It's a Wonderful Life was a catharsis of sorts for Jimmy Stewart. People forget that he was a bomber pilot in World War II and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. Needless to say, he'd seen his share of hell when he returned home. Author Robert Matzen told the story of how the Christmas classic brought the recovering combat veteran back to life in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Mr. Matzen wrote:
Every year around Christmas, Americans stop to pay homage to what is perhaps our most beloved motion picture, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The 1946 film may flicker in black and white, but it still manages to feel fresh in affirming the human spirit as we head into each new year.
Fans of the movie might assume that making such an uplifting tale was a joy for cast and crew. In truth, this story of redeeming angels was born in the devastating wake of World War II, and it starred an actor swatting away his own demons.
The first time that Jimmy Stewart appears on screen as George Bailey, the image freezes in close-up as two angelic figures discuss the character in voice-over. One says to the other, “I want you to take a good look at that face.” It’s something that all of us should do as we watch the film.
Stewart is supposed to be playing a young man in his early 20s, but the once-boyish 38-year-old had just returned the year before from fighting in Europe, and only makeup and careful lighting could give him a semblance of youth. More seriously, as we know from the testimony of those who worked with him in the military and in Hollywood in those years, Stewart was suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
After two years of subsisting largely on ice cream and peanut butter, he had only just begun to eat real food and keep it down. He had the shakes and at times flew into rages, and his sleep was interrupted by images of bombers burning in the sky and men tumbling to earth.
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“It’s a Wonderful Life” was Stewart’s first picture after almost five years away, including 20 months on the front lines. As a squadron commander of B-24 heavy bombers, he flew his first combat mission to Germany on Dec. 13, 1943. He commanded 12 missions in his first two months and was almost shot down twice. The experience unnerved him enough that he spent time at the “flak farm,” where fliers went to decompress after seeing too much combat.
It wasn’t fear of losing his own life that had gotten to Stewart. It was his deeply ingrained perfectionism, which made him fear making the wrong split-second decision in German airspace while leading dozens of planes and hundreds of men in combat.
Filming “It’s a Wonderful Life” found him back in Hollywood after surviving too many crash landings and close calls. In sunny Southern California, the land of make-believe, this suddenly middle-aged man faced other problems. A new crop of youthful leading men had emerged in his absence. He also faced a crisis of conscience, wondering if acting was a worthwhile profession after the gravity of his daily life in the military.
This back story may help to explain the remarkable emotional energy of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Stewart’s bordering-on-frantic performance was not just virtuoso acting. Co-star Donna Reed reported that both Stewart and the picture’s director, Frank Capra, made the production difficult at times as they second-guessed how scenes were done.
And why not? Both men were desperate to re-establish themselves in a Hollywood that, they feared, had passed them by while they served in the military. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is considered the picture that relaunched Stewart as a more serious, seasoned actor. But for him, making it was just one more trial by combat.
It was the veteran actor Lionel Barrymore—the movie’s villain, Old Man Potter—who helped Stewart to claw his way back. When Stewart wondered aloud during production if acting was worth his time, Barrymore looked him in the eye and asked: Isn’t entertaining people better than dropping bombs on them?
Stewart seems to have gotten the message. He was able to convey great joy and passion in the movie’s closing scenes, shouting “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” as he runs through the streets and saying with a wink to his guardian angel, as he turns heavenward, “Atta boy, Clarence.”
Jimmy Stewart returned to Hollywood unsure if he would be able to continue his career as an actor. “It’s a Wonderful Life” showed that he could. It arrives every December like a holiday card from a dear friend, a man who came home from war and found the beauty in peace.
Mr. Matzen is the author of “Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe,” published by GoodKnight Books.