It’s a Wonderful [Historical] Life!

Just in time for the holidays, the latest episode of HAI’s Reel History analyses the Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Archivist Katie DeFonzo and Historian Taylor Hefka dive deep into the montage that showcases how the town of Bedford Falls contributed to the war efforts during World War II.  Did the actors and the audience live through the same experience? Or is it Hollywood glitz, glamour, and a bit of sensationalism? Watch to learn more!

 

 


 

Transcript:

(00:02)
It’s an American holiday staple, Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. In terms of historical storytelling, this film intertwines fiction and reality. It captures the experience of life in a small town in the first half of the 20th century, and particularly during World War II. This film does something a little extra special. It marks the return of actor Jimmy Stewart to the silver screen after a stint in the military, while also tipping its hat to the servicemen and women in its audience. Let’s explore.

(00:30)
Our first glimpse is in this scene where the film lists all the ways someone could help in the war effort. Joseph, the omniscient narrator, described contributions from all the characters we have met throughout the first three decades in the film, regardless if they are the villain, such as Mr. Potter, or the heroes, such as the Bailey Brothers. The film shows how these characters put aside petty issues to focus their efforts on a larger global war. Essentially, with this brief montage, It’s a Wonderful Life celebrates the many different ways Americans contributed to the war effort as an homage and a thank you to the audience who lived it.

(00:59)
Let’s go through the numbers. About 18 million servicemen and women were in the military, 38% voluntarily enlisted. And according to the American Red Cross, as many as 7.5 million people volunteered throughout the war, raising funds, putting together care packages, and other necessary aid. And that’s not even to mention the scrap drives and other volunteer efforts during that period. So it’s fair to say many of the moving going audiences in the late forties could relate and feel good about some of the ways the movie acknowledged their work and sacrifice.

(01:26)
As for the iconic performance of his lead actor, the film also shines a light on Jimmy Stewart’s particular experience in the war. Stewart was far from unknown in Hollywood when he stepped into the shoes of the film’s protagonist, the disheartened George Bailey. But looking at his filmography, you’ll notice a gap in his work from 1942 to 1945. And surprisingly, this was just after he received the Academy Award for 1940’s Philadelphia Story. He, like many of his generation, enlisted as a pilot in the Army Air Forces. Given his star power, Stewart took on a different type of role.

(01:55)
The military, specifically the Motion Picture Unit in the Army Corps, used Stewart as a recruitment tool. But he wasn’t just any Hollywood face for recruitment. As an older man, at the ripe age of 33, and with six years’ experience in flight training, he rose quickly through the ranks and was appointed Colonel by war’s end. With that said, his experience wasn’t exactly a Hollywood picture. Due to his seniority, he had the more somber task of writing home to families and forming them the loss of their loved ones. This certainly prepared him to play the father figure, George Bailey.

(02:22)
According to the biographer Robert Madsen, Stewart’s very own real struggles with PTSD and life and death pressures allowed him to relate deeply to the character of George, who confronts similar feelings of failure and inadequacy. Jimmy Stewart may have on the surface seemed more like George’s decorated war hero brother Harry, but choosing to return to this particular film and role seems to have allowed him to reflect more deeply on the emotional trauma tied to the elder Bailey brother and deliver one of his best known performances.

(02:49)
Not only did It’s a Wonderful Life mark a turning point in, and essentially the restart of Stewart’s career, it served as an example of how post-war films would need to confront head-on the devastating events of the previous few years, while also reflecting on the optimism that came with Victory. Other films that captured this include Christmas in Connecticut, Brewster’s Millions, and Battleground, all playing on a streaming service near you. Thanks for tuning in to HAI’s Real History.

 


 

About The Series: HAI’s Reel History is a video series analyzing the historicity of film, television, and video games. Through the lens of “What did this media get right?” rather than “What did it get wrong?”, the trained Historians and Archivists of HAI dive into the facts behind both your favorite films, shows, and games as well as more obscure media you’ll soon be itching to learn more about. We answer your most pressing questions about who, what, when, where, and how concerning media sources from the 1900s to today. “Did that really happen? Could it have happened that way? Where did they get that information? Is that really how Historians/Archivists/Researchers work?” The possibilities are endless!

Sources:

Cosgrove, Ben, “Jimmy Stewart, 1945: A War Hero Comes Home,” https://www.life.com/people/jimmy-stewart-photos-of-a-world-war-ii-hero-homecoming-1945/

“How Does ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Reflect the Post-WWII Sentiment of 1946?.” https://the-take.com/watch/how-does-its-a-wonderful-life-reflect-the-post-wwii-sentiment-of-1946

Matzen, Robert, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. (Pittsburgh: GoodKnight, 2016)

Metz, Nina. “How Jimmy Stewart’s War Service Affected ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Chicago Tribune, November 30, 2016. https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/ct-jimmy-stewart-book-mov-1202-20161201-column.html

“Research Starters: US Military by the Numbers,” The National World War II Museum – New Orleans. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-us-military-numbers

Scott, Rachael. “How World War II Shaped ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” CNN, December 25, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/25/entertainment/its-a-wonderful-life-jimmy-stewart-world-war-ii/index.html

Wilson, Christopher, “What ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Teaches Us About American History,” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/what-its-a-wonderful-life-teaches-us-about-american-history-180979223/

“World War II and the Red Cross” https://www.redcross.org/content/dam/redcross/National/history-wwii.pdf

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