blogathons, classic films, classic movies, films, stars

It’s A Wonderful Life, James Stewart, and George Bailey

“I don’t watch movies – except It’s a Wonderful Life. I watch that one year-round.”

I’ll never forget that moment of conversation.

I was chatting with my friend, George (which isn’t his real name, but it might as well be). A pillar of stability in my somewhat tumultuous young adult years, George was a hard worker with a physically demanding full-time job – yet somehow, he was still always there for not only his growing family but also the animals on his small farm and the members of the little rural church we both attended. It was in this place that I was privileged to really see him shine. He stepped up anywhere he was needed, doing whatever was necessary to keep ministerial efforts running smoothly (from operating technical sound equipment to cleaning toilets) – all on a volunteer basis, without any special training, title, or fanfare.

With so many commitments demanding his attention, I wasn’t surprised my friend George didn’t take time for movies. But the detail of his exception intrigued me: he watched It’s A Wonderful Life “year-round”. Not once a year. Not every Christmas. Year-round.

Of course, my overly-curious mind was practically bursting to know more. But I forced myself to keep things casual. George rarely shared anything remotely personal, and I didn’t want risk embarrassing him by unexpectedly shanghaiing our pleasant chat to probe the depths of his psyche. However, I couldn’t resist pressing the issue long enough to clarify just what he meant by “year-round”. After we talked a bit more, it was obvious he didn’t limit his viewing only to specific times dictated by tradition. Rather, he broke out his DVD whenever he wanted – regardless of the date on the calendar. It seemed he’d return to it whenever he needed a refill of whatever this particular film gave him.

As we went on to laugh about our favorite Wonderful moments (the ones you only notice after you’ve seen this movie a billion times – which, apparently, we both had), a part of me couldn’t help but look at my friend with new, studious eyes. George was a smart and strapping man – clever, friendly, fit. He was even handsome enough that an observant and very Zuzu-like little girl (one of many children in our church who adored him), accurately compared him to her Ken doll. In fact, the physical resemblance between George and this particular doll was so uncanny, she renamed him in George’s honor and proceeded to proudly carry said doll with her everywhere she went for at least a year.

There’s not that much difference between my friend George and this guy right here.

To me, George clearly had the brains, personality, and looks to make it wherever he wanted to go. Yet I’m not sure how far he actually went – in terms of formal education or distance from home. As far as I knew, he’d never left our town. (And if he ever did, I’m sure he didn’t stay away long.)

Of course, it was entirely conceivable that he already was exactly where he wanted to be. George had a good heart, along with a strong sense of dutiful responsibility. He showed love to people through kind, cheerful dependability – and was rewarded with respect and loyalty in return. The resulting picture was almost idyllic: a peaceful family man surrounded by friends, living a quietly noble life of dedication to others. It was admirable. But what if it wasn’t his dream – at least not originally or entirely?

I’d never considered that possibility before our conversation…Anyone who had any sort of look into the wonderful life my dear friend built for himself knew that both it and he were important to the people around him. But from the outside (and maybe from his own perspective), I’m sure it all seemed quite ordinary. From a far enough distance, it could even appear to be another version of the same old story: an uncommon man, filled with so much potential, who settles for small – and now, in the late mid-point of his life, isn’t likely to be known as anything more than an average joe (or “average George”) by the world at large.

With H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower)
“I wish I had a million dollars!…”

To this day, we’ve never discussed the subject again – but I can’t think of It’s a Wonderful Life without wondering…Did my friend have unfulfilled dreams that once reached beyond the borders of our small town? Was he ever frustrated because he knew he was, to quote Wonderful Life’s devilish Mister Potter, “no common, ordinary yokel” – who felt he should’ve done more, that he could’ve done more, if circumstances and his personal integrity hadn’t gotten in the way? Had he ever considered himself insignificant? Is he tempted to feel that way even now? Perhaps he’s already learned George Bailey’s beautiful lesson, but treasures the reminders that “each man’s life touches so many other lives” and “no man is a failure who has friends”. I can picture him imagining the many people in his life banding together to help him in a time of need. Maybe regular doses of It’s a Wonderful Life helps him stay focused on what really matters.

Or it’s possible he’s just a perfectly content human being with a love for the familiar who simply enjoys this one movie. I could be overcomplicating things – seeing meaning where none may exist, as I’ve been known to do. But while I concede that I don’t know exactly why my friend is so very fond of this particular film (and I likely never will), I honestly feel I got a quick peek into his very George Bailey-like heart that day. And I’m willing to go out on a seemingly outlandish limb and say I’m confident the connection I saw would not have resonated so powerfully with me (and, very possibly, with my friend George) if the movie’s George was played by anyone other than James Stewart.

George Bailey is a universally relatable character. If you’ve ever dealt with the disappointment of a dream deferred or put someone else’s needs before your own even once, you’ll identify with George. Credit for this phenomenon goes to those responsible for dreaming him up. Several writers contributed pieces of his personality and backstory, including director Frank Capra himself. And Capra deserves additional mention for putting these pieces together, molding them into a fully-realized fictional person, forging a path for him from page to screen, and establishing an environment on set in which he could freely come to life.

But it’s James Stewart who stepped into this open space and actually became George Bailey – creating a bond with audiences that goes beyond theoretical understanding or even heartfelt empathy to a visceral response of the soul. James Stewart makes it possible for anyone and everyone watching George to connect with at least part (if not the whole) of his experience on a deeply personal level. At some point, however receptive or resistant a viewer you may be, he will grab your attention and won’t let go. It’s a given. His well-known, all-American, folksy charm never falters, but there is a depth beneath it that will pull you into George’s story, whisk you along for the ride, and leave you forever changed – whether you want to be or not. He is a FORCE in this role.

And it makes his work all the more poignant to note that this almost superhumanly powerful performance was born from a painful period in his own life – a time when global tragedy and personal upheaval created a professional crossroads. 

Posing with his Oscar for 1940’s, The Philadelphia Story

Jimmy’s ascent as a movie star was smooth and straightforward almost from the moment he graced the Hollywood scene. Although MGM didn’t know what to do with him at first, he weathered that initial turbulence and – thanks to a magical combo of talent, work ethic, and good fortune – soared swiftly and steadily upward: from a string of supporting parts starting in 1935 (only three years after his graduation from Princeton University in 1932), to his breakout role three years later in Frank Capra’s big-screen adaptation of You Can’t Take It With You (1938), to an Oscar nom the following year for Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), to the pinnacle honor of his profession – an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture (for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, received in 1941). Charting such heights in only six years, it seemed the sky was the limit for golden boy Jimmy Stewart.

And then came a war. Jimmy, a licensed amateur pilot who originally considered a career in aviation, was eager to participate in the upcoming conflict that keen observation told him was inevitable. This man planned and prepared for years to be of service. And when the first round of the draft came calling, he was ready and willing to report for duty – one of the first major motion picture stars to do so.

Rather than play on his celebrity status in an effort to coast through service safely behind the lines, he fought to get himself as close to action as possible – remaining undeterred at being over the age limit for Aviation Cadet training, getting a doctor’s certified bill of health when he was initially rejected due to his naturally lightweight frame, and bypassing pressure from multiple sources (a highly influential one being Louis B. Mayer – the head of his home studio, MGM) intent on relegating him to either promotional work or a desk job. As writer Robert Matzen, author of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe puts it, “He got his way by playing the ‘I’m a movie star’ card. But it wasn’t, ‘I’m a movie star, don’t send me in harm’s way.’ It was just the opposite.”

Jimmy and his crew

He eventually worked his way up to second lieutenant in 1942 and, not content to continue making recruitment films and training other pilots, successfully appealed for a position as a combat flyer in 1943. Leading a total of twenty life-threatening missions, he returned to the States in 1945 a decorated hero – achieving the rare distinction of having risen in rank from private to full colonel in less than five years.

But the pre-war life Jimmy had known as a shining star in Hollywood’s glittering stratosphere came crashing down around him. Mr. Mayer unceremoniously fired the actor after he refused to capitalize on his war experience by starring in a sensationalized action-adventure film pitched as The James Stewart Story. (Reportedly, LB called him a “son of a _____” to his face and vowed he would “never work in this town again”.) His agent left the business.

However, Jimmy’s most distressing hurdle came in the way he saw himself. With the knowledge that his distinguished service ended on a low note because the toll of so much danger and loss left him unable to be as effective in the air as he once was, he felt like an irrevocably broken man – inside and out. Technically out of practice in his craft, physically marked by stress (he’s quoted as saying he felt he was no longer leading man material and would have to play “somebody’s grandfather” because those few years had aged him so), and struggling privately with the emotional aftermath of the war (there was little knowledge about, and no official name for, post-traumatic stress disorder at the time) – the once unfettered high-flyer was now grounded, directionless, and lost. With no employment prospects on the horizon, Jimmy considered returning to his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania to run the family hardware store.

Pre-combat 2nd Lt. Stewart in 1942 vs. post-combat Maj. Stewart in 1944

Then, a flickering light – in the form of his old pal and mentor Frank Capra – cut through the fog. He told Jimmy he’d come upon a great story, with a role in it that was just perfect for him. Frank, looking to process his own wartime trials by returning to the creative work he loved, had recently formed Liberty Films – one of the movie industry’s first independent production companies – with fellow directors William Wyler and George Stevens. And for Liberty Films’ debut venture, he’d selected a half-finished, forever-in-development script that had stumped such illustrious writers as Clifford Odets and Dalton Trumbo: an adaptation of a short story called The Greatest Gift. Moved by the piece’s heart, Frank glimpsed what it could be. Now on a mission to bring this problem project to fruition, Frank christened it with a new title – It’s a Wonderful Life – and reframed it with his characteristic “one man, one film” approach. And there was only one man he could see at the center of this film – his kindred spirit and professional good luck charm, Jimmy Stewart.

Frank & Jimmy – enjoying each other’s company

Perhaps eager to go home again without retreating all the way back to Pennsylvania, Jimmy signed on immediately – without even looking at the script. Frank, the man responsible for some of the biggest touchstones of his meteoric career, filled the cast with several familiar faces for him to play alongside – Lionel Barrymore, Samuel S. Hinds, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, and other former co-stars. (He originally intended for Jean Arthur to join in as Jimmy’s leading lady, re-teaming them for what would’ve been the third time. Donna Reed owes her career-making casting to Jean’s unavailability.) But all this comforting familiarity did little to quell Jimmy’s insecurities. To truly fly once more, he had to fight them alone – in full view of the film’s cast and crew, with the weight of the picture’s success resting squarely on his shoulders.

A cast picture of a picture-perfect cast! –
the players of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life

Those around him could see what he was going through. Sheldon Leonard (who played Nick, the bartender) says this movie was a “test” for Jimmy Stewart, recalling, “It was interesting to watch him regain his confidence and take control.” Indeed, it was a long, slow process – one of the toughest homefront battles he would ever face. But through this struggle, he emerged with one of the fullest, deepest, and grittiest performances ever captured for the screen, while creating some of cinema’s most memorable moments along the way.

Learning to Charleston with Donna Reed
George & Mary’s “splash-making” Charleston from the film
After the dance… (This pic positively crackles with chemistry, doesn’t it?)

Remarkably present despite his many stressors, Jimmy infused Wonderful Life with an improvisational air that influenced the picture’s final cut in ways both large and small. One of my favorite lighthearted examples is during the “run on the bank” scene. When the financial panic of 1929 hits Bedford Falls, George Bailey selflessly sacrifices cash meant for his honeymoon in order to keep the Bailey Building & Loan afloat and out of greedy Mister Potter’s clutches – trying valiantly to talk his frantic and shortsighted customers into taking just what they need to tide them over until the crisis could pass. Most eventually settle for $20. But in the midst of this chaos, Frank directed Ellen Corby (a bit player here – decades before her role as the beloved Grandma of the ‘70s classic television series, The Waltons) to improvise a different amount, just to see how Jimmy would react. When she innocently asks for $17.50, Jimmy’s astonishment is real – and his lightning-fast choice to practically dive over the counter and plant a big kiss smack dab on her face (then simply move on with the scene) made it into the film.

“Could I have $17.50?”
A pre-Waltons Ellen Corby – not batting an eye as she sets Jimmy up to bring some inspired levity into an otherwise intense scene

A quieter moment that grew into something more than either Jimmy or Frank could’ve ever imagined was George’s desperate, drunken prayer in the bar. On the first take, there’s a storm brewing within Jimmy as he sits in near silence. He doesn’t overact – whispering his lines mostly to himself – but as the seconds tick by, something wells up within him and threatens to burst. He’s crying, sweating, shaking. He pushes this rush of emotion back down before the dam shatters completely, but the experience leaves him raw – and the impact of his vulnerability is palpable.

There was just one problem. Frank, unaware of the masterclass in acting that was about to take place up close and personal, filmed it as a wide shot – and he wanted Jimmy to do a second take so he could shoot a proper closeup. But the visible rawness was real. Having surprised even himself by accidentally hitting a nerve somewhere deep inside, Jimmy was spent. Unsure how he even got that far, he refused to go again. A sympathetic Frank respected his friend’s wishes and reworked what he had into the extreme yet mesmerizing closeup that still touches hearts today. (It’s said the edges beyond George are blurry because of the degree to which Frank had to tamper with the film, though I’d never noticed until I found this image – probably because I can’t take my eyes off Jimmy Stewart’s face every time I watch the scene.)

“God…Show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope.” – George Bailey

And perhaps the most electrifying instance of Jimmy’s negative experiences positively influencing his work on the film is found in the now-famous “telephone kiss”. Intended to be your classic big-screen smooch between George and Donna Reed’s Mary, a hesitant Jimmy (still stuck in the mindset that he was better suited to play a grandpa) repeatedly asked Frank to delay shooting the scene – telling him, “A fella gets rusty.” Frank patiently obliged until the moment of truth could be postponed no longer.

History in the making…

But urgency inspired revelation. At the last minute, Frank changed the staging so that Jimmy and Donna had to share a telephone. Whether it was due to this newfound close proximity, nerves, improvisational instincts, the heat of the moment, or something else entirely, Jimmy and Donna delivered on take 1 – smoldering the screen with one of the most intensely passionate love scenes in all of movies. Everyone was pleased but the script girl, who complained the actors had left out one whole page of material. But Frank, knowing magic when he saw it, declared, “With technique like that, who needs dialogue? Print it.” And the rest is history.

See, Frank knew this was no ordinary kiss. When you watch it play out in the context of the larger story, it truly appears as if both George and Mary are swept up in a momentum beyond their control. This totally works from a storytelling standpoint, as tension has built between these two from the moment they first laid eyes on each other, and now their simple yet chemistry-filled physical contact has caused it to finally ignite and explode – leaving George no choice but to give in to the forces of love and fate that pull them toward each other, regardless of what he’d rather do on his own.

What strikes me most here is not the kiss itself – but Jimmy’s pitch-perfect delivery of “I wanna do what I wanna do!” that comes a beat before it. George’s burst of passion is, at least in part, fueled by an undercurrent of resistance to the life-altering changes that come with committing to Mary. This is a man who’d put his grand plans on hold time and again for his parents and his brother – and he knows if he adds a wife to the equation, he’ll never have the world-traveling freedom he’s always envisioned. He doesn’t let go of this dream without a fight – stubbornly clinging to what’s left of his independence as long as he possibly can in an emotional tug-of-war. As George turns his resentment towards Mary and blames her for his internal conflict, he suddenly throws the phone down, grabs her, and even shakes her – before uttering that incredible gut-punch of a line in an all-too-honest way and THEN pulling her up for what is actually a sporadic flurry of kisses as the scene fades to black.

Whoa.

The complex element of anger that colors this magical moment distinguishes it from the typical, flowery, superficial “love” scenes so often found in movies. Yet I’ve never read or heard George’s behavior here decried as problematic, only passionate. I think that may be because his difficult actions are really rooted in basic humanity. They may be hard to watch, but they’re easy to understand. We don’t criticize George for what he does because he gives voice to the dark, self-centered thoughts and feelings most of us have had ourselves – even if we’d hesitate to admit it.

George, with two of his four children, Tommy and Janie (Jimmy Hawkins and Carol Coombs)

I’m not sure when I first discovered It’s a Wonderful Life; it simply always was a part of my own life – playing in the background of so many Thanksgivings, Christmases, and New Years. However, I do know it started to catch my attention in middle school – when I began to appreciate how subtly clever it is. (Gotta love the mix of whimsy and sarcasm.) I was more than down for enjoying its charms every holiday season – but as the humor would inevitably fade into seriousness, I’d find myself liking George Bailey less and less. I fully supported Mary’s suggestion that he leave the house, and I didn’t particularly care if he made it back home or not – because, quite frankly, I felt a man who’d take his misery out on his family didn’t deserve a happy ending.

But I think you have to choose some things and lose some things to empathize with George Bailey (and to fully appreciate James Stewart’s performance). The longer I live, the more I relate. And while I hope I never become so frustrated as to actually shake my loved ones, call people names, kick my car door, wreck my home office, drive little kids to tears, or drink my troubles away – if I’m being completely transparent, I can’t claim I’ve never wanted to do some of those things.

We’re never too far from the children we once were. Young George (Robert J. Anderson), Young Mary (Jean Hale), and the people they grow up to be…

But there’s more than just the ultimate frustrations of humanity within George Bailey. There’s the whole of life from childhood to middle-age: the unbridled optimism and naïve arrogance of youth, the adorably awkward thrill of first love, and the never-ending balancing act that’s called maturity. We see George live out the undying yearning for yet constant readjustment of his dreams, the highs of life’s unexpected joys and the lows of its shocking tragedies, the simple pleasures and browbeating drudgeries of day-to-day existence, the ongoing ping-pong between total contentment and desperate dissatisfaction – and the soul-crushing despair of feeling utterly worthless. It’s all so real.

“You’re worth more dead than alive.” – Mister 
Henry F. Potter (the great Lionel Barrymore)

Then, just as it seems we’ve begun to walk in step with George Bailey, the film throws him and us into a surreal, pre-Twilight Zone, psychological mind-bender – and we’re left to wonder just how far George will fall before it dawns on him that no, he’s not in Bedford Falls anymore (at least not the one he knows) and yes, he actually cares deeply about the life he so dismissively wished away.

George and his guardian angel – Clarence Oddbody, AS2 (Angel, 2nd-class) – charmingly played by Henry Travers

This extraordinary ordinary man, who couldn’t even get drafted out of his small hometown of Bedford Falls, is now on the ultimate adventure of his life – and we’re taking the journey with him. Learning too late how much he mattered to those around him, he desperately tries to navigate this hellish alternate universe and get back to the place and people he knew but never realized he loved.

“YAAAAYYYY!!!” – George Bailey 
(Can’t you just hear it?)

And when he makes his triumphant return, running wildly and shouting joyously down the streets of dear ol’ Bedford Falls while wishing the world a “Merry CHRISTMAS!!!” (buildings and all), we rejoice with him. James Stewart goes all in here, but his exuberance never feels corny or over-the-top. Despite the supernatural fantasy we’ve just witnessed, it all still feels so real. So, we cheer for George Bailey – knowing that, through him, we will never have to live through such extremes to value the impact of our own wonderful life.

Now THAT’S a KISS. (Joining their screen siblings are Petey and Zuzu – Larry Sims and Karolyn Grimes.)

Our friend Jimmy not only rose above the memories, doubts, and fears that haunted him in order to gift us with George Bailey, he allowed his trauma to inspire his performance. Just think of George’s many iconically heart-wrenching, deeply harrowing, and jubilantly enthusiastic scenes. Gravitas like that has to come from somewhere. And we accept these big, fantastic moments without question because Jimmy’s quintessential “everyman” nature shines through so authentically, it binds us to him.

Rather than getting lost in the swirl of deep feelings, thoughts, and pressures that threatened to distract him, he courageously stayed in the moment – filling his performance with a multitude of uniquely personal touches that take George’s believability to the next level. I especially enjoy his defeated little head drop after the panicked mob of Building & Loan customers rush to see the sirens that immediately blare after George assures them “this thing isn’t as black as it appears”, his visibly disgusted reaction to a deal-making handshake with Mister Potter (in which he seems to wipe an invisible slime on his coat), his full-on animalistic snarling at Bert the Cop just before he realizes all is once again right with the world, and his self-conscious, almost off-key singing – with the cherry on top being his overly drawn out “oh-ld” in Auld Lang Syne (likely a sweet mimic of precious, precocious Karolyn Grimes, who sings it the same way as he holds her lovingly in his arms at the end of the film).

Despite my glowing words, I’ve always had an ambivalent love / indifference relationship with Jimmy Stewart that, until now, has been difficult to explain. Some of his performances have a smirky, overconfident, “preppy” effortlessness to them that disinterests me greatly. Yet some light my fire and stir my soul. And it wasn’t until writing this post that I realized where the divide lies: it’s pre and post war. With the exception of his role as Lana Turner’s brooding almost-fiancé in MGM’s glorified soap opera Ziegfeld Girl (1941) – his final pre-war picture and one of my all-time favorite guilty/melodramatic pleasures (that will have its own post here someday!) – his early work seems a bit shallow and surface-level, charming though his surface may be. Even his Oscar-winning turn in The Philadelphia Story and his “bringing down the courthouse” triumph in the meatier, criminally-overlooked Mr. Smith Goes to Washington seem to come far too easily to him.

But starting with It’s a Wonderful Life, there’s a definite shift. It’s as if Life taught him how to dig deep, search for the substantial, and reach way down inside himself to uncover the connective tissue between his life and his performance. In every post-war role, we’re seeing something cathartic or personal from him – and, as I’ve said multiple times about his work as George Bailey, it’s all so real. His bio-dramas, The Stratton Story and The Glenn Miller Story – and even his comedies like Harvey – have a touching depth. Then there’s the Alfred Hitchcock / suspense years and the Anthony Mann / Western years – where he repeatedly goes far darker than I bet anyone watching young Jimmy (aside from Frank Capra) ever imagined possible. We may not know what he’s connecting to exactly, but we sense he’s baring his soul – and we feel the depth of his honesty. Not only did he pass the “test” of It’s a Wonderful Life with flying colors, it seems he used the experience to shape his approach to every role he undertook from that point on.

If reality were a movie, It’s a Wonderful Life would’ve been a critical and commercial success – vindicating Frank Capra’s relentless determination and leaving the man himself rich beyond his wildest dreams, while Jimmy Stewart would’ve won all the awards with his confidence fully restored and his pain firmly behind him. Everyone would gather together – cheering, and crying, and hugging, and singing Auld Lang Syne. The End.

But sadly, real-world endings are not so tidy or fair. Neither a hit nor a flop, It’s a Wonderful Life basically recouped the near $3 million it cost to make, rendering it more of a mediocre wash than anything. Frank Capra’s idealistic artistic dream – his production company, Liberty Films, soon went bankrupt; It’s a Wonderful Life was the fledgling independent’s only completed picture before being sold to Paramount. As for Jimmy, while he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, he didn’t win – and his personal victory went mostly unnoticed. He bravely continued moving forward, although he was ultimately still plagued by uncertainty – questioning his talents and considering retirement in the short-term, and dealing with his invisible war wounds for much longer. (Notably, he refused to appear in any WWII-themed movie during his long career and never spoke in depth about that pivotal time.) Though both Jimmy and Frank regarded It’s a Wonderful Life as the favorite of their careers, it seemed this work of art they poured their collective heart and soul into was destined to quietly fade into obscurity.

Fortunately, in life, “the end” is never really final. Thanks to a copyright slip-up that led to a stint in the public domain (a testament to how quickly this film was forgotten), It’s a Wonderful Life grew in stature from a hidden gem to the holiday TV staple it is today. Both Frank and Jimmy were able to watch a whole new generation discover their timeless classic, and they felt the world’s love for it overflow within their lifetime. In an interview for the television special, It’s A Wonderful Life: A Personal Remembrance (released in 1991 – the year he passed away), Frank Capra reflects:

There’s more to the picture than I put in it. There’s more to the picture than was written in it. More value to the picture than we knew we were playing with – and that we didn’t expect. And that’s probably the answer to it. There’s more to it than we thought we had…It’s EVERYBODY. Everybody has gone through that thing where they’d practically rather die than live. So that’s why I think the picture will live on beyond our time.

Although Frank was an imaginative visionary, I wonder if he had any real concept of how vast and long-lasting the legacy of his favorite picture would be when he made that prophetic statement. For now, thirty years after his death and seventy-five years after the movie’s premiere, It’s a Wonderful Life is more beloved than ever before – only gaining in relevancy and poignancy as time marches on.

The 2021 cast of the It’s a Wonderful Life virtual table read

This was never more evident than in December 5th’s table read to benefit The Ed Asner Family Center – a non-profit organization dedicated to helping differently-abled children build self-confidence through artistic enrichment. Originally conceived by the actor’s son and Center co-founder, Matt (and his wife, Navah), as a one-time special event – in which a cast of current stars gather via Zoom to recreate the film line-by-line – last year’s performance proved so popular, it bore repeating. Matt explained:

“The love for this film is real. It endures. So we decided to make it a tradition.”

Regretting having passed on the opportunity last time, I bought a ticket this year to see the new cast (which included three people I was especially interested in watching – Mandy Patinkin, Martin Sheen, and Turner Classic Movie’s own, Ben Mankiewicz).

While I may post a follow-up at some point covering my impressions of the event in more detail, I must share a bit about this decidedly 21st century production here. Picture the many challenges of performing via Zoom: the technical difficulties, the constant question of “to mute or not to mute” (a feature that is always far more confusing and disruptive than it has any right to be), the noisy pets and humans in the background who seem to have no clue they’re now unwitting extras in a live performance viewed around the world, the timing that will never be in sync no matter how hard everyone tries (mercifully, there was no attempt at Auld Lamg Syne here – though George and Mary did give Buffalo Gals a try), and most of all, the inherent sense of isolation and disconnection from fellow performers.

I had to capture this moment. 
The evening began in the world’s most relatable fashion: for a good 30 seconds, everyone sat staring at each other – in total silence – as they waited for a technical snafu to be resolved….Such is life on Zoom!

Each actor rose to the occasion in their own unique way – some more successfully than others. Over the course of this nearly five-hour endeavor (which gave new meaning to the term “epic event” and ran far longer than planned due to a build-up of delays and extra features), a variety of acting techniques, commitment levels, and degrees of stamina were on display. A cross between a multi-act play and a marathon (complete with literal tag-team narration and stage direction!), it led me to develop a somewhat morbid curiosity as to whether any of the performers would give in to exhaustion and call it quits. (I even had my bets as to who might crack first.)

Jason Sudeikis was George Bailey for the night (cast, I assume, because of his Jimmy Stewart impersonation in Saturday Night Live’s spoof of the film). He did a decent job stepping into un-fillable shoes, all things considered – though he didn’t always seem to take the assignment seriously, which was a shame. A few fascinatingly awesome performances (Martin Sheen is now my #1 Mister Potter!) and surprise sparks of magic from all involved brightened the proceedings (Jason’s take on the barroom prayer being a noteworthy highlight) – but as a whole, the experience could best be described as uneven. Despite some against-all-odds moments of connection, there was an overall lack of cohesiveness among the performers.

Until George Bailey returned to Bedford Falls. Jason, who seemed to wrestle with self-consciousness until the moment George lifts his head on the bridge, no longer held back – whooping and hollering and wishing buildings a Merry Christmas with abandon.

His enthusiasm was contagious. It was a small miracle. No matter how tired, bored, annoyed, or distracted each individual had previously seemed – every person in this disparate group somehow became part of a unified whole in a way they simply hadn’t all evening. Background music from the film complimented all the shouting, cheering, heartfelt toasts, and – dare I say it? – LOVE going on in what proved to be a memorable finale.

For a few fleeting minutes, the impenetrable boundaries of time, space, and technology were broken – and everyone actually shared a moment. Each performer was equally invested and energized at the same time. There was new life in the Zoom room.

What was the source of this magic that renewed the entire cast? Maybe I’m reaching again (and it was merely the sight of a finish line in the distance) – but they were all just so beyond human effort at this point, I honestly think it was the impeccable wonder of the story that enlivened their spirits. When George Bailey gleefully reunites with his family and friends – who have come to his rescue just as he’d once come to each of theirs – you can’t help but at least smile (if not shed a few tears) as he actually gets the chance to hear just how special he is to each of them. And when you’re dropped into the midst of recreating that moment, I’m sure the joy is only intensified.

The obvious stunt casting that brought Jason to this table challenged the notion of what it means to be a George Bailey-type everyman. But his unabashed genuineness in those final scenes (that no amount of snark or “too cool for school” image could hinder) proved that there’s a little George in all of us. When he really tapped into that humanity, he gave the rest of the cast permission to do the same.

As everyone came together, they seemed to have something in common: a look of wish fulfillment. A shimmer in their eyes and a smile on their lips that pointed to a shared longing in their hearts. They were living vicariously now. What they really wanted was their own “George Bailey moment”.

And don’t we all? I think the “more to it” – the answer to the picture’s everlasting appeal that Frank Capra couldn’t quite pinpoint back in 1991 – is how deeply It’s a Wonderful Life speaks to the questions found at the very core of human existence. Just as “each man’s life touches so many other lives”, George Bailey lives on to touch more and more people throughout generations…Whether you’re a veteran returning to the work you love while living with battle scars no one can see, or an honorable small-town man coming back to your one-and-only favorite movie throughout the year, or a far-flung actor striving for connection around a virtual table (or a blogging newbie who didn’t realize how much all this meant to her until she got her words out) – if you’re living your childhood dream, or you can’t even recognize it anymore, or you’re somewhere in-between – George Bailey, speaking through James Stewart (who needed these reminders as much as anyone), reassures us all time and again:

You matter. Your existence means something. You’re not a failure. Keep going.

It’s a wonderful life.

***

This post is part of the It’s a Wonderful Life Blogathon – hosted by The Classic Movie Muse, in honor of the film’s 75th anniversary. Go here to see all the Wonderful posts!

***

Since you’ve made it this far, I want to echo my Thanksgiving wish and take a second to remind you how much you really do matter to me. If you’re reading these words, please know I’m thankful for you. I treasure the gift of your valuable time – and I appreciate the support you show me through liking, commenting on, and sharing my posts. I hope your Christmas is the very merriest, your holidays are the happiest, and your new year is filled with all of the most wonderful gifts life has to offer!

***

So, what do you think? What’s your favorite James Stewart movie, or moment, or bit of trivia, or etc.? How do you feel about It’s a Wonderful Life? Do you have a favorite Wonderful moment I should look for the next time I watch?

Subscribe via email or follow along on WordPress, so you’ll know when I post something new. I’d love to connect with you!

(And please help others find the Connection by liking, reblogging, and sharing, too. Thank you!)

25 thoughts on “It’s A Wonderful Life, James Stewart, and George Bailey”

  1. Wowee, Jillian, I’m kinda speechless after reading this. I loved every word, found myself tearing up in places, and read each section twice to absorb all the nuances and depth you’ve presented. I was saying to another blogger that I’m not sure if Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors or if he just happens to appear in so many of my favorite movies. But after reading your excellent and beautiful essay, I’m starting to think it’s the former.

    You’ve painted such a clear picture of what Stewart was going through in his life – whereby giving us new appreciation for him not only as an actor, but as a person – which translated into his exquisite and powerful performance. Now I want to get my hands on that book by Robert Matzen 😉

    I especially loved your breakdown of the famous telephone kiss scene and your line “The complex element of anger that colors this magical moment distinguishes it from the typical, flowery, superficial “love” scenes so often found in movies.” – YES!

    Absolutely beautiful work, my favorite piece of yours so far ❤ This is one to come back to each year and whenever a pick-me-up is needed.

    Thank you for joining the celebration with this life-affirming piece, Jillian!! 🙂 A very Merry Christmas to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww…Now I’m having a little trouble finding my words. ❤ I’m so pleased you enjoyed this post, and I’m touched that it moved you. 🙂 It is awesome to me that you took so much time with it and would like to remember and revisit it. Thank you SO much for telling me. I’ve read and re-read your comment and may have to come back to it sometime. 🙂 Honestly, you’ve absolutely made my day! ❤ Merry Christmas to you, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, you got me choked up. This post was such a wonderful (hehe) journey! From your personal story about George at the beginning to the behind-the-scenes facts about the film and Jimmy Stewart to your observations about the Zoom performance…it was all SO GOOD. I love your posts.

    What an amazing film!

    Also…that scene in the bar where George talks to God? PHENOMENAL ACTING. I’m so glad they used that take (even if they had to zoom in a bit or whatever Capra did to make it work).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, wow – thank you! 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoy reading my posts, and I’m touched this one moved you. ❤ I love your posts, too! Although, I must confess, I haven’t read your latest blogathon entries (or anyone else’s) – but I plan to begin my journey through Bedford Falls tonight. 🙂 It may take a few days, but I look forward to reading what everybody has to say – and then rewatching the movie. 😀

      Speaking of which, your mention of George’s prayer inspired me to do a quick little YouTube search just so I could witness Jimmy Stewart’s acting again. (“Phenomenal” is the perfect word for it!) I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that scene out-of-context or on my phone (I watched the whole film on a larger screen before I wrote the post, which I believe is the way I’ve always viewed it), and I noticed something I’ve never seen before: HE LOOKS AT THE DARN INSURANCE POLICY BEFORE HE PRAYS. That’s what sets him off! 😮 I can’t believe I’d never noticed – but it really struck me this time. 😦 ❤

      Like

    1. Hi! 😀 Oooo…I’d love for you to read any of my past posts that spark your interest. 🙂 So far, I have only 5 total. I haven’t been blogging long (since July of this year).

      If you’re on a desktop, the Subscribe and Follow buttons should be on the side, near the top-right corner. That’s how I would like the layout to look on all devices, but it gets pushed to the bottom of the screen on both tablets and phones. 😦 Until now, that wasn’t an issue – but since I now have a handful of posts (and a few of them are rather lengthy), I bet no one wants to – or even thinks to – scroll all the way down to find them. 😦 I’ll look into changing the number of posts per page so that they’re easier to see. 🙂 Or do you know how to move buttons to a more visible spot on a mobile?

      Anyway, the follow button is near the top of the right side if you’re viewing on a desktop, and at the bottom of the page if you’re on a phone or tablet. Also, if you’re in your WordPress Reader on the app, you should be able to click on the Follow symbol by my name. 🙂

      Like

      1. I might just do that! 🙂

        By the way, you inspired me to change the layout of my homepage so that it only shows post excerpts. I can’t move the subscribe and follow buttons up from the bottom for tablets and phones (unfortunately) – but if you’re on a mobile, you won’t have to scroll so far to find them. So it should be easier to follow me now. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I could feel the heart behind your post when I read it. ❤ I think we wanted to say the same things. You just expressed them more simply and directly. 🙂 Thanks so much for the follow! 😀 I look forward to connecting with you more – here, and on your blog, too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jillian, would it be too much to ask….to have you write about every film, every character, every actor in the history of the world please?! As this piece was utterly absorbing, thoughtful, deeply considered, all-encompassing and just so 👏 darn 👏 BRILLIANT 💕👏
    I cannot begin to tell you how many lines I highlighted and had to, quite frankly, stop and re-read before moving on to the next gem.

    “ Our friend Jimmy not only rose above the memories, doubts, and fears that haunted him in order to gift us with George Bailey, he allowed his trauma to inspire his performance. Just think of George’s many iconically heart-wrenching, deeply harrowing, and jubilantly enthusiastic scenes. Gravitas like that has to come from somewhere. And we accept these big, fantastic moments without question because Jimmy’s quintessential “everyman” nature shines through so authentically, it binds us to him.”

    Take a bow ma’am 👏! I literally had to take a moment to move from nodding in agreement to applauding the screen.

    I am so thrilled to have connected with you and your exquisite way with words through this blogathon. Extra giddy at the thought of now being able to read through your past entries and soak in the magic ✨📝
    Lovely to have connected with you 💝 Merry Christmas to you and yours! x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, wow. 😀 I’m almost speechless.

      Thank you so very much! ❤ I haven’t been blogging long (only since July of this year), and I don’t really have the words to tell you how much your lovely, supportive, enthusiastic comment means to me – except to say I’m thrilled you enjoyed the post so much, and I’m honored you took the time to tell me. ❤ Your words have left me pleased, and proud, and thankful. 🙂 I will certainly return to this gem of a comment whenever I need encouragement. ❤

      Thanks also for the follow! 😀 I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 😉 I look forward to connecting with you more – here, and on your channel. 🙂 A very Merry Christmas to you, too! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! ❤ I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

      My friend “George” is still going strong. 🙂 I moved away several years ago, so we’re not as close as we once were – simply because we don’t really get to spend time together anymore. But just like in It’s A Wonderful Life, if he ever needed help, you can bet I’d be one of the many people who would be there for him. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. THIS WAS A GORGEOUS POST! Just like the film itself your encounter with your friend “George” was a once in a lifetime run in it seems! The one regret I have with my grandfather who fought in WWII, (although my grandfather was about 20ish years younger than Mr Stewart) is asking him if this film made him feel anything. Like J.S in real life, my grandfather was unmarried and went back into the workforce after the war- unsure of exactly what to do. He and my grandma much like the Baileys didn’t have a honeymoon either, too expensive and they couldn’t afford it. What I do know of my grandfather’s WW2 PTSD is when he was in the hospital in 2010- a week before he died,as an effect of the medication and when my mom saw him, he said the room was dangerous and the Germans were gonna bomb him (throw grenades), that he wasn’t safe. Very errie to think about.
    I’m really proud the film addresses PTSD and it wasn’t afraid to touch on it, even if people didn’t know what it was or that it was normal.
    Jimmy Stewart went from the boy next door, to America’s reliable leading man- and expanded his range! This film was the perfect vehicle fro him to shine, to fall and rise- PERFECTION!
    PS Love that shot of Jimmy and Donna practice dancing! Priceless!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! ❤

      Your story about your grandfather is striking because it shows that his war experience never left him. The memories and the feelings were still there; the medication just brought them out. 😦 I hope he didn’t feel unsafe long.

      It’s a shame that men of that generation felt like they should (or had to) keep their trauma to themselves – and there wasn’t the overall knowledge, language, or resources to help them talk about it. In addition to the weight and sacrifice of service itself, that’s a lot for one person to shoulder. 😦

      My grandparents were married at home and spent their “honeymoon” at a relative’s house. (If I remember the story correctly, it belonged to a slightly older couple in the family who fixed it up for them and let them have it for a weekend.) I believe they were married just before my grandfather went into the service. (He was in Germany for 2 years – but it was sometime after the official end of the war, so he didn’t see combat. I believe he was a guard at a prison where Nazis awaiting trial for war crimes were held, though. He does talk about that time somewhat – but only to share funny memories. I never realized until now, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him talk about anything serious in regard to that time – other than how it felt to come home. But he had a wife and I think a job waiting for him, so he was more fortunate than most.)

      Anyway, I used to dream about having a grand wedding and honeymoon – but the older I get, the more I realize our grandparents had the right idea. 🙂 Of course, it could have been out of necessity. They may have had no other choice, economically – but keeping things simple not saved them some money, it also helped them stay focused on what was most important: the start of their marriage. ❤ I’ve seen so many couples get swept up in their wedding, honeymoon, or some other big moment to the point that it was like their real life afterwards was a letdown, and they couldn’t make it work. 😦 There’s something special (and far less stressful) about the simple approach. 🙂

      Yes, I loved that pic of Jimmy and Donna, too! 😀 I can sort of fall down the rabbit hole when it comes to finding and choosing images for posts, but it’s really worth it for gems like that one. ❤

      Like

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