‘It’s A Wonderful Life’: Holiday classic, and Jimmy Stewart at his best

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As a fan of classic film, I must confess that I have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life until researching for this article. Of course, as we all have, I’ve seen the advertisements for the film during the typical holiday line-up, but had no desire to actually watch it.  Admittedly, I was not the biggest Jimmy Stewart fan; I’m more of a Clark Gable girl, so the snippets of Stewart’s characters that I had seen held little interest to me. However, I decided to openly approach this film free of judgment, and with that I witnessed the range within Stewart that director Frank Capra saw in his unwavering decision upon casting Stewart for the starring role.

RKO’s  It’s a Wonderful Life did not receive critical acclaim upon its opening in 1946. Capra’s films, were known as Capricorns for their signature of hope, sentiment, and giving voice to the working man.  Capra, a native of Italy, generally involved the idealism of the American Dream in his films.

Stewart’s performance is flawless, and the entire cast follows suit. Quite surprisingly for me, I felt a bit of Woody Allen quality to this film as the dialogue and interactions seemed unscripted and lifelike, unlike clearly scripted musicals, which were my first welcome, yet unexpected, aspect of the film.  The plot is basic. An angel Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent to show a desperate George Bailey (James Stewart) who is contemplating suicide, what life would have been like had he not existed, and as simple as the plot seems, Capra tugs the audience’s emotion through association.

Behind the scenes of the set It’s a Wonderful Life.

As the film opens we meet George as a young man, brimming with hope of escaping his small town life with his well thought out bright future.  It becomes evident in his conversation with his father that his intentions are not a betrayal to his hometown but rather a decision to be true to his own aspirations. George’s small town values shine through and his character is depicted as most of Stewart’s characters, an honest, kind, soft-hearted individual and avid caretaker of his fellow man, who we feel is deserving of his best life.

When George’s plans are derailed as a result of his father’s sudden passing, a series of domino-effect circumstances of sorts leads George into the exact life he desperately tried to avoid. He marries the gentle and loving Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) who is, like himself, a lifelong resident of Bedford Falls, and also has a lifelong crush on George, and as a very young girl, whispers into his “bad ear,”  (a result of saving his drowning younger brothers life) “I’ll love you ‘til the day I die.” His nemesis, the vile miser Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, Drew Barrymore’s great uncle) is the final catalyst in George’s decision to end his life. Barrymore plays the villain in this film, as he plays all other roles, to Shakespearean perfection, leaving a bad taste in the mouth upon each of his scenes. When he tells a despondent George who is facing trouble with the law that he will be easily found in a small town, he states it with such ease there is no doubt as to its truth.

Behind the scenes of the set It’s a Wonderful Life.

Each time it seems an opening of grace appears we hold our breath in hopeful anticipation that “this” time George will find his well-deserved payoff, and when he doesn’t our spirits parallel along with his in decline because we can see snapshots and opportunities of life that we believe rightfully belong to George, a selfless individual who is watching the years speedily pass by with lessening opportunities for his ultimate happiness.  

As his despair deepens, our own vulnerability surfaces because, at times, it is all too familiar. When he arrives home from a meeting with Mr. Potter, after nobly turning down his $20K offer, his memories haunt him and we bear the weight along with him. When he and Mary hand over their honeymoon funds to satisfy customers after a run on the bank, we are torn, yet still rejoice with the remaining $2 they have left at closing time. Slowly yet steadily we feel the low level anxiety and frustration swelling. When George arrives home, and as he passionately holds his son, his pain comes through as his years of frustration and seemingly unending sacrifice that have benefitted all — except for the giver — comes to a head, finally exploding in the most unfair yet expected of places, in front of his awe-struck family.

His ultimate confrontation with Potter comes after Potter’s thievery of George’s $8,000 bank funds from the absentminded Uncle Billy, and Potter’s solution, to have George jailed, naturally makes us angry. Not so much because of Potter’s vileness but because we believe George rightfully deserves so much more.  Here is a man who consistently holds his dreams at bay, forfeiting his personal happiness for the ultimate benefit of his neighbor. And although we find his nobility worthy, we cannot help but root for George in silence that, somehow, someway, he will finally receive the life he truly deserves — and it moves us, because many of us “are” George, and if we are not, then we know someone like him, and in this way, the parallels are all too great.

Lionel Barrymore and James Stewart

After a series of events contributing to his spiritual decline, George is on a bridge contemplating his death by jumping into the icy water, when we see a glimmer of hope in George’s character when George rescues the angel, Clarence (Henry Travers) who jumps in the water first, successfully coaxing George’s humanity. Upon witnessing the impact he has made on others through his guardian angel he realizes the gift that has been his life, and is even willing to be arrested for the missing $8,000 bank funds. When the community he so lovingly sacrificed for ultimately comes to his rescue, he finally receives a great portion of the karma due him.

Instead of staying on script, Capra took advantage of supposed mistakes to create natural flow. During the telephone scene where George passionately kisses Mary, which was completed in one take, an assistant on set reported although the scene was exceptional, an entire page of dialogue was missed.

Capra answered, “With technique like that, who needs dialogue? Print it.”

In a separate scene when a happily-drunk Uncle Billy (character actor and Academy Award winner Thomas Mitchell) is on his way home, as he walks off camera, it seems he has fallen into a bevy of trash cans, reporting quite heartily, “I’m alright!  I’m alright!” In actuality, a stage hand knocked over a pile of props, and the cunning Capra, kept it in the film, paying the stagehand an extra $10 for the amusing blunder.

Set on the East Coast, the Rockwell-esque Bedford Falls is a fictional town. However, in the scene where George is purchasing a suitcase, the picture window of the store clearly shows “Boston Co. Suitcases,” giving us direct indication that Bedford Falls is in Massachusetts.  Bedford Falls is one of the largest RKO sets to date, built on the RKO ranch in Encino, Calif. three city blocks long, with 75 stores and buildings, covering four acres and filmed during a record-breaking heat wave. The high school dance is not a set, as most originally believed. It is filmed in Beverly Hills High School where the floor of the gym separates to reveal the pool underneath.  Beverly Hills High is no stranger to movies, as other films were staged there, including the classic film, The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer.

For those classic actor fans, a cameo is immediately recognized by his signature freckles as the individual speaking to Mary. Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) of “Our Gang” is “the little rascal” who unlocks the gymnasium floor in envy of George, revealing the pool where the young patrons of the party immediately seize the opportunity to jump in, suits, gowns and all, resulting in innocent merriment.

Stewart, known for his drawl-manner of speaking and his honest depiction of the all-American every-man is reported by fellow colleagues as a mirror of his characters. Noted as one of the three greatest male screen legends by the American Film Institute, Stewart was a WWII and Vietnam veteran garnering more than eight military awards, becoming the highest ranking actor in the U.S. military. Nominated for five Academy Awards and winning best actor for the Philadelphia story, Stewart’s career spanned over five decades.  

A man of many talents, Stewart once read a poem on the Johnny Carson show about his beloved dog that brought Carson to tears (try not to cry, I dare you.) He married Gloria McLean in 1949 to whom he would remain married until her death at 75 in 1994. When the battery in his pacemaker was to be replaced, he opted instead to let nature take its course. Surrounded by his family, in apparent James Stewart fashion, his last words were, “I am going to be with Gloria now.”

James Stewart and Donna Reed

Donna Reed, chosen for her soft cherubic features and sweet mannerisms is George’s saving grace, and the one reason why small town life just may not be all that bad. In the scene where Reed is to throw a rock at the old mansion, a double was to be used, however, Reed having a mean pitching arm, surprisingly impressed Capra as well as the cast resulting in her own performance.  Reed went on to win Best Supporting Actress in From Here to Eternity. In later years, Reed moved her career to the new medium of television. The Donna Reed show had a successful eight-season run.

Director Frank Capra and James Stewart

The Stewart/Capra combination definitely won me over.  I was pleased to have put my personal prejudices aside to watch this film, although given its endearing and provoking affect, I’m certain, had they been present, my judgment would have been easily overruled. An ideal holiday movie, Capra presents a moving film with a message of gratefulness sentiment and hopeful optimism, rightfully deemed as a “classic” — and Jimmy Stewart is the ideal vehicle to execute its resounding message.

Constance Cherise is a multi-passionate entrepreneur. She is a classic movie-lover, empowerment coach, foodie, Disco “everything” fanatic, aspiring writer and artist. You can contact her at constance.cherise@gmail.com.

About this Author

Constance Cherise

Constance Cherise is a freelance writer and contributor for Turner Classic MoviesSee her work here.