The actor Jimmy Stewart is most famously associated as the main star of the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. However, the success of the film and its main star was not a guarantee.
It’s a Wonderful Life was the first film made by director Frank Capra after World War II. Capra entered military service after American entry in World War II to make films for the Army and left the service in 1945. Despite being nominated for many awards, It’s a Wonderful Life was not a successful film. It was not considered as the best picture of the year by audiences and critics; most of the honors going instead to William Wyler’s classic about three returning Veterans, The Best Years of Our Lives. It’s a Wonderful Life also did not break even at the box office and lost money for Capra’s Liberty Films.
Things were not great at the time for the Jimmy Stewart, either. Like Capra he also served in World War II. In fact, Stewart was initially drafted into the Army in 1941, right after winning an Academy Award for Best Actor and a few months before American entry into the war. He failed his entrance physical for being underweight. With a father that had served in the Spanish American War and World War I, Stewart did not believe in shirking his call to duty.
Stewart volunteered for a second physical and barely made the weight cut off after devouring milkshakes and bananas on a consistent basis. He went from making thousands of dollars a week in Hollywood to 21 dollars a month as a Private in the Army. Stewart passed rigorous training to pilot B24 Liberators in the Army Air Force.
Likely to protect a famous Hollywood actor, the powers in charge decided to keep Stewart stateside. Stewart volunteered for combat duty and was sent overseas to Britain. He flew, and later led, many combat missions into Hitler’s Germany and other parts of Europe. Stewart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and skill during his dangerous duty. By the end of the war, Stewart has risen from Buck Private to Full Colonel. His final assignment was as a wing commander for the Second Bomb Wing. Coming home from the war was very real for Stewart, as it was for millions of lesser known Americans.
After returning home to the United States in September 1945, Stewart spent a little more than a week with his parents in Indiana, Pennsylvania and then returned to Hollywood.He and his friend, the actor Henry Fonda, who was also a war Veteran, lived together and spent their time flying kites and discussing working in the airlines if their careers in Hollywood did not restart. Stewart even thought of helping to run his father’s hardware store back home in Pennsylvania. Stewart was lost and had even stopped going to church, at least until his father scolded him for not going.
Soon after Capra’s offer came in to star in It’s a Wonderful Life. Stewart accepted but, at first, had a difficult time on the set.
Stewart did not think he had the ability to act anymore and questioned whether his profession was an honorable one. The war, and things from it he would forever carry with him, were still strong on his mind.A few weeks into filming, Lionel Barrymore, who played the evil Mr. Potter, talked with Stewart.
As Stewart’s father reminded him about the importance of attending church, the man who played the film’s unrepentant villain reminded Stewart of the importance of his profession. Barrymore said, “So, are you saying it’s more worthwhile to drop bombs on people than to entertain them?” Barrymore was not trying to disparage Stewart’s service but rather shock him back to his new reality. After that conversation, Stewart felt reconnected to his profession; albeit a stronger and more mature connection.
Jimmy Stewart soldiered on, in Hollywood and in life. His more mature persona became the basis for his partnership with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950’s, a decade in which Stewart was the top box office draw in the nation.
Stewart also continued his military service in the Air Force Reserve and in 1959 was promoted to Brigadier General. He retired from the Air Force Reserve at that rank in 1968 which he reached the mandatory retirement age of 60. Stewart was later promoted to Major General on the retired list. Despite an impressive military career, he refused to capitalize on it.
After Stewart returned from World War II, the only offer he received before It’s a Wonderful Life was to star in a war film based on himself. Stewart refused and remained steadfast in this commitment. Stewart only agreed to participate in a 1970’s World War II documentary if he was identified by his wartime position, not his peacetime profession as a famous actor.
Almost four years after returning from the war, Stewart married his wife Gloria. Stewart adopted Gloria’s two children and the couple had two other children. Jimmy and Gloria remained married for over 40 years until her death in 1994.
It’s a Wonderful Life, despite failing expectations at the box office, became Jimmy Stewart’s favorite film. As the years passed the film also achieved a success that it did not initially have and is now an American classic. It’s a Wonderful Life proved the critics wrong. The film continues to bring comfort, solace, and hope to millions.Jimmy Stewart proved the critics wrong too.
As the Angel Clarence said to Stewart during the film, despite obstacles, he “really did have a wonderful life.”