Jimmy Stewart was at times morose and insecure as filming began on the 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Since he went off to serve, Hollywood had found new leading men, such as Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck, who both were seven years younger than he was. Some of “Life’s” early scenes called for the now graying Stewart to be just a few years out of high school. He felt ridiculous and considered plastic surgery, then thought better of it. But Jim was helped greatly by his co-star Donna Reed (Jean Arthur, Olivia de Havilland, and Ginger Rogers were among several actresses considered for the role of Mary Baily).
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Before the romantic scene where George and Mary tearfully and sensuously declare their love for each other, Reed encouraged her leading man to do it in only one unrehearsed take. Capra later joked that Stewart was so nervous during the tender sequence he was forced to wrap a phone chord around the celluloid couple so Jim wouldn’t run away.
“The nice part about living in a small town is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else does.” — German Philosopher Immanuel Kant
Stewart was also helped by the actor who played the film’s villain, the wheelchair-bound Lionel Barrymore, who reminded him that movies had the power to make people happy around the world. The old man’s pep talks helped Jim regain his confidence in his acting chops, and Capra gave the Indiana, Pennsylvania-born Stewart great latitude in playing the role of the small town resident whose big dreams would never be fulfilled. Just before filming the sequence where the Bailey’s Bedford Falls neighbors came to take their money out of the building and loan, Capra advised the future grandma on TV’s “The Waltons,” Ellen Corby, to ask Stewart for $17.50, half the amount that the script called for. The leading man responded by staying in character and impulsively kissing Corby on the cheek.
In one of the films darker moments Stewart, who during the war was no stranger to nearly overpowering fear and had often prayed for the safe return of himself and his men before bombing missions, started sobbing on camera when he turned to God for help. As the show continued, some of Stewart’s cast mates, who at first were questioning the rusty movie star’s professionalism, became convinced that he and George Bailey were one and the same; Jim went on to deliver an Oscar-nominated performance.
“It bears out my feeling of the picture business, that it’s not a production line business–but magic” – James Stewart, on “It’s a Wonderful Life”
A brief aside: The 66-year-old Barrymore, who for years famously played Ebenezer Scrooge on the radio and suffered from crippling arthritis, showed no sign of his legendary ferocious temper on the Wonderful Life set. A few years earlier Lionel, had been directing a movie in which the actors kept blowing their lines, which resulted in several retakes; Barrymore had felt an explosion coming on. Still smiling, the enraged filmmaker excused himself, went upstairs to the sound control room and let loose a barrage of foul language. None of the cast members were spared his wrath. When he finished, he felt better and calmly returned to the set. To Lionel’s delighted surprise, his performers excelled for the rest of the day. Later a jubilant Barrymore told a crew member that patience always wins. The man replied, “That little broadcast from behind the glass booth didn’t hurt any either.”
In the 1930s director Capra had toiled at Columbia Pictures, which was ruled by the autocratic Harry Cohn, considered by some to be the meanest man in Hollywood. The mogul kept the entire studio electronically bugged, displayed a huge portrait of Mussolini in his office, and used an electrified chair to give unsuspecting victims sudden jolts.
Capra had sat in it once, received a shock, and angrily smashed the chair to bits. Yet the Sicilian-born director and the rough-and-tumble former streetcar conductor from New York mostly got on along well. They had made several classic hits together including the 1934 Academy Award winner It Happened One Night (1934) starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, before Columbia’s decision to cancel a biopic about the composer Chopin had led to the frustrated Capra leaving the studio. When filming began on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Capra was excited to have his independence but nervous with his own money on the line. Known for making movie sets fun places to work, Frank was at first crabby and irritable with his cast and crew.
Filming a snowy Christmas movie in over one hundred degree heat in Encino did not help morale; many of the heavily dressed actors fainted. But there were nice moments. One scene required Donna Reed as Mary to throw a rock through an old mansion window and make a wish. Capra had a marksman ready off camera, but to his delight Reed shattered the glass on her own. She turned to him and said,” Why so surprised? Don’t you think an Iowa farm girl would know how to play baseball?”
“The importance of the individual is the theme – and no man is a failure. If he’s born, he’s born to do something, he’s born not to fail.”
– Frank Capra
As the shoot progressed, Capra regained his confidence. He disdained special effects when Clarence Oddbody the angel (Henry Travers) did his magic, preferring to tell the story through his actor’s faces. The director started to believe he was making the greatest movie ever. Eventually “Life” became a joyous project to work on; like earlier Capra films, the company went on picnics and sang in between camera setups.
“It was the most gentlemanly way of going broke, and the fastest way anybody ever devised.” – Frank Capra, on Liberty Films
Too dark; the country wanted to watch comedians such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Too dated; “Life” came off like a Depression film rather than a post-war movie. Cinema attendance dropped drastically in 1946 overall, as re-united couples often preferred spending quiet evenings at home. For whatever reason, unlike Capra’s blockbuster hits in the 1930s, the three million dollar production failed to make a profit.
Capra made one more movie under the Liberty Films banner “State of the Union,” 1948, with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), and then chose to fold his entrepreneurial tent, opting instead for the security of a Paramount Studios contract. Years after the sale, Capra mourned the loss of his artistic independence and admitted he was never again the same man or talent that he had been.
The newly energized Stewart, with his acting confidence restored, hinted to his agent that Reed was to blame for the movie’s disappointing box office performance (“Wonderful Life”‘s trailers had emphasized the love story instead of the Christmas theme) and superstitiously turned down the opportunity have her as his leading lady again. Donna Reed, who later said she’d never worked harder on a movie, felt completely exhausted after “Wonderful Life” and wondered if her career was finished.
“What is remarkable about ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is how well it holds up over the years; it’s one of those ageless movies, like ‘Casablanca’ or ‘The Third Man,’ that improves with age” – Roger Ebert, 1999
“Wonderful Life” got mixed reviews in its initial release and like any classic movie was continuously reexamined. Some critics found the film terrifying, citing moments where Stewart’s George Bailey, seeming barely to be able to restrain himself from committing physical violence, verbally abused his wife, children and their teacher.
Salon.com critic Rich Cohen expressed the view that the nightmarish Pottersville, which displaces the more idyllic Bedford Falls after the angel grants George Bailey’s wish to have never been born, was actually the real world that we all live in. Others saw the film as a damning statement on capitalism, ignoring that fact Mr. Potter harms George Bailey by resorting to thievery, while George’s friends make a free market, charitable decision to bail him out. (Socialism was arguably on display during the scene in which a dressed-to-the-nines Reed and Stewart fall into a pool after doing the Charleston; the retractable floor which a jealous Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer used to sabotage the two future newlyweds’ dance was a real-life Franklin Roosevelt New Deal project built for Beverly Hills High School.)
“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” –Frank Capra
Years passed. From that point on Capra, unwilling to either risk his own money or work for somebody else, directed only a handful of movies after “Wonderful Life.” He grew frustrated both by the rising power of movie stars combined with studio-imposed budget restrictions. In his 1971 autobiography, the always sentimental Capra, who forty years before had talked the foul-mouthed, tough-minded Harry Cohn into distributing Mickey Mouse cartoons, publicly despaired about the lack of wholesome movies coming out of Hollywood.
Although he continued to take on a variety of roles, James Stewart deliberately set out to create a stronger screen image. He shared Capra’s disdain for unrealistic war movies, preferring instead hard, gritty Westerns like “The Man From Laramie” (1954), which helped to make him rich and surpass John Wayne as the nation’s number one box office star. Donna Reed restored her career by winning an Academy Award for playing a prostitute in “From Here To Eternity” (1953) and then became one of television’s most wholesome mothers. She became a staunch anti-Vietnam War activist, putting her politically at odds with her more hawkish former leading man. In 1966, Brigadier General James Stewart flew on a non-publicized bombing mission, suffered the loss of his son Ronald killed in action two years later, and later publicly expressed contempt for those opposed the Vietnam conflict.
Meanwhile, “It’s a Wonderful Life” fell into the public domain in 1974 because no one renewed its copyright. The almost forgotten film, considered by many to be old-fashioned in it’s time, was shown repeatedly on cable television stations during the holiday season, achieved an enormous following, and became a perennial Christmas classic.
“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”