‘Our Father in Heaven is There to Help the Hopeless’: Jimmy Stewart on IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

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‘Our Father in Heaven is There to Help the Hopeless’: Jimmy Stewart on IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

By Movieguide® Contributor 

In a December 1987 article, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE star Jimmy Stewart reflected on the story behind this Christmas classic and why viewers continue to love it.

After serving in the Air Force during World War II, Stewart found himself back in California, unsure how to break back into the movie industry.

“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,” he wrote.

“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.”

During their meeting, Capra pitched IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to Stewart, and although he wasn’t sure if the story would make a good movie, the actor jumped at the chance.

“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!” Stewart exclaimed.

Production began in April 1946, and Stewart believed “there was a certain something special about the film.”

From the two months spent creating the Bedford Falls, New York set to the 20 full-grow oak trees lining the three-block main street, the set epitomized the small-town America feel for the actor.

“It wasn’t the elaborate movie set, however, that made IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE so different,” Stewart wrote. “It was the story. The character I played was George Bailey, an ordinary fella who thinks he’s never accomplished anything in life.”

“His dreams of becoming a famous architect, of living adventurously, have not been fulfilled. 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.”

For Stewart, though, something indescribable made this movie different from any other movie he worked on, and in his article, he described one such moment.

In one scene, “at the lowest point in George Bailey’s life, Frank Capra was shooting a long shot of me slumped in despair,” Stewart described.

“In agony I raise my eyes and, following the script, plead, “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.”

After filming wrapped, Stewart and Capra anticipated Academy Award wins for the movie and the actors.

“But life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to,” and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE didn’t receive any awards.

“By the end of 1947 the film was quietly put on the shelf,” Stewart added.

Despite the initial disappointment, the story behind IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE didn’t end there, and viewers’ love for the movie continued to grow, making it the beloved classic it is today.

While some label the movie as “an American cultural phenomenon,” for Stewart, “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.”

Movieguide® rates IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE at +3, saying:

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is arguably the most beloved movie of all time. It’s certainly the most uplifting, rewarding and redemptive movie. It’s also funny, emotionally powerful, psychologically enriching, and beautifully made. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a pro-life masterpiece by Director Frank Capra, with brilliant performances by Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and a cast of terrific character actors. Slight caution is advised for some false angelology, but the movie honors God in a whimsical, profound, powerful way.

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Quality: - Content: +1