How WWII Shaped the Iconic Christmas Movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”


Stewart had just returned home after 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 antithetically crescendo in a failed suicide attempt.

Throughout the film, George Bailey’s life often seems anything but wonderful. The audience watches as a young man of worldly dreams meets 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 believes he is worth more dead than alive.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is for a real and resonant self-esteem and failure issues. Fresh out of the war, Stewart grapples with these trials himself, as he shapes the deeply relatable character of George Bailey. Without Stewart’s true knowledge of darkness, the vacation classic’s redefining perspective on life couldn’t shine so unforgettable.

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 copyright has not been renewed, according to Turner Classic Movies.

This meant that in the 1970s, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was free for broadcasters on several occasions. Audiences began to notice this less than joyful film that flooded the airways around Christmas time, and so a holiday tradition was born.

NBC, which now owns the rights to the film, airs “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve every year. In 2016, Variety reported that the network’s 42nd broadcast on Christmas Eve drew 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 he was 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.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is the result of Jim’s war experiences because he unlocked that depth of soul in Jimmy… He had to relearn how to act and that’s what you see on screen. It’s like lightning that just got captured in a bottle, ”biographer Robert Matzen told CNN.

It shows 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 m ‘hear, show me the way. ”

George Bailey wasn’t scheduled to cry, but Jimmy Stewart did.

“As I said these words, I felt the loneliness, the despair of people who had nowhere to go, and my eyes filled with tears. I collapsed sobbing, ”Stewart said in an interview in 1987.

This scene, capturing the desperate call for help from George Bailey, was done in one take. This was in part due to the emotion of Stewart, who still struggled with the pressure of life and death war, explained Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

“Jimmy Stewart was following his own experience and using it in his character. It is a very difficult thing to do. Audiences feel the intensity because it was clearly authentic, ”Mankiewicz told CNN.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a classic because it connects emotionally with the viewer, said Mankiewicz, and is able to resonate with our everyday lives.

“It’s a movie we watch on Christmas, but the power and emotion that the movie conveys is no less powerful in June,” Mankiewicz said.

Military service

When Stewart enlisted in the military in 1941, he had just won an Oscar for “The Philadelphia Story”.

Entered the Air Force as a private, he was assigned to the film 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 “aerial quarterback,” tasked with calling shots in the air. real time for pilots.

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 Stewart’s worst mission of 1944 to the German city of Gotha. Stewart lost men in his command during 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 on 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 had to return to England while Stewart gazed at enemy territory through the hole in his cabin. Matzen estimated that Stewart had 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 thirties.

“No one recognized the Jimmy Stewart returning home after the fight. He had changed so much. He had aged, say ten years, some say 20. He had a lot of attributes of PTSD, ”Matzen said.

Stewart receives the Croix De Guerre medal for his service.  Courtesy of the Jimmy Stewart Museum.

These symptoms included jerks, 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, veterans returning from war were considered to experience “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 personal worth as a civilian is when audiences meet postwar Stewart onscreen in 1946.

Watch during a pandemic

For two hours, “It’s a Wonderful Life” continues on a dark arch, until less than 10 glorious minutes remain in the film. A Guardian Angel and Alternate Universe later, George Bailey learns the lesson that makes the film interesting: 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 Perspective on Life is no foreign concept in 2020, a year like no other in recent history. The coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 1.6 million people around the world and disrupted daily life, forcing communities to isolate themselves and hurting local economies.

“Right now a lot of us are 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, ”film historian Carla Valderrama told CNN.

Valderrama says “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of the greatest movies ever made 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 back.

“I’m so grateful to the grocery store clerks, the person who shows up to bring my food – how essential it is. I’m so grateful for these frontline 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 issues of strength and purpose are still on the minds of many this year. “It’s a wonderful life” reminds us that every life is essential, and with a new perspective, wonderful.

CNN’s Amy Wray and Fernando Alfonso contributed to this report.


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