I have watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas I can remember, but the holiday classic film took on a whole new meaning for me this year.
I knew that the film had been released in 1946, just after both actor Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra had returned from war, but I only learned recently the impact that the war had on the finished product. (RELATED: ‘Stewart Appeared To Use Acting As Therapy’: Iraq Veteran Says ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Is Truly A War Film)
The movie was Capra’s idea, and he knew from the start that he wanted Stewart to play the iconic role of George Bailey. But Stewart, an Army Air Corps squadron commander who was grounded by PTSD after 20 combat missions over Europe in a B-24, wanted to do a comedy.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was James Stewart’s 1st film after 4 years of service during WWII.
Frank Capra recalled “Of all actors’ roles I believe the most difficult is the role of a Good Sam who doesn’t know that he is a Good Sam. I knew one man who could play it… James Stewart.” pic.twitter.com/antQ3b5aaz
— TCM (@tcm) November 24, 2020
Stewart told reporters when he returned to Hollywood that the world had seen enough death and misery, and when Capra approached him with the story of a family man nearly driven to suicide, he balked and left the meeting.
But Stewart, who at the time was sharing an apartment with fellow veteran Henry Fonda, wasn’t getting any other offers. He eventually agreed to take the role.
After learning the history behind the film, I watched it again with new eyes — and I saw Stewart battling his personal demons in every scene.
I saw his heart and his head at war as he chose the woman he loved over his lifelong desire to leave Bedford Falls.
Actor Dean Cain, who has read the role of George Bailey for a radio production, told the Daily Caller that he was previously unaware of the history behind the film.
“Clearly, when he’s at the bar (Martini’s) and he’s incredibly upset — and when he goes to the bridge to jump, and when his uncle loses the money — and even snapping at his kids when he comes home … those are all moments when he could have been ‘working through it,'” Cain said.
I saw the very real flicker of desperation on his face as he begged God for help. “I’m at the end of my rope,” he said. “Show me the way.”
Army veteran Alex Plitsas told the Daily Caller that it was only after returning from Iraq that he truly understood Stewart’s performance in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“I was able to understand the movie and [Stewart’s] performance in particular much better after coming home from Iraq. It’s as much of a war film as ‘Die Hard’ is a Christmas movie,” Plitsas said, adding, “Jimmy Stewart’s performance in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ during the throes of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) is recognizable to many veterans. PTS was referred to as “shell shock” back then and wasn’t really spoken about nor was there good treatment available. Stewart appeared to use acting as therapy to get through it, and it’s visible in his performance.”