Jimmy Stewart Talks About
It's A Wonderful Life
The following piece, written by Jimmy Stewart.....from Guideposts Magazine, an inspirational
magazine originally founded by Norman Vincent Peale ..... provides his thoughts and
insights on this magical movie.
By Jimmy Stewart
From Guideposts Magazine
A friend told me recently that seeing a movie I made over 50
years ago is a holiday tradition in his
family "like putting up the Christmas tree." That movie is "It's a Wonderful Life," and out of all the 80 films I've made, it's my
favorite. But it has an odd history.
When the war was over in 1945, I came back
home to California from three years' service in the Air
Force. I had been away from the film business, my MGM contract had run out, and frankly, not
knowing how to get started again, I was just a little bit scared. Hank Fonda was in the same boat,
and we sort of wandered around together, talking, flying kites and stuff. But nothing much was
Then one day Frank Capra phoned me. The
great director had also been away in service, making
the "Why We Fight" documentary series for
the military, and he admitted to being a little frightened
too. But he had a movie in mind, so we met
to talk about it.
He said the idea came from a Christmas story
written by Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern couldn't sell
the story anywhere, but he finally had 200
twenty-four-page pamphlets printed up at his own
expense, and he gave them to his friends as
a greeting card.
"Now listen," Frank began hesitantly. He seemed a little embarrassed about what he was going to
say. "The story starts in heaven, and it's sort of the Lord telling somebody to go down to earth
because there's a fellow who's in trouble, and this heavenly being goes to a small town, and ..."
Frank swallowed and took a deep breath.
"Well, what it boils down to is, this fella who thinks he's a failure in life jumps off a bridge. The Lord
sends down an angel named Clarence, who hasn't earned his wings yet, and Clarence jumps into the
water to save the guy. But the angel can't swim, so the
guy has to save him, and then ..."
Frank stopped and took a deep breath. "This
doesn't tell very well, does it?"
I jumped up. "Frank, if you want to do a
picture about a guy who jumps off a bridge and an angel
named Clarence who hasn't won his wings yet
coming down to save him, well, I'm your man!"
Production of "It's a Wonderful Life"
started April 15, 1946, and from the beginning there was a certain something special about the film.
Even the set was special. Two months had been spent
creating the town of Bedford Falls, New
York. For the winter scenes, the special-effects department invented a new kind of realistic snow
instead of using the traditional white cornflakes. As one of the longest American movie sets ever made until
then, Bedford Falls had 75 stores and buildings on four
acres with a three-block main street lined
with 20 full grown oak trees.
As I walked down that shady street the
morning we started work, it reminded me of my hometown, Indiana, Pennsylvania. I almost expected to
hear the bells of the Presbyterian church, where Mother
played the organ and Dad sang in the choir.
I chuckled, remembering how the fire siren would go off, and Dad, a volunteer fireman, would slip out
of the choir loft. If it was a false alarm, Dad would sneak back and sort of give a nod to everyone to
assure them that none of their houses was in danger.
I remembered how, after I got started in
pictures, Dad, who'd come to California for a visit, asked, "Where do you go to church around here?"
"Well, " I stammered, "I haven't been going
... There's none around here."
Dad disappeared and came back with four men.
"You must not have looked very hard, Jim," he said,
"because there's a Presbyterian church just
three blocks from here, and these are the elders.
They're building a new building now, and I
told them you were a movie star and you would help
them." And so Brentwood Presbyterian was the
first church I belonged to out here. Later that church
was the one in which Gloria and I were
married. A few years after that it was the same church I'd slip into during the day when Gloria was near
death after our twin girls were born. Then, after we moved, we attended Beverly Hills Presbyterian, a
church we could walk to.
It wasn't the elaborate movie set, however,
that made "It's a Wonderful Life" so different; much of it
was the story.
The character I played was George Bailey, an
ordinary kind of fella who thinks he's never
accomplished anything in life. His dreams of
becoming a famous architect, of traveling the world and
living adventurously, have not been
Instead he feels trapped in a humdrum job in
a small town. And when faced with a crisis in which he
feels he has failed everyone, he breaks
under the strain and flees to the bridge.
That's when his guardian angel, Clarence,
comes down on Christmas Eve to show him what his
community would be like without him. The
angel takes him back through his life to show how our
ordinary everyday efforts are really big
achievements. Clarence reveals how George Bailey's loyalty to his job at the building-and-loan office
has saved families and homes, how his little kindnesses
have changed the lives of others, and how
the ripples of his love will spread through the world,
helping make it a better place.
Good as the script was, there was still
something else about the movie that made it different. It's hard to explain. I, for one, had things
happen to me during the filming that never happened in any other picture I've made.
In one scene, for example George Bailey is
faced with unjust criminal charges and, not knowing
where to turn, ends up in a little roadside
restaurant. He is unaware that most of the people in town are arduously praying for him. In this
scene, at the lowest point in George Bailey's life, Frank Capra was shooting a long shot of me slumped in
despair. In agony I raised my eyes and, following the
script, pled, "God ... God ... Dear Father
in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if You're up there and You can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the
end of my rope. Show me the way, God ..."
As I said those words, I felt the
loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down
sobbing. This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer, the realization that our Father in
heaven is there to help the hopeless, had reduced me to tears.
Frank, who loved spontaneity in his films,
was ecstatic. He wanted a close-up of me saying that
prayer, but was sensitive enough to know
that my breaking down was real and that repeating it in
another take was unlikely. But Frank got his
The following week he worked long hours in
the film laboratory, again and again enlarging the frames
of that scene so that eventually it would
appear as a close-up on the screen. I believe nothing like this had ever been done before. It involved
thousands of individual enlargements with extra time and
money. But he felt it was worth it.
There was a growing excitement among all of
us as we strove day and night through the early
summer of 1946. We threw everything we had
into our work. Finally, after three months, shooting
some 68 miles of 35-millimeter film we completed the filming and had a big wrap-up party for
everyone. It was an outdoor picnic with three-legged races and burlap-bag sprints, just like the
picnics back home in Pennsylvania.
At the outing, Frank talked enthusiastically
about the picture. He felt that the film as well as the actors would be up for Academy Awards. Both of us
wanted it to win, not only because we believed in its
message, but also for the reassurance we
needed in this time of starting over.
But life doesn't always work out the way we
want it to.
The movie came out in December 1946, and
from the beginning we could tell it was not going to be
the success we'd hoped for. The critics had
mixed reactions. Some liked it ("a human drama of
essential truth"); others felt it "too sentimental ... a figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes."
As more reviews came out, our hopes sank
lower and lower. During early February 1947, eight other current films including "Sinbad the Sailor"
and Betty Grable's "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim," outranked it in box-office income. The postwar public
seemed to prefer lighthearted fare. At the end of 1947,
"It's a Wonderful Life" ranked 27th in earnings among the releases that season.
And although it earned several Oscar nominations, despite our high hopes, it won nothing. "Best
picture for 1946" went to "The Best Years of
Our Lives." By the end of 1947 the film was quietly put
on the shelf.
But a curious thing happened. The movie
simply refused to stay on the shelf. Those who loved it
loved it a lot, and they must have told
others. They wouldn't let it die any more than the angel
Clarence would let George Bailey die. When
it began to be shown on television, a whole new
audience fell in love with it.
Today, after some 50 years, I've heard the
film called "an American cultural phenomenon." Well,
maybe so, but it seems to me there is
nothing phenomenal about the movie itself. It's simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living
each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and a
selfless concern for others, can make for a
truly wonderful life.
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