It's still a wonderful life

Culture | In a world that has been turned into a Pottersville, Capra and Stewart continue to inspire

Issue: "On Earth Peace?," Dec. 25, 1999

Christmas traditions in America include evergreens, nativity scenes, eggnog, and the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life. Doctors have prescribed this touching story for depressed patients. It has reduced hardened criminals to tears. Once, 1,500 inmates in a Texas prison wrote letters after watching the movie, finding hope in the belief that they might have benefited someone, somewhere. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a decent man living in small-town frustration. He has large dreams, but family loyalty and compassion for neighbors keep him in Bedford Falls. At George's lowest moment an angel shows him how, if he had never been born, the rich and greedy Mr. Potter would have turned Bedford Falls into "Pottersville," a hub of trendy distractions, hardened hearts, and hungry souls. George returns grateful for his life, eager to live and serve. Initially, this film received mixed reviews and lost $525,000. But it became an American favorite, a perennial pep-talk to those weary in well-doing. Both leading man Stewart (1908-1997) and director Frank Capra (1897-1991) strongly valued responsibility, family unity, love of country, and love of God. They also knew the power of a good story to stir the human heart. Frank Capra's autobiography, The Name Above the Title, is the witty, animated, sometimes crude account of a man who thrives despite difficulties. From his parents' immigration to the United States when he was 6 years old, to earning an engineering degree while working to support his family, to schmoozing with celebrities, Capra portrays his life as a combination of amazing luck and hard work. Capra proved himself a skilled director from the day he bluffed his way into the industry. Despite his lack of reverence (he respected his mother and her faith in God, but he often took God's name in vain), he conveyed biblical messages through film. He believed that "love thy neighbor" could be the most powerful sustaining force in a person's life. Capra's method was driven by his values rather than technique. He chose the angle of every shot to communicate a message and elicit a particular emotion in viewers. At times, he would deliberately frustrate actors until they forgot about the cameras and performed like real, emotional human beings. In contrast to Capra's bluster, James Maitland Stewart was known for his modesty and was loved for his awkward manner. As a boy, he accompanied his father on fire-fighting runs so often that he became the "mascot" of the fire department. Jimmy, who earned Eagle Scout rank in his youth, was later awarded the Silver Buffalo, Scouting's highest national honor for adult volunteers. He graduated from Princeton in 1932 with honors, a degree in architecture, and a scholarship for graduate studies. But, having played the accordion for the University Players, he now could act in their Broadway productions. Although his father didn't consider acting a "real" profession, Stewart chose to audition. Within three years, he was on the silver screen, and within 10 years he had won an Oscar for Best Actor in Philadelphia Story. When his number came up in the draft in 1941, Stewart was overage (nearly 33) and underweight. But he gorged himself to reach the weight requirement and was inducted as a private. When released in 1945, Colonel Stewart had led 20 combat missions over Germany and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Croix de Guerre. On his missions, he meditated often upon the 91st Psalm: "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day.... For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways." "What a promise for an airman," Stewart once recalled. "I placed in His hands the squadron I would be leading. And, as the psalmist promised, I felt myself borne up." Before World War II, Capra and Stewart had worked together on You Can't Take It with You (which won two Academy Awards) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. After the war, both were pensive about making more films. But once he had developed the plot for It's a Wonderful Life, Capra called Stewart without hesitation. Characteristically, Capra's intentions were both rebellious and big-hearted: "I wanted it to shout to the abandoned grandfathers staring vacantly in nursing homes, to the always-interviewed but seldom-adopted half-breed orphans, to the paupers who refuse to die while medical vultures wait to snatch their hearts and livers: 'You are the salt of the earth. And It's a Wonderful Life is my memorial to you!'"

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