The 1946 James Stewart classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” is perhaps the movie Americans most associate with Christmas.
It was the first film Stewart made when he returned home after serving as a pilot in World War II, an experience that left him adrift and not without psychological fallout.
Author Robert Matzen writes about this postwar period in the actor’s career in the new nonfiction book, “Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe,” and said that during the course of his research, he spoke with “the guys that flew with him, who told me about the fact that he went flak-happy on a couple of occasions — which means, shell shock, battle fatigue, what we now know as PTSD.
“He wasn’t afraid of bombs or bullets. He was afraid of making a mistake and causing someone to die. That was his endless stress, and that’s what ended up grounding him.”
Which is to say that much of George Bailey’s angst was, to some extent, Stewart’s own. Before agreeing to do the film with director Frank Capra (recently back from the war himself), he considered quitting acting altogether.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” helped set him back on a path in Hollywood.
“The war had changed Jim down to the molecular level,” Matzen writes. “He could never begin to articulate what those four-and-a-half years, including 15 months in combat, had done to him. One thing he could do was express a bit of it on-screen.”
Once he committed to doing his first film as a veteran, Matzen paints a portrait of what it was like on set: “Now he was running for his life, Jim Stewart, former squadron commander of the 703rd. ‘Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!’ he called into the hot air of Encino. ‘Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan!’ Suddenly, he wanted to be a part of Hollywood where he felt comfortable and safe.”
The following is an edited conversation with Matzen about Stewart:
Q: When did Stewart return stateside after the war?
A: He flew his final mission at the end of February 1945 and he was grounded because of his PTSD issues, and then he came back at the end of August.
He returned to Indiana, Penn., where his parents lived, and he’s home for a week or 10 days and realizes, “I have to go back and face Hollywood. I’ve been away for five years, other people are taking my roles.” There’s a whole new generation of leading men that are younger or more vital, and he didn’t know where he fit anymore.
So he goes back to Hollywood and has no place to even live — he lives with Henry Fonda, who offers him a room. Fonda had just come back from the Pacific, and they both just sort of unwound and didn’t get any job offers. The only job offer Stewart had was, Louis B. Mayer, his old boss at MGM, said, “Let’s do ‘The Jimmy Stewart Story’ — we can show you flying over Frankfurt, we can show you as a military hero.” And Stewart said no. He wouldn’t talk about it.
Q: Why wasn’t he getting job offers?
A: He came back looking like hell. There’s a before-and-after photo in the book that shows him in 1942 looking all youthful, and then in 1944 looking like hell. And now there were stars like Gregory Peck who were getting roles he might have gotten.
But it was only a couple of months until Capra called with this idea of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The back story here is that Stewart, very publicly, when he got back from the war, was asked, “If you’re going to make a picture now, what do you want to make?”And he said, “A comedy, I have to make a comedy. The world has seen too much trauma and horror and suffering.”
So when Capra calls, Stewart gets his agent, Lew Wasserman, and they sit down with Capra, who tries to tell them the story, telling him about this role and how only Stewart can do it and it’s about a guy who wants to commit suicide. And Stewart’s like, “Well, wait a minute. That’s not what I want to do.”
Capra had a diary where he jotted down notes about how that went, and the meeting went so bad that Stewart got up and walked out. He just couldn’t even wrap his head around, “You want me to do what?” Stewart was not happy with the idea and was not open to it — until, I guess, Wasserman must have said, “You’ve got no other offers.”
Q: What was it like on set, since it sounds like Stewart was a reluctant participant?
A: Capra had supreme confidence in this story. Stewart not so much, but he got on board with it. It was this sense of, “This is our last shot. Hollywood went on without us, we’re not getting any younger, and if this bombs after we’ve both been away for five years …”
But if you watch that performance by Stewart, there was a lot of rage in it and it’s an on-the-edge performance because that’s what those guys were feeling — they were scared that this wasn’t going to work. That the audience wasn’t going to buy it.
Donna Reed (playing Stewart’s wife in the film) is one of the eyewitnesses who said, “This was not a happy set.” These guys were very tense. They would go off and huddle say, “Should we try this? Should we try that?” And it proceeded that way for months.
They started shooting at the beginning of ’46 and it was a long shoot, it went into June. It was a very expensive, exhaustive production. It cost $3 million to make the thing.
Q: Was Stewart also on edge because he was still working through some of his PTSD?
A: Oh, absolutely. At this point, he had just started to eat again. He always had a high metabolism and always had trouble digesting food, and during the war it got worse and worse. He himself said that the only thing he subsisted on was peanut butter and ice cream. He just hadn’t been able keep food down. Now he’s starting to gain weight.
But he’s still having nightmares and the shakes and the sweats. He’s got some hearing loss now, from the sound of the bombers on those seven-, eight-hour missions. So now you have an actor who, it’s not easy for him to hear his cues.
Q: He wasn’t of the Method actor generation, but it sounds like he was, intentionally or not, drawing from his life in that performance, especially those scenes that reveal how untethered or frantic George Bailey is feeling.
A: It was a personal and professional risk, playing that role. While he was making that film, he was questioning the superficiality of Hollywood and acting in general, and John Barrymore (who plays Mr. Potter) said to him, “So, are you saying it’s more worthwhile to drop bombs on people than to entertain them?” And that really hit Stewart and was one of the things that turned him around and made him think, “OK, I do have an important role and there are things to be done.”
There’s a scene in the movie where he questions his sanity and he’s got this wild look about him. That’s one scene that really struck me, watching it on the big screen.
And the other scene that always made me uncomfortable, but now means so much more to me, is when he’s in his living room and he’s throwing things and screaming at his kids — and his wife and children look at him like, “Who is this man? Who is this monster?”
And that is so reflective of what millions of families faced, looking at these strangers who came back from the war with this rage. Stewart played it beautifully. He just lets it out.