“It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart Christmas story made in the aftermath of World War II that tells the story of an angel who hadn’t earned his wings and a small-town community leader who, it turns out, put his family and friends ahead of himself, probably has caused more than a few tears to be shed over the years.
And that includes the one person who was there in the make-believe world created in Hollywood for the work, the toil, the strain of putting the story together.
His re-telling of the making of the Christmas classic came originally in Guideposts magazine, and was re-told this Christmas by James Dobson, of Family Talk radio, in his December 2015 newsletter to constituents.
Dobson reproduces a commentary from Stewart, who passed away about 20 years ago, about the making of “Wonderful Life.”
Stewart explained that the production set included 75 buildings on four acres, and for 1946, some startling developments that included production of something that looked like real snow, not just white corn flakes.
He said it was the story, which also featured Lionel Barrymore, Donna Reed, Henry Travers and more, itself that has kept the movie alive after all these decades – because it didn’t attract much attention when it first was released.
“Good as the script was,” Stewart wrote in the day, “There was still something else about the movie that made it different. It’s hard to explain. I, for one, had things happen to me during the filming that never happened in any other picture I’ve made.”
“In one scene, for example, George Bailey is faced with unjust criminal charges, and, not knowing where to turn, ends up in a little roadside restaurant. He is unaware that most of the people in town are arduously praying for him. In this scene, at the lowest point in George Bailey’s life, Frank Capra was shooting a long shot of me slumped in despair. In agony I raised my eyes and, following the script, and pled, ‘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 …'”
Stewart continued, “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.”
Not one to miss a moment, Capra, who “loved the spontaneity,” wanted a close-up, Stewart explained.
But he also “was sensitive enough to know that my breaking down was real and that repeating it in another take was unlikely.”
He got the close-up anyway, Stewart said, spending “long hours in the film laboratory, again and again enlarging the frames of that scene so that eventually it would appear as a close-up on screen. I believe nothing like this had ever been done before. It involved thousands of individual enlargements with extra time and money. But he felt it was worth it.”
Stewart called the film, released Dec. 25, 1946, “nothing phenomenal” … it was just “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.”
Dobson cited Stewart as “a man of deep Christian faith whose beliefs stood in sharp contrast to those of many of his contemporaries.”
“He put his burgeoning film career on hold to fight for his country … [he] commented that one of his greatest sources of encouragement in battle was a tattered copy of the 91st Psalm that had been given to him by his father,” he also was married to the same woman, Gloria, for more than 45 years and he “faithfully attended church until the day he died.”
“Knowing of his deep Christian commitment, I wish Stewart had said a little more. He could have told a pagan world about a baby who was born to a virgin in a humble stable, more than 2,000 years ago. He was laid in a manger among the domesticated animals, but this was no ordinary child. His name was Jesus, and He had come from His heavenly Father to live a sinless life and become a sacrifical Lamb to save the people – all of us – from our sins. Jesus was condemned to die by a rigged Roman court, and was crucified on a cruel cross. He was laid in a tomb where He remained there until the third day when He was resurrected on a bright and glorious morning,” Dobson wrote.
“I guess it’s unrealistic to have expected a Hollywood movie to tell it, although it happened about 50 years later in Mel Gibson’s powerful film, ‘The Passion of the Christ.’
“This is the reason for the season we celebrate today,” Dobson said.