Imagine being tortured by wartime memories. Explosions, death, mutilated bodies (some of them friends of yours), all the screaming. Now, imagine them coming from a very confined and dangerous place. I’ve always thought that being in a warplane or submarine would add the extra stress of being trapped, and not even being able to contemplate running away from the situation. If you leave a submarine, you’ll drown. If you leap out of an airplane without having first put on a parachute, you’ll fall to your death. You’re trapped.
Of course, even the most vivid and active imagination can’t come close to the horrifying realities of war, and having to live with those images forever. And, if I’m right about the added submarine and airplane stress, it’s entirely possible that, if you survive a war with those experiences, the memories could affect almost everything you do for the rest of your life.
That’s one of the things that war-induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can do to people. Not all veterans of battle get PTSD. It can vary in intensity and, in the most extreme cases, it can ruin lives and lead to suicide.
“Well, Professor,” I can hear you saying, “this is a grim introduction to a podcast episode about what is widely regarded to be among the most uplifting, heart-warming, and life-affirming Hollywood films of all time — ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’,” starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and a host of character actors.
Yes, I suppose it is a grim introduction to a podcast episode about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but you’ll soon see what I mean.
This 1946 Frank Capra film is a holiday classic, played every year at this time in the United States, Canada, and some other countries. It’s the story of a man whose dreams never came true, who thinks his life has been worthless, and who contemplates suicide. He’s then shown by his guardian angel what life in his town and among his friends and family would have been like if he had not lived. This helps him realize that individuals have value, and that it’s a great gift to be shown just how much one’s life can affect the lives of other people.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is routinely listed among the greatest films of all time. It makes almost every film organization’s top 100 list, and is often in the top 10. The Library of Congress has listed it among the “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” works of art in American history, thereby giving it special preservation status. The American Film Institute ranks it number one in the category “Most Inspirational American Films.” More about its critical legacy later.
The basic plot is well-known. George Bailey is a very personable young man with big dreams of international travel and an interesting career “building things, planning modern cities” and all that stuff (as he says early in the film). Circumstances that seem to be largely beyond his control conspire, however, to keep him in his small hometown of Bedford Falls, New York, and working in the small family business that bores him. His opportunities to go away to college, to travel, and to “see the world” get side-tracked by relatively random events that thwart those opportunities just on the brink of him being able to take advantage of them.
All the while, his friends (and, perhaps most gallingly, his younger brother) go off to do other things, leaving George to stew in Bedford Falls. George seems to handle all these frustrations maturely, with a reasonable amount of understanding and calmness. In the background, though, we know that his relatively pleasant life has also prevented him from fulfilling his aspirations. In essence, George is trapped like a pilot in a wounded plane. His nemesis in the movie, the town banker, mean old Mr. Potter, tells him exactly that.
George’s troubles reach their peak when a serious business crisis threatens to ruin even the little amount of dignity and self-worth he’s built up over the years. In the space of one day, George goes from: being a relatively content man, more or less resigned to the fact that, while never being able to go adventuring and living the life of his youthful dreams, his life has been more or less as good as one can hope; to becoming convinced that his life has been worthless and that, he’s worth more dead than alive (because of his life insurance policy).
As he explains to Clarence, the guardian angel who’s sent from heaven to stop George from killing himself, “I guess it would have been better if I’d never been born.”
Clarence the angel is shocked, but then sees an opportunity — an angelic teaching moment, in the parlance of our times. Clarence arranges it with the heavenly higher-ups to give George a glimpse of what life, and his hometown of Bedford Falls, would have been like if he had never been born. The town has become Pottersville, named after the greedy banker and major landlord, Mr. Potter.
Clarence then leads George through town to show him how Bedford Falls/Pottersville had developed and what had happened to his friends and his family in a world where he had never existed. As you might expect from a Hollywood script, things weren’t so good in the George-Bailey-free world. Rather than the sleepy and friendly Bedford Falls where he had grown up, Pottersville is relatively raucous and slightly seedy little burg, and no one knows who he is. Of course, the woman who would have been his mother doesn’t recognize him, and neither does the woman who would have been his wife.
Eventually, the shock of it all leads George to realize that his life did have value, and that he actually does want to have been born. He begs Clarence to let him live again.
His wish is granted, and George returns to his house with his friends and family there, all of them having worked together to help solve the business problem that nearly drove him to suicide. And, it’s implied, all things in George’s wonderful life remain happy ever after.
Anyone who’s seen the film recognizes and appreciates the wide range of emotion that Jimmy Stewart had to command in order to play a character who goes through a lifetime of frustration, peaks of happiness, and canyons of despair. And, perhaps most difficult of all, he does it in a wonderfully convincing way. Even the hardest-hearted cynic like yours truly sees the art, talent, and skill in what Stewart was able to do.
But was it all just art, talent, and skill? Here’s where we get to one of the big myths about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and where I explain why I started this episode talking about war trauma and PTSD.
A Facebook and social media post flies around the internet at this time of year, about Jimmy Stewart and his experiences as a World War II aviator and bomber pilot. We’ve put a link to this Facebook post in the blog post for this episode. The Facebook page where that post appears, more or less, tells the stories of American service members who have done extraordinary things during wartime. Perhaps the most popular post is the one about Jimmy Stewart’s World War II service and how it might have affected his acting in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The post tells the basic (and very interesting) story about Stewart joining the Army in 1941, of him pushing against the Army’s attempts to have him just make training films and raise money by selling war bonds, and more or less insisting that he be given combat assignments.
All this is true. The American military routinely used actors and celebrities in promotional and training roles, partly because they were very good at these tasks, and partly because, frankly, having a well-known person die in combat might have a dampening effect on wartime morale. And it’s also true that Jimmy Stewart worked very hard to get himself posted to a combat unit.
Stewart had been an accomplished licensed pilot before the war, and had logged enough hours to make him an obvious choice to be a flight instructor for new pilots. But he pestered his superiors to let him transfer to the European theatre to fly bombing missions as the Allies began heavy bombing of Germany in 1943-1944. The Army Air Corp finally relented and he was sent to England to command B-24 Liberator bomber squadrons in their devastating missions over Germany. By all reliable accounts, Stewart was an excellent pilot, a highly-effective commander, and was superb at squadron organization and management.
But the Facebook post then goes on to say:
But his wartime service came at a high personal price. In the final months of WWII he was grounded for being “flak happy,” today called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
When he returned to the US in August 1945, Stewart was a changed man. He had lost so much weight that he looked sickly. He rarely slept, and when he did he had nightmares of planes exploding and men falling through the air screaming (in one mission alone his unit had lost 13 planes and 130 men, most of whom he knew personally).
He was depressed, couldn’t focus, and refused to talk to anyone about his war experiences. His acting career was all but over. As one of Stewart’s biographers put it, “Every decision he made [during the war] was going to preserve life or cost lives. He took back to Hollywood all the stress that he had built up.”
In 1946 he got his break. He took the role of George Bailey, the suicidal father in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The rest is history. Actors and crew on the set realized that in many of the disturbing scenes of George Bailey unraveling in front of his family, Stewart wasn’t acting. His PTSD was being captured on film for potentially millions to see.
But despite Stewart’s inner turmoil, making the movie was therapeutic for the combat veteran. He would go on to become one of the most accomplished and loved actors in American history.
… as many of us watch the classic Christmas film, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” it’s also a fitting time to remember the sacrifices of Jimmy Stewart and all the men who gave up so much to serve their country during wartime. We will always remember you!
Here are the links to the original Facebook posts: http://archive.is/iYfCI and https://www.facebook.com/NedForney/posts/2765534893703626
We can all agree with the final sentiment (that is, we should always remember and honor the sacrifice that military veterans made during World War II). But we should also be careful not to jump to conclusions or make unproven statements about the specifics of someone’s service and how it affected their later life. To do so is not only historically dicey, but it risks overlooking and under-valuing the actual trauma that other service people suffered, and still suffer.
You can tell by the trajectory of what I’m saying here that I’m about to tell you that the story of Jimmy Stewart having PTSD that was induced by war trauma is untrue. Well, yes, more or less that is what I am going to tell you. But, in doing so, I want to stress the difficulties in determining such things. Yes, undoubtedly, Jimmy Stewart must have seen horrific things during his bombing missions, even if at a distance. And it is certain that combat flying (especially when you’re in a relatively slow airplane, like a bomber, which is a kind of easy target for anti-aircraft fire) is incredibly stressful and wearing on a pilot’s nerves and broader psychology. So I don’t want to discount any of that.
But, essentially, there’s no good evidence that Jimmy Stewart suffered from battle fatigue, shell shock, or became “flak happy” because of his bombing runs over Germany, apart from normal war weariness. There is also no good evidence that he suffered PTSD after the war, or that the effects of PTSD came out during the filming of some of the more distressing and emotional scenes in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And there is no evidence that “actors and crew” on the production set of “It’s a Wonderful Life” “realized” that Stewart’s acting in the more “disturbing” scenes came from war trauma.
This is not to say that it definitely didn’t happen – remember, when analyzing history is almost impossible to prove a negative. But I am saying that there’s no good evidence that it ever did. There are no Army Air Corps medical records to suggest that Jimmy Stewart suffered from these things or that he was grounded because of them.
And there’s plenty of good evidence to show that Jimmy Stewart’s very effective and convincing performance in “It’s a Wonderful Life” came from his talent, his acting experience, and Frank Capra’s direction. It’s easy to dismiss the PTSD-acting story by an examination of Stewart’s performances in his early career. From his first supporting roles in various theater productions in the early 1930s, critics quickly noticed his abilities to play a variety of parts, from the upsetting to the comical, and to play them extremely convincingly.
He broke into motion pictures in 1934, first as an uncredited extra, and then working in various supporting roles throughout the mid-1930s. Critics at the time usually ignored actors in smaller parts, but several writers who had also seen him perform in plays wrote that their initial assessments of him as an excellent theatre actor were borne out in his first films. In fact, The New York Herald-Tribune complained that he was being under-used as a side character in his first big film, 1935’s “The Murder Man.”
Better roles eventually followed, and by the late 1930s, Stewart was a leading man, usually playing average people whose extraordinary talents and gifts and determination are revealed through the various plot devices and challenges in any good movie plot. Even a cursory glance at his filmography (and the critical reception of his work) in the 1930s shows a very talented young actor working his way up the Hollywood ladder, and sharpening his skills with each new picture.
By the time he appeared in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1939, it was very clear that Stewart was a major star. If you haven’t seen “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” by the way, I recommend it very highly. It’s a Capra film, like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Stewart’s part as Jefferson Smith, an everyman sent to Washington whose backbone prevents him from being eaten up by the various political machines and graft going on there, is excellent. The emotional range required to play “Mr. Smith” was handled admirably by Jimmy Stewart, even if a lot of the plot was corny.
And it was exactly the type of emotional range that Stewart had to draw upon for “It’s a Wonderful Life,” filmed seven years later. In between those two movies, Stewart appeared in eight major Hollywood films, ranging from gritty westerns to feel-good stories to outright comedies and farces. And, of course, he had grown older and, undoubtedly, his wartime experiences helped shape his overall character and work.
So how did the story about wartime PTSD appear? Well, before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that the heavy lifting for this episode was done by other historians and investigative journalists. Their work (and links to it) are provided in the blog post for this episode. But Dan MacGuill, an international journalist and noted fact-checker, wrote an excellent summary of this myth in his Snopes article. He concludes that the wartime-PTSD-is-shown-in-Jimmy-Stewart’s-acting story is “unproven.”
As I said earlier, though, I feel more strongly about this story, and that’s why I say there’s no good evidence for it.
The original Facebook post seems to have been based on the book “Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe” by Robert Matzen. In it, Matzen argues that Stewart became “flak happy” during the later stages of the war and had to be grounded by the Army Air Corp to prevent him having some sort of mental breakdown during a mission. While Matzen had done extensive research about the combat conditions and experiences of American flyers over Europe during World War II, the evidence for Stewart suffering from PTSD comes mainly from one source, the interview he conducted with a fellow American World War II flyer, Lieutenant Barry Shillito. According to Shillito, Stewart changed visibly in appearance, lost weight that a lanky man like him couldn’t afford to lose, and that “he went flak happy there for a while.”
But that’s where the direct connection with Jimmy Stewart and suffering from war trauma ends. The stories about Stewart being plagued by nightmares about exploding planes, body parts hitting his aircraft, and the sound of airmen screaming as they fell from the skies were based on the _general_ and _overall_ reports of the nightmares and the trauma that happened to _some_ American pilots.
Undoubtedly, Jimmy Stewart suffered during his wartime experience. Given the type of missions he flew, and the claustrophobic nature of flying a bomber, any pilot must have been seriously affected. But that is specifically why the Army Air Corp routinely stopped pilots from flying after a specific number of missions. After reaching a certain number of missions over enemy territory, Stewart was rotated out of combat assignments, and given a promotion. He moved to the position of operations officer, planning and supervising missions, including deciding which flyers need rest and when they should take it.
More reliable work done by military historian Starr Smith (who had served with Stewart) and by Michael Munn, a film historian, show that this was more or less standard procedure, and that Stewart’s range of abilities (which including on-the-ground organization and leadership) brought about his promotion, not fear of him “losing it” while behind the controls. And, at any rate, Stewart wouldn’t have had much of a choice. These types of assignment rotations and promotions were required after a certain number of missions had been flown. He couldn’t have lobbied against it because it was actually an Army Air Corp procedure and regulation, unlike the informal practice of using celebrities mainly for PR work.
Again, according to Smith (the military historian who served with Stewart during World War II),
When the appointment was announced, nothing was said about “flying too many missions.” The official word was that the 453rd needed an operations officer, and Major Stewart had been promoted to the job.
Further, there is no other direct evidence of Stewart being “flak happy” or having nightmares (either during his war years or afterward) about aviators falling from the sky. Again, both of these things were technically possible, and Stewart could have done a good job of hiding them for the rest of his life.
It’s also very unlikely that war trauma would have gone unnoticed by Stewart’s commanders. The diagnosis of PTSD didn’t exist in the 1940s, but doctors and medical researchers had been studying war-induced psychological trauma for decades. In the 19th century, it was called “battle fatigue.” And then with the enormous increase in the mechanization of war and in the power of explosives, it became known as “shell shock” during World War I. And the study of it only improved during World War II.
PTSD is a much newer term. Diagnostic methods have gotten much better in the last half-century, and so has treatment, but the knowledge of this kind of trauma has been with us a long time. So it’s not as if this trauma was unknown during World War II.
Still, the Jimmy Stewart-World-War-II-PTSD-to-It’s-a-Wonderful-Life story is a very hardy one. It’s impossible to do an exhaustive study across all social media, but Buzzkill Institute researchers tell me that close to 70,000 Facebook users have read the story and clicked “like.” And the number of shares is impossible to determine. It’s also very common to see it on Twitter and Instagram, especially this time of year.
Unless and until there’s some reasonably hard evidence for it, this story remains just that — a story. And like so many stories we’ve analyzed on this show over the years, it’s “truth” relies on a number of fallacies. The first is reasoning from the very general to the highly specific (that bomber pilots and crews sometimes witnessed horrific scenes of battle, and that, therefore, Jimmy Stewart must have seen such things as “bodies falling through the air” and heard the “screams of falling airmen”), even though there is no good evidence that he did.
The story takes that as a given. And from there it makes the assumption that Stewart’s war trauma came through in his post-war acting, especially during the scenes of suicidal desperation in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Once you believe that there’s enough evidence for the trauma in the first place, then everything else that follows in the story seems to make sense. In this chain of reasoning, it’s not surprising at all, in fact it seems inevitable that Jimmy Stewart would draw on his emotional experience of being “flak happy” to make George Bailey’s desperation seem more believable.
As I’ve said, however, there is lots of good evidence that the range of emotion shown in Stewart’s work on “It’s a Wonderful Life” was built on two decades of increasingly sophisticated practice of his craft. You only have to look at the climactic scenes in 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to see exactly the same display of acting skill, and nearly the exact same emotions that would show up in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Certainly, being in the war-affected Stewart like it did everyone else, and it probably contributed to the maturity and subtlety displayed in the second half of his career.
Despite the fact that all this makes me sound like an uber-Buzzkill, bordering on being a misanthrope, I do so because I think it’s crucial to read the things you come across on social media and in emails with a skeptical eye. If a story sounds too good to be true, or if it has all the right answers down pat, it’s probably weak on the evidence side, and the real, full story is certainly more complicated.
OK. Now that I’ve ruined a part of your holiday warmth regarding that aspect of “It’s a Wonderful Life” mythology, let me just quickly address some minor myths and offer some other observations about the film.
Despite being one of the most popular, highest-ranked and best-loved movies of all time, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not an immediate hit when it was released on December 20, 1946. Competing with “The Best Years of Our Lives” (another brilliant film), and with the Christmas feel-good movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” didn’t seem to find a place, or a niche, with the public or the critics.
You’ll often hear that the film was panned by the critics. It was another dose of “Capra-corn,” a play on Frank “Capra,” the director’s tendency to make the same sorts of heart-warming, corny films about individuals overcoming hardship for the good of their fellow citizens over and over again. But that’s only partly true. The film reviewers who didn’t like it concentrated on what they saw as shallowness in the plot and the characters. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times on December 23rd (three days after the film’s release) that,
Mr. Capra’s nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow, they all resemble theatrical attitudes, rather than average realities.
And there were many similar criticisms levelled at the film. But it’s a myth that this was the universal reception. Time Magazine loved it:
It’s a Wonderful Life is a pretty wonderful movie. It has only one formidable rival (Goldwyn’s The Best Years of Our Lives) as Hollywood’s best picture of the year. Director Capra’s inventiveness, humor, and affection for human beings keep it glowing with life and excitement. (Time Magazine, December 23, 1946)
It won only one Academy Award, a special one for the technical achievement of creating artificial snow in a new and improved way. And then, for the most part, the film just went into the Hollywood back-catalog with so many others.
It was revived in a very interesting way during the holiday season of 1976. Over the years, the television syndication rights to the film had passed from Liberty Films (its original owner), to Paramount, to National Telefilm Associates. But, in 1974, the correct filing forms for continuing the copyright on the film got screwed up and the copyright was not renewed. So television stations were able to play it at a considerable savings in copyright fees, and it was aired frequently in the second half of the 1970s. It was watched by millions and became more popular than it ever had been.
By the way, the copyright story has become a legend in itself, but there’s a teenie tiny mini myth associated with it. The film and its images slipped out of copyright and entered the public domain, but the copyright on the original story (“The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern), upon which the film had been based, remained. So it’s a myth that the reason it became so widely seen was that television stations could play it “for free.” In fact, they still had to pay copyright fees for the original story.
So the “slipped into the public domain” thing was not the real reason that it was shown so often. It became much cheaper to show the film, starting in 1976, but it wasn’t technically free to television stations. “It’s a Wonderful Life” became a holiday classic starting in the late 1970s because, after being shown so oftwen, at a discounted rate (if you will), people started to value it for its own sake, and it became commonplace for TV stations to air it. By the early 1980s, it had become so popular during the holiday season that no station management in its right mind would quibble over the pittance they had to pay for the original story copyright.
From then it took off. It has been colorized a couple of times, and has been produced on stage across the country, especially since the 1990s and early 2000s.
A couple of other myths and urban legends about “It’s a Wonderful Life” remain, however. It is not true, for instance, that the popular characters, Bert and Ernie, on the children’s program, Sesame Street, were named after two important characters in the film — Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver. This is a coincidence, even though Sesame Street has had fun slipping in references to the film during some of Bert and Ernie’s sketches over the years.
And even though Seneca Falls in upstate New York has held an “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival in December for years, and the town has “claimed” that it was the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the setting for the movie, there’s no evidence for that either. In fact, the author of the original story, “The Greatest Gift,” Philip Van Doren Stern, said in 1946 (long before the film became a “classic”) that the story and film were set in Westchester County, New York, just north of New York City. There’s a town called “Bedford” in Westchester County, but Van Doren Stern said, “…the town I had in mind was Califon, New Jersey,” near where he grew up. These places are 250 miles from Seneca Falls.
A larger myth is that the film has been universally admired for its positive and life-affirming message over the decades. In 1946-47, as I said earlier, those who didn’t like the film called it shallow and that the emotions on display were merely cardboard cut-outs of genuine emotion. In more recent decades, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been characterized as dark and claustrophobic, with a depressing plot about how the vagaries and the sort-of “bad luck chaos” involved in life can grind an individual down and drive them to near-suicide.
A critic for the New York Times wrote in 2008 that “It’s a Wonderful Life” was far more complex than a simple, feel-good tale about realizing your own value. It was also,
…a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, …of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher, and your oppressively perfect wife.
Other critics have called it “the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made,” and “…one of the most profoundly pessimistic tales of human existence ever to achieve a lasting popularity.”
I want to take some credit for this late-20th century/early-21st century take on the film. I remember very clearly that it hit me one day out of the blue in the early 1990s — “wait a minute, sure, George Bailey’s short-term business and financial problems are solved in the film’s climax, but he’s more or less still back where he started — trapped in Bedford Falls with daily reminders of his abandoned dreams all around him.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t smart enough to record these revelations in print back then in order to prove that they originated with me. So, I just started a myth-busting, heart-unwarming podcast instead.
I don’t know for sure, my parents aren’t telling, and the family archives and records are silent about this, but, if my memory is correct, we’ve been watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the Family Buzzkill for a very long time, maybe even before the increase in airing after 1976. My mother more or less insisted that we watch it when we were young, and then she’d tell us what a good story it was and that the story had a good moral.
There’s another thing about “It’s a Wonderful Life” that fits in well with the aims of this podcast, and that’s asking people to recognize that it’s not just the “stars” of history who make it such a rich and important subject of study. It’s not just Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. We spend an awful lot of time on this show talking about how people overlook and under-value the vast numbers of lesser-known historical figures who deserve our attention. Winston Churchill gets painted as the sole victor in the Battle of Britain, Franklin Roosevelt ended the Depression single-handedly, John F. Kennedy put a man on the moon practically by himself. And, although I sound like cranky old Mr. Potter everytime I go on about this, the “stars” are given far too much credit. There are countless people who are over-looked who shouldn’t be.
And so I’d like to wrap things up by asking you to watch the fantastic performances by all the other actors in the film. Note especially how well they accomplish the multiple transformations they must undertake during the plot. First of all, there’s the simple passage of time during the story, from George getting ready to go to college in the early 1920s to the stock market crash of 1929 to the end of World War II. But that’s a common demand placed on actors.
Not so common is to be asked to play the same character in completely different versions of reality — Bedford Falls at one point, and Potterville at another. For instance, Nick the bartender, played by Sheldon Leonard, works in a family restaurant in the “real” Bedford Falls, but slings booze and cracks wise in a rough joint in “Pottersville.” The marvellous H.B. Warner, a star from the silent film era, plays the kindly town pharmacist in Bedford Falls, but a drunken ex-con in Pottersville. Ward Bond played Bert the cop in both “towns,” but shaded his portrayal wonderfully to fit the character of the two different places. And there are lots of others.
I want especially to mention Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, George’s mother. The way she handles the transformation from the kindly family matriarch in Bedford Falls, to the bitter old owner of a boarding house in Pottersville, is masterful.
Halfway through the film, in Bedford Falls, she encourages the adult George to go off and “court” Mary Hatch (George’s eventual wife). And then, in the alternate universe that is Pottersville, with family tragedy behind her, and running a boarding house for transients in the uncaring town of Pottersville, she confronted by George who’s claiming to be her son, and she rejects him outright.
Beulah Bondi only appears briefly in three or four scenes in the film, but each time the acting is perfect. In fact, she was one of the most successful and prolific character actors in Hollywood. Her career started with the 1931 film, Street Scene, and ended with an Emmy Award-winning performance in the popular Waltons series on television in 1976. And get this, she played Jimmy Stewart’s mother in four different films between “Of Human Hearts” in 1938 to “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946, including the Capra classic mentioned earlier, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” of 1939.
It is, essentially, Beulah Bondi, as Mrs. Bailey in Bedford Falls, who first tells George in his 20s that he’s living a wonderful life and should open his eyes to what’s in front of him. Pushing him off to go visit Mary Hatch, played by Donna Reed, was her way of trying to make him see what was right there waiting for him.
You’ll see her mastery of the range of emotion more clearly when you watch the movie.
By the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George realizes that dreams aren’t necessarily what makes a good and happy life. He learns that too much time spent with your eyes looking over the horizon, and wondering what’s over the next hill, risks keeping you from appreciating what’s right in front of you. And what’s right in front of you may indeed be the fulfillment of your dreams. You just didn’t realize it.
That’s what my mother told us at the end of the film each Christmas, and so it’s with a shout out to my mother, the Duchess of Buzzkill, that I say, “OK, old Buzzkill dynasty mother of mine, I’m off to concentrate on what’s right in front of me. I have to do the dishes. And the dishes are there because I have Buzzlings to take care of, in what I now realize is my wonderful life.”
And I’ll say to you Buzzkillers out there that I’ll talk to you next week.
Frank Capra (director), It’s a Wonderful Life
With the endearing message that ‘no one is a failure who has friends,’ Frank Capra’s heartwarming masterpiece continues to endure, and after over 70 years, this beloved classic still remains as powerful and moving as the day it was made.