(CNN) – This is George Bailey’s pivotal moment. Disheveled and desperate, he offers a Hail Mary prayer to a God he is not sure he is listening to: “I am not a man of prayer, but if you are up there and you can m ‘hear, show me the way. I am on my knees.
Actor Jimmy Stewarts’ emotion is palpable in this scene, the one acclaimed actress Carol Burnett called one of the most beautiful acting pieces ever to appear on screen. What may have escaped audiences who watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” – who turned 75 this year – is that the tears rolling down Stewart’s face are real, the actor later shared. .
Stewart had just returned home from serving as a flight commander in WWII and this 1946 film was his first film since witnessing the horrors of war. With that post-war mentality, Stewart and director Frank Capra take a movie called “It’s a Wonderful Life” and crescendo antithetically in a failed suicide attempt.
Throughout the film, George Bailey’s life often seems anything but wonderful. Audiences watch a young man of worldly dreams meet setback after setback, each like a nail in his own coffin. Trapped in his hometown, running his late father’s business, the story comes to a head when George Bailey thinks he is worth more dead than alive.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” deals with real and resonant subjects self-esteem and failure issues. Fresh out of the war, Stewart grapples with these trials himself, as he shapes the deeply identifiable character of George Bailey. Without Stewart’s actual knowledge of darkness, the holiday classic’s redefining perspective on life couldn’t shine in such an unforgettable way.
Become a classic
When it first came out, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not intended to be a Christmas movie. It initially failed at the box office and the film’s copyrights were not renewed, according to Turner Classic Movies.
This meant that in the 1970s the repeat airing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” was free for broadcasters. Audiences began to notice this less than happy movie that flooded the airways around Christmas time, and so a holiday tradition was born.
NBC, which now owns the rights to the film, airs âIt’s a Wonderful Lifeâ on Christmas Eve every year. In 2016, Variety reported that the network’s 42nd broadcast of the Christmas Eve program attracted 4.5 million viewers.
The film captures a period of American life filled with some of the most significant historical events of the 20th century, including the Great Depression and World War II.
After serving in the Army Air Corps, Stewart had been out of Hollywood for five years when offered the role in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He was initially reluctant to make the film, according to biographer Robert Matzen, but it was his only offer, except for a film featuring his war service.
â’It’s a Wonderful Life’ was the result of Jim’s war experiences because he unlocked that depth of soul in Jimmyâ¦ He had to relearn how to play and that’s what you see on screen . It’s like lightning that has just been captured in a bottle â, biographer Robert Matzen told CNN.
It shows in one of the film’s most iconic unscripted scenes, when George Bailey finds himself at wit’s end: “I’m not a man who prays, but if you’re up there and you can hear, show me the way. “
George Bailey wasn’t scheduled to cry, but Jimmy Stewart did.
âAs I said these words, I felt the loneliness, the desperation of people who had nowhere to go, and my eyes filled with tears. I collapsed sobbing,â Stewart said in a meeting in 1987.
This scene, capturing the desperate call for help from George Bailey, was done in one take. In part, this was due to the emotion that Stewart felt, who still struggled with the life or death pressure of war, Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz Explain.
âJimmy Stewart was taking his own experience and using it in his character. It’s a very difficult thing to do. Audiences feel the intensity of it because it was clearly authentic,â Mankiewicz told CNN.
âIt’s a Wonderful Lifeâ has become a classic because it connects emotionally with the viewer, said Mankiewicz, and is able to resonate with our everyday lives.
âIt’s a movie we watch on Christmas, but the power and emotion that the movie conveys is no less powerful in June,â Mankiewicz said.
When Stewart enlisted in the military in 1941, he had just won an Oscar for “The Philadelphia Story”.
Entered the Army Air Corps as a private, he was assigned to the Motion Picture Unit to make films for the War Department. Stewart, who comes from a family steeped in military service, fought orders and pushed for the chance to serve overseas.
After gaining his wings as a pilot, Stewart was finally sent to England as a flight chief in 1943. Matzen described Stewart as an âaerial quarterback,â tasked with calling pilots in real time.
Stewart flew 20 physically and mentally challenging combat missions that he rarely talked about after the war.
Thanks to Stewart’s combat mission reports, Matzen was able to provide insight into the worst mission Stewart ever had in 1944 over the German city of Gotha. Stewart lost men under his command in this bombing campaign, a devastating cost to a leader who believed he was responsible for every life.
On top of that, Stewart’s personal experience of Gotha was something of a nightmare. The floor of Stewart’s plane was hit, making a hole just under his feet, Matzen said. His damaged bomber must have limped back to England as Stewart gazed at enemy territory through the hole in his cabin. Matzen estimated that Stewart experienced temperatures of at least 20 degrees below zero.
This assignment was “one too many” for Stewart, said Matzen. Ten years above the recommended age for a pilot flying heavy bombers, experiences like this had a huge impact on Stewart in his mid-thirties.
âNo one recognized the Jimmy Stewart who returned home after the fight. He had changed so much. He had aged, some say ten, some say 20. He had a lot of the attributes of PTSD, âsaid Matzen.
These symptoms included tremors, a short temper, and nightmares, according to Matzen. The short temper would lead to mood swings, much like the explosive crisis where George Bailey destroys part of the family living room, Matzen said.
At the time, returning war veterans were considered to have known “Shell shock” or “combat fatigue”. Post-traumatic stress disorder was not added as a psychological diagnosis until the 1980s after the Vietnam War.
When asked what the horrors of war mean to Stewart, Matzen said Stewart’s perfectionism tormented him: Every life he lost under his command was a job he could have done better.
The challenge of overcoming his perceived failure and rediscovering his self-worth as a civilian is where audiences meet post-war Stewart onscreen in 1946.
Watch during a pandemic
For two hours, “It’s a Wonderful Life” continues along a dark arch, until there is less. There are 10 glorious minutes left in the film. A Guardian Angel and Alternate Universe later, George Bailey learns the lesson that makes the film worth watching: An ordinary life of service to others will leave an extraordinary impact on people’s lives.
It is with a new perspective that every little thing George Bailey felt about his life, he now rejoices.
A new outlook on life is not an alien concept during the pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic has taken over 5.4 million lives around the world and disrupted daily life, forcing communities to be stranded and harming local economies.
âRight now a lot of us look like George Bailey in a way because he’s trapped in Bedford Falls and he feels like a failure because of it. Right now, being in this state of lockdown since March, I have reassessed what it means to be successful in my life, âfilm historian Carla Valderrama told CNN.
Valderrama says “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of the greatest movies ever to make because it can change the way you see the world. What this film tells the viewer is that success is not measured by materialism, but by what you give in return.
âI’m so grateful to the grocery store clerks, the person who shows up to bring my food – how essential that is. I’m so grateful to these frontline workers – these people are heroes right now, âsaid Valderrama.
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