A Jagged Edge

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Jim Stewart as George Bailey Standing on the edge of suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’ve heard more than once on the book tour that some people are uncomfortable with It’s a Wonderful Life as a motion picture. A couple weeks ago I watched it on the big screen and sat there with this specific point of view in mind. I have to say, I understand where these people are coming from. This is a dark tale, so dark and so unusual that it’s no wonder Jim Stewart balked initially when Capra pitched it to him in autumn 1945.

A man driven to suicide? No, no, no, Jim countered, if I can find work–if any studio will have me-I just want to make a comedy.

An angel needs to earn his wings? What? Forget it, Frank, I’m out.

When you’re sitting in a balcony looking at a silver screen 30 feet high, the view is much clearer than your television system at home, even if you’ve got a 65-inch setup. As viewed this picture the way God intended, in a theatrical setting, It’s a Wonderful Life unspooled as a long picture, and grim, with a carefully crafted screenplay that drives our hero to despair in a relentless effort. Take for example the “Buffalo Gal” sequence after the dance and the terrific exchange between Stewart and Donna Reed walking along the street. It’s a dynamic sequence that builds and builds and suddenly she’s (presumably) naked in the hydrangea bush. Jim says what the audience is thinking, “This is a very interesting situation!”

Boom! The air is let out of characters and audience alike by news that George’s father has suffered a stroke. I don’t think it’s just me who reacts badly to this. We are meant as an audience to be uncomfortable with this moment because the theme of the picture is oppression, gloom, and the erosion of a person’s will by the tide of life. If not for the relentlessness of the setup, the payoff wouldn’t offer such release from the emotional bondage Capra has spent two hours creating.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

George at the end of his rope, praying for guidance. Jim only had one take in him, and told Capra he had nailed it and couldn’t do another.

With my newfound perspective on Jim Stewart the man and actor, knowing more than anyone in the world other than Jim himself what he had gone through in the war, I watched him onscreen as, frame by frame, It’s a Wonderful Life unspooled in the dark. In his first scene buying the suitcase he’s playing 22 when in the real world he’s 38 going on 50. He’s got a hairpiece in front, hair coloring left and right on his gray, heavy makeup, and careful lighting to help him carry an impression of youth. He bubbles over with energy in that first scene. He’s a thoroughbred just out of the gate at Churchill Downs in this moment, a stallion away for five years and now once again feeling the bit between his teeth. And man does he run. What comes across is youthful enthusiasm but make no mistake, this is a man who appreciates the opportunity he’s been given, a man who is going to work this day and not getting shot at by a deadly foe.

There is brutal hate in George Bailey, and Stewart—a desperate man at this point in his life—finds that vibe easily, as when he goes to Mary’s house and berates her for showing romantic interest in him and accuses her of trying to tie him down. What did Mary ever do but love this man, and he all but wipes his shoes on her. Jim Stewart’s George Bailey is a guy with an edge, wild-eyed in some scenes, rage-filled in others, as when he wrecks his living room and terrorizes his wife and children who see not husband and father but a monster unmasked. The America of 1946 was filled with monsters, men back from the hell of World War II and now strangers in their own homes, in some cases ticking time bombs, full of self-loathing at what they had seen and done and unleashing fury on family members, just like George did with Mary and the kids.

Indeed, the picture is populated by people riding the line of good and evil, like Nick the bartender, good in the Bailey world, evil without Bailey’s influence. Or George’s mother, a bitter soul without George around. And Gower the druggist, who so easily beats youngster George to a pulp and bloodies his ear. Capra paints this corner of America as a brutal place but for the intervention of someone extraordinary like George, a man of principle who influences impressionable, self-involved masses.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Jim wild-eyed and letting the world see something from deep inside.

There is a myth that It’s a Wonderful Life bombed at the box office on release 70 years ago this month at Christmas 1946, but that’s not accurate. This was a prestige picture and it performed like one and nearly made back its cost, but that cost had been extravagant, from construction of the main streets of Bedford Falls at the RKO Ranch in Encino to the snowstorm created in 90-degree Mojave Desert to all those expensive bridge and river shots that took weeks to complete on RKO soundstages.

What isn’t myth is that this was a picture ahead of its time, too long and dark for war-weary audiences to process in 1946. In another 10 years television would intervene and peacetime Eisenhower-era viewers would drink up and savor It’s a Wonderful Life for its themes of principles, friendship, the value of human lives lived well.

When you finish reading Mission you will understand what Stewart brought to this production and what it meant to him. You will sit there in the dark not just with Jim but with fine young army fliers like Albert Poor and Earle Metcalf who died under Jim’s command but lived on through all their skipper’s accomplishments. Jim carried with him all those boys he had lost, which is one of the reasons he wouldn’t talk about the war—it hurt too much. He didn’t talk about it but he remembered those men and their times each and every day on a journey into the second half of his career that began with It’s a Wonderful Life.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Heartfelt salutations from both Jim and George in the last reel of It’s a Wonderful Life.

9 comments

  1. It was James Stewart’s favorite film. That being known, I had read, apparently inaccurately, that Stewart took the offer immediately when Capra barely began describing the storyline: he said it was about an “angel earning his wings”. Thankfully we have historians who are filling in the details and revealing the complexity of the issues and ultimate decision by Stewart to take on the project. Hats off to you Robert!

    1. Christopher, it’s funny you say IAWL was Jim’s favorite film. At first it wasn’t at all. He let the public be his gauge as to the quality of his pictures and when IAWL let him down, didn’t win Oscars and didn’t go in the black, he thought it was bad box office. Proof of that is when he had Donna Reed removed from the Stratton Story because of the returns in their previous pairing. He figured she was the weak link! And no, he didn’t jump at the chance to make IAWL, as confirmed by Capra’s own notes about the first attempt to tell Jim about it when Capra said, “meeting falls apart.” We look back now at this classic through a layer of syrup, but it came together pretty much like all Hollywood pictures, on a wing and a prayer, and with lots of angst along the way.

      1. I learned IAWL was his favorite during his conversation with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show during the 70s or 80s allowing the passage of time to convince Stewart of the film’s greatness!

  2. I haven’t seen It’s a Wonderful Life in years but that photo that you posted of James Stewart crying in the bar – that’s the scene that stays with me, even haunts me, more than any other in the film, I think.

    Capra liked to take his film heroes to the darkest black pit of despair before somehow salvaging them for a happy ending. In the case of this film, though, as you pointed out, Robert, it was darker, far darker, than anything the director had done before. Let’s not forget that Capra had seen the war, as well as Stewart.

    But in this scene Stewart, talking quietly to God as he begins to tremble and weep, truly at the end of his rope, as you said, conveys a desperation that is palpable. Stewart’s acting is so honest and the camera lingers so intimately upon him in this moment of great vulnerability – the discomfort I feel watching him here almost becomes a physical pain for me.

    I have sometimes wondered what Stewart was thinking when he played this scene. It is virtually impossible to believe this actor could have played the same scene so incredibly real if it had been filmed before his wartime experiences. You said he told Capra he couldn’t have done a second take. I can well believe it. He must have been drained when this scene was over.

    Stewart’s extraordinary sensitivity in this heart breaking scene captures the darkest moments of despair that a man can face in his life. He is a man on the edge of an abyss. Drug addicts and alcoholics have been there. So have people facing financial ruin or someone who is facing life alone after having just lost the love of his or her life, or God forbid, a child.

    Capra and Stewart take us to a terrible place in this scene, and it’s emotionally stunning. The film may be a fantasy in so many ways but the anguish captured here is real, the emotions displayed raw and unsettling. Brilliant as he could be as an actor, at times, I can’t recall seeing James Stewart quite so extraordinary in another scene again (excluding the emotions he displayed at the end of Vertigo).

    1. Tom, you nailed it talking about this scene. It’s one I admit taking for granted but interviewers keep bring it up above all others, and when you think about Stewart’s internal motivation, I can’t help but connect the filming of this scene to his experience the night before the Gotha mission of Feb 25, 1944. He said he couldn’t sleep and got up to look out into the black of East Anglia night while he talked to God about what awaited in the coming hours. He could latch onto his feelings that night or to any number of counseling sessions he had with his fliers who were facing personal crises. This is the side of Jim and his comrades that I want Mission to help people understand.

      Thank you, Tom. And Happy Holidays.

    1. It is a very sad story about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds and I agree with you that 2016 has been an unkind set of days and months. Let’s hope that somehow, 2017 manages to be a better time for all. Happy New Year, Priscila.

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