Every year, Americans feel moved by “It's a Wonderful Life” because of its core messages of child-like faith, the importance of family and friends, and new beginnings. Everyone relates to the main character of the movie, George Bailey, who was played by Jimmy Stewart, who emerges from hopelessness with renewed faith in God.
But did you know that the backstory to the movie and its leading man could well equal or surpass the inspiration of the movie itself?
Let's rewind to 1941, when Jimmy Stewart's made a selfless, patriotic decision.
The Real-Life Selflessness of Jimmy Stewart
Leading up to 1941, Jimmy Stewart experienced a thriving career in Hollywood. He had just won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in “The Philadelphia Story.” Yet, suddenly, the popular movie star made a bold, selfless decision: He was the first major movie star to enlist in World War II, thereby leading the way for other actors to do likewise.
His decision was unique: Initially, Jimmy was drafted into the Army, but he was rejected because he was underweight for his height of 6 foot, 3 inches. He could have literally walked away. But instead he worked hard to gain the needed pounds and ultimately enlisted with the Air Corps. At the time, Jimmy Stewart said, "This country's conscience is bigger than all the studios in Hollywood put together, and the time will come when we'll have to fight." He knew that he had skills to contribute.
At the time, Jimmy Stewart was a 33-year-old Hollywood icon who was also an accomplished private pilot. He became a U.S. Army Air Force aviator and earned his 2nd Lieutenant commission in early 1942. Jimmy was also assigned to starring in military recruiting films, attending rallies, and training younger pilots. He received those assignments because of his huge popularity with the American public.
But Jimmy wanted to do more.
A Valiant Request
In his heart, he wanted to fly combat missions in Europe. By 1944, Jimmy felt frustrated that the war was passing him by, so he took action. He approached his commanding officer and asked to be transferred to a unit about to be deployed in Europe. His request was reluctantly granted.
At this point, Jimmy was a Captain and was sent to England for 18 months. He flew B-24 Liberator bombers over Germany. Yet, during his time overseas, military leaders tried to keep the popular movie star from flying over enemy territory.
Once again, Jimmy made a selfless decision: He refused special treatment. He took matters into his own hands and assigned himself to every combat mission possible. He wanted to do everything in his power to serve his country. By the end of WWII, Jimmy Stewart became one of his unit's most well respected and decorated pilots.
Strongly conscientious and a man of faith, Jimmy Stewart served as a highly devoted, heroic member of the service. In fact, during the war, it wasn't the fear of losing his own life that troubled Jimmy. Instead, he grappled with the fear of making a wrong decision which would cause his comrades to die in combat. The stress of combat and responsibility weighed on him.
After WWII ended in 1945, Jimmy returned to Hollywood. But the heaviness of war came at a high personal price.
How WWII Affected Jimmy Stewart on the Inside and the Outside
War accelerates the aging of many, and the ravages of WWII wore away Jimmy's pre-war youthfulness, After the war, Jimmy returned from war with a gaunt, sickly appearance. This made re-entry into his previous career more challenging. It also did not help that, in his absence, other youthful leading men had emerged and filled his spots in Hollywood. Actors like Gregory Peck suddenly received the roles otherwise given to him. It was depressing.
But director and fellow WWII veteran Frank Capra called Jimmy Stewart with the idea of “It's a Wonderful Life.” And Jimmy ultimately took the role.
“It's a Wonderful Life” and Jimmy's Battle with PTSD
While filming the movie, Jimmy battled what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He rarely slept, but when he did sleep, he suffered from nightmares of planes exploding and men — his men — falling through the air screaming. (In one mission alone, Jimmy Stewart's unit lost thirteen planes and 130 men, most of whom he knew personally.)
Jimmy Stewart's personal pain infused him with tremendously powerful, emotional energy seen in “It's a Wonderful Life” as George Bailey.
Co-star Donna Reed was an eyewitness of the filming and said, "This was not a happy set."
Due to their own post-traumatic stress, veterans Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra would second-guess how scenes should be done and seemed fixated on worrying that they would make mistakes. As a result, “It's a Wonderful Life” took several months to film. This caused it to be a very expensive, exhausting production. In the end, it cost over $3 million to complete the movie.
How God Used Lionel Barrymore to Encourage Jimmy Stewart
Lionel Barrymore portrayed Mr. Potter, the villain in the movie. But, in real life, Lionel Barrymore was a blessing. He helped Jimmy recover through encouragement and counsel.
During the production, Jimmy Stewart was questioning aloud whether acting had purpose. Yet it was Lionel Barrymore who helped him understand the importance and powerful impact entertainment can have on humanity. Movies like “It's a Wonderful Life” offer people a wholesome, welcomed escape from their troubles with a positive message. And “It's a Wonderful Life” touches lives to this day.
Filming was therapeutic and healing for Jimmy. With God's grace, he was able to express joy and passion in the movie's closing scenes. No one can erase that beautiful scene or the jubilant voice of Jimmy Stewart when he famously shouted, "Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!"
The Wonderful Life of Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart went on to make many more movies over the following decades. He was awarded 12 civilian and military medals, two Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, and numerous Lifetime Achievement awards from different institutes. Jimmy Stewart also remained in the USAF Reserve. He was promoted to brigadier general on July 23, 1959. He retired from the service on May 31, 1968.
Jimmy Stewart did experience a wonderful life: His long, successful marriage encouraged others in their commitment. He had four beloved children. And his faith in Christ grew stronger as he aged. Then, at the age of 89, he joined the Lord in 1997.
Yes, “It's a Wonderful Life” tells a powerful message of healing, hope, and new beginnings, but its back story does, too. Merry Christmas!
Whether singing for U.S. presidents from a young age or launching national outreach events for veterans, Stacie Ruth and Carrie Beth Stoelting have desired to share God’s love and hope in order to unite the USA in a positive way. They have appeared repeatedly on major media, founded Unite the USA, written and been featured in books, and recorded albums in order to share God’s love, hope, and help for veterans and citizens. Whether hosting a weekly radio program or launching an outreach for veterans and their families, Stacie and Carrie are Millennials on a mission. Currently, they are in doctoral programs and feel excited to share a thoroughly Christian, patriotic, and positive message with America. Carrie and Stacie, along with Stacie's husband, Jim, live in the beautiful state of Iowa. Sign up for their monthly newsletter at UnitetheUSA.org and a weekly devotional at PrayingPals.org. To read more of their reports — Click Here Now.
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