by Rachel Scott, CNN, 12/19/20.
It’s George Bailey’s crucial moment. Disheveled and desperate, he offers up a Hail-Mary prayer to a God he’s not sure is listening…
Actor Jimmy Stewarts’ emotion is palpable in this scene, one that acclaimed actress Carol Burnett called one of the finest pieces of acting ever on the screen. What may have escaped audiences watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” over 70 years after its making, is that the tears running down Stewart’s face are real, the actor later shared.
Stewart had just returned home from serving as a flight leader in World War II and this 1946 film was his first movie since witnessing the horrors of war. With this postwar mentality, Stewart and director Frank Capra take a film titled “It’s a Wonderful Life” and antithetically crescendo into a failed suicide attempt.
…”It’s a Wonderful Life” addresses real and resonant issues of self-worth and failure. Fresh from the war, Stewart is grappling with these trials himself, as he shapes the deeply relatable character of George Bailey. Without Stewart’s real acquaintance with darkness, the holiday classic’s redefining perspective on life wouldn’t be able to shine so unforgettably bright.
… After serving in the Army Air Corps, Stewart had been absent from Hollywood for five years when he was offered the role in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He was initially hesitant to do the film, according to biographer Robert Matzen, but it was his only offer except for a film featuring his war service.
“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was a result of Jim’s war experiences because it unlocked this depth of soul in Jimmy … He had to learn to act again and that’s what you’re seeing on screen. It’s like lightning that just got captured in a bottle,” biographer Robert Matzen told CNN.
This is seen in one of the film’s most iconic, unscripted scenes, when George Bailey finds himself at the end of his rope: “I’m not a praying man but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way.”
George Bailey wasn’t scripted to cry, but Jimmy Stewart did.
“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,” Stewart said in an interview in 1987.