and have them ask, ‘Frank who?’

Four years ago Hollywood was my town…now…[they] had no million dollar contracts for me to sign.  They had no contracts, period.  Had my kind of filmmaker gone out of style?”

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Capra with Sam Briskin, incorporating Liberty Films.

A Good Story

Capra wasn’t the only filmmaker concerned. 

So, with producer Sam Briskin and directors William Wyler and George Stevens, Frank Capra formed his own production company, Liberty Films.  After incorporating Liberty on April 10, 1945, Capra set out to find a good story for Liberty’s first film.  He wanted a story that would not only help get Liberty off the ground financially, but would also speak to postwar audiences. 

Capra knew just the message he wanted this first film to convey:

“I will deal with the little man’s doubts, his curses, his loss of faith in himself, in his neighbor, in his God.  And I will show the overcoming of doubts, the courageous renewal of faith, and the final conviction that of himself he can and must survive and remain free.  For the only true revolutionary is the free man, and revolution is liberty, and liberty is revolution.  And I will remind the little man that his mission on earth is to advance spiritually, that to surrender his free spirit to Big Brother’s concentration camp is a step backward to the jungle.”

Frank Capra finally found the story with the inspiring message he was looking for in the most unlikely of places: a Christmas Card.  

it's a wonderful life

The Greatest Gift Becomes It's A Wonderful Life

The Greatest Gift  was a short story written by American author Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943.  When Stern couldn’t find a publisher for his Dickensian, Christmas Carol-esque tale, he decided he’d just distribute copies to friends and family at Christmas that year.  From there, The Greatest Gift managed to find a publisher, and eventually came to the attention of none other than Cary Grant, who expressed interest in playing Stern’s protagonist in a film.  RKO Pictures then bought the story with Grant in mind.

But after three unsuccessful attempts to turn The Greatest Gift into an interesting screenplay, the studio gave up.  

Shortly after incorporating Liberty Films in 1945, Frank Capra bought The Greatest Gift from RKO for $10,000. For Capra, it was love at first read: 

“I read the original idea—a few typewritten pages bound in Christmas covers.  It was the story I’d been looking for all my life!”

With his trademark determination, Frank Capra took The Greatest Gift—the story that not even the talents of Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, or Clifford Odets could make into a compelling screenplay—and turned it into It’s A Wonderful Life. 

Jimmy Stewart Frank Capra

Capra Pitches It's a Wonderful Life

From the beginning, Frank Capra knew that no one but Jimmy Stewart could play his George Bailey.  As Capra remembered:

“Of all actors’ roles I believe the most difficult is the role of a Good Sam who doesn’t know that he is a Good Sam.  I knew one man who could play it.  From an enlisted private he had worked his way up to a colonel leading a squadron of B-24 bombers.  Jimmy Stewart.”

Capra called his old friend Jim, and scheduled a time to make his pitch. 

But when the day came, Capra struggled to express just what It’s a Wonderful Life was about.  Capra felt the story “evaporate into thin air” as he tried to summarize the plotline for Jim. 

What Frank Capra didn’t realize during his floundering was that Jimmy didn’t much care how much sense the story did or didn’t make.  He was ready to work with his old friend on just about any project.  As Jim remembered:

it's a wonderful life

“I was determined to say, ‘Frank, let me do the picture.’  I was determined even if he had me playing a professional football player.  I was determined.  It was just a wonderful piece of luck, Frank asking me to listen to a little story he had.  I had no doubt in my mind at all, even though in telling the story Frank made sort of a mess…

[In the telling], all of a sudden Frank interrupted himself and said, ‘This really sounds kind of..kind of…[not good].  What do you think of it so far?” And I said, ‘Frank, if you want to do a movie about me committing suicide and an angel that hasn’t won its wings named Clarence, I’m your boy.”

And with that, Frank Capra had his George Bailey.

It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life: Jimmy's Last Film?

Filming of It’s a Wonderful Life began in April 1946.  It’s important to note that though Jimmy Stewart was excited to make the movie, part of him believed it would be his last film.  

On set, Jim was surprised to discover that many parts of filmmaking that had been so easy for him before the war, such as remembering his lines, were now difficult.  These difficulties were exacerbated by the first stages of hearing loss, a consequence of the sounds enemy fire and all those hours flying loud B-24 Liberators.  But mostly, filmmaking just didn’t seem so important to Jimmy Stewart anymore.  

As Frank Capra observed:

“he thought maybe being an actor was not for decent people.  That acting had become silly, unimportant next to what he’d seen.  He said he thought he’d do this picture and quit.”

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Not all wonderful: the emotional toll of It's a Wonderful Life is evident in the faces of both Jim and Frank Capra.

The Emotional Toll of It's a Wonderful Life

The emotional toll of bringing a character to life was tougher on Jim during It’s a Wonderful Life than it had ever been before: the experiences of war had matured him in ways most of us can’t even begin to imagine.  As a result, Jim brought a tremendous depth to his George Bailey, a depth that quite literally jumps off the screen, and pulls us into George’s life.  We can all relate to George Bailey’s highs and lows throughout It’s a Wonderful Life because Jimmy Stewart so effectively takes us there with him. 

It's a Wonderful Life

One scene, towards the end of the film, when George Bailey prays to God for guidance in his most desperate hour, was particularly difficult for Jim.  Frank Capra planned to film two shots of the emotionally charged scene, which would have required Jimmy to act it twice.  But after completion of the first shot, Jim pleaded with Capra not to make him play the scene again.  The emotional drain was just too great.  After his harrowing experiences during the war, Jimmy felt George Bailey’s pleas for guidance too deeply to repeat.  Capra, sensitive to his friend’s pain, didn’t make Jim do the scene again, and ultimately got his desired close-up with a laboratory blow-up instead.

It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life: Jimmy Stewart's Favorite Film

Perhaps it was because of this great emotional connection to George Bailey that Jimmy Stewart counted It’s a Wonderful Life as his personal favorite of all the films he made.  As Jimmy put it:

“It’s my favorite film.  The whole thing was done not from a book…not from a play…not from an actual happening or anything..but just an idea.  An idea that nobody is born to be a failure.  As simple as that.  I liked that idea.”

It's a Wonderful Life

Not a Hit, Not a Flop

When it premiered in December 1946, and during its wide release in 1947, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate Christmas Classic, but nor was it the dismal failure that film lore now makes it out to be.  Of the 400 films released in 1947, It’s a Wonderful Life ranked 26th overall at the box office.  Not bad.  And though it received mixed critical reviews, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Director.

Reviews of the film were mixed, but Frank Capra didn’t care.  As Capra put it [aff. link]:

“I didn’t give a film-clip whether critics hailed or hooted Wonderful Life.  I thought it was the greatest film I had ever made.  Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.  It wasn’t made for the oh-so-bored critics, or the oh-so-jaded literati.  It was my kind of film for my kind of people…And my kind of people saw the film.”

It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life: Not an Instant Classic

Hypotheses abound as to why It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t become an instant classic.  The film’s rushed release was certainly a major contributor: Frank Capra had planned on a January 1947 premiere.  But when RKO’s previously planned Christmas film release wasn’t ready in time, the studio opted to distribute It’s a Wonderful Life  instead, and bumped the release date up to December 1946.  It’s a Wonderful Life was branded a Christmas film, but then only benefited from about two weeks of holiday ticket sales because it was released so late in the holiday season.

Particularly bad snow storms that winter may have also played a role in the film’s disappointing box office, as theatergoers opted to stay home.  Jimmy Stewart hypothesized that it just wasn’t the type of story people wanted to see after the war.  

Whatever the reason for its initial failure to grab the attention of large audiences, television re-runs of the film in the 1970s finally made It’s a Wonderful Life the enduring classic it is today.

It's a Wonderful Life

A Message for Capra's "Kind of People" in It's a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life for “his kind of people.”  As Capra later reflected:

“It’s a Wonderful Life sums up my philosophy of filmmaking.  First, to exalt the worth of the individual.  Second, to champion man—plead his causes, protest any degradation of his dignity, spirit, or divinity.  And third, to dramatize the viability of the individual…I wanted It’s a Wonderful Life to say what Walt Whitman said to every man, woman, and babe in the world: ‘The sum of all known reverences I add up in you, whoever you are…’”

Capra’s message about the worth of the individual is as uplifting for today’s legions of It’s a Wonderful Life fans as it was for the smaller audience that appreciated the film on its release.  Jimmy Stewart’s emotionally charged portrayal of George Bailey was crucial in bringing Capra’s message home.

It's a Wonderful Life

A New Career Path for Jimmy Stewart

It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t jump-start Jimmy Stewart’s postwar career.

But it wasn’t long before his decision to go freelance paid off in a big way. 

Soon, Jimmy would master a film genre that most of his fans wouldn’t have ever imagined.

It's a Wonderful Life

That's it for It's a Wonderful Life

That’s it for It’s a Wonderful Life

Join me next time for all about Winchester ’73 (1950) and Jimmy Stewart’s successful segue into Westerns.

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