Stewart had just returned home from serving as a flight leader in World War II and this 1946 film was his first movie since witnessing the horrors of war. With this postwar mentality, Stewart and director Frank Capra take a film titled “It’s a Wonderful Life” and antithetically crescendo into a failed suicide attempt.
Throughout the film, George Bailey’s life often seems anything but wonderful. The audience watches as a young man with worldly dreams encounters setback after setback, each one like a nail in his own coffin. Trapped in his hometown, running his late father’s business, the story comes to a climax when George Bailey believes he’s worth more dead than alive.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” addresses real and resonant issues of self-worth and failure. Fresh from the war, Stewart is grappling with these trials himself, as he shapes the deeply relatable character of George Bailey. Without Stewart’s real acquaintance with darkness, the holiday classic’s redefining perspective on life wouldn’t be able to shine so unforgettably bright.
Becoming a classic
This meant that in the 1970’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” was cost-free for broadcasters to air repeatedly. Audiences began to take notice of this less-than-jolly movie that flooded the airways at Christmas time, and thus a holiday tradition was born.
The movie captures a period of American life packed with some of the most landmark historical events in the 20th century, including the Great Depression and World War II.
After serving in the Army Air Corps, Stewart had been absent from Hollywood for five years when he was offered the role in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He was initially hesitant to do the film, according to biographer Robert Matzen, but it was his only offer except for a film featuring his war service.
This is seen in one of the film’s most iconic, unscripted scenes, when George Bailey finds himself at the end of his rope: “I’m not a praying man but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way.”
George Bailey wasn’t scripted to cry, but Jimmy Stewart did.
“Jimmy Stewart was following his own experience and using that in his character. That is a very hard thing to do. The audience feels the intensity of that because it was clearly authentic,” Mankiewicz told CNN.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a classic because it connects with the viewer emotionally, Mankiewicz said, and is able to resonate with our everyday lives.
“It’s a movie we watch at Christmas, but the power and emotion the film conveys isn’t any less powerful in June,” Mankiewicz said.
When Stewart enlisted in the Army in 1941, he had just won an Academy Award for “The Philadelphia Story.”
Entering the Army Air Corps as a private, he was assigned to the motion pictures unit to make films for the war department. Stewart, who comes from a family steeped in military service, fought the orders and pushed for the chance to serve overseas.
After earning his wings as a pilot, Stewart was finally sent to England as a flight leader in 1943. Matzen described Stewart as an “aerial quarterback,” responsible for calling real-time shots in the air for pilots.
Stewart flew 20 physically and mentally challenging combat missions which he rarely talked about after the war.
Through mission reports of Stewart’s combat, Matzen was able to provide a look into the worst mission Stewart led in 1944 over the German city of Gotha. Stewart lost men in his command during this bombing campaign, a devastating cost for a leader who believed he was responsible for each life.
Adding to this, the personal experience Stewart experienced over Gotha was something out of a nightmare. The floor of Stewart’s plane was hit, blowing a hole right below his feet, Matzen explained. His damaged bomber had to limp back to England while Stewart gazed down at enemy territory through the hole in his cabin. Matzen estimated Stewart experienced temperatures of at least 20 degrees below zero.
This mission was “one too many” for Stewart, Matzen said. Ten years over the recommended age for a pilot flying heavy bombers, experiences like this took a tremendous toll on Stewart in his mid-30’s.
“Nobody recognized the Jimmy Stewart that returned home from combat. He had changed so much. He had aged some say ten years, some say 20. He had a lot of the attributes of PTSD,” Matzen said.
These symptoms included the shakes, a short temper and nightmares, according to Matzen. The short temper would lead to mood swings, not unlike the explosive fit where George Bailey destroys part of the family living room, said Matzen.
When asked what the horrors of war meant to Stewart, Matzen said that Stewart’s perfectionism plagued him: every life he lost under his command was a job he could’ve done better.
The challenge of overcoming his perceived failure and rediscovering his self-worth as a civilian is where the audience meets postwar Stewart on screen in 1946.
Watching during a pandemic
It’s with a new perspective that every little thing that George Bailey has resented about his life, he now rejoices in.
Valderrama says “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of the greatest movies ever made because it can change the way one views the world. What this film tells the viewer is that success is not measured in materialism, but how much one gives back.
“I am so grateful for the grocery clerks, the person who shows up to bring my food — how essential. I am so grateful for these front line workers — these people are heroes right now,” Valderrama said.
The bravery of these everyday heroes has been a light through the darkness of 2020, but the questions of strength and purpose are still front-of-mind for many this year. “It’s a Wonderful Life” serves as a reminder that each and every life is essential, and with a new perspective, wonderful.
CNN’s Amy Wray and Fernando Alfonso contributed to this report.