Friday, December 24, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life

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When Jimmy Stewart was a boy, he built model air planes and dreamed of flying. After graduating from high school, he wanted to join the Naval Air Academy but his father shot that idea down and sent him to Princeton instead. His mind still on flying he had written a paper on airport architecture which had persuaded his professors that he should be given a scholarship for graduate studies. But Stewart also had another passion which Princeton provided for. He joined the music and drama clubs. Having mastered the accordion as a child, he also liked to entertain and soon he had joined the University Players Summer Stock company with his good friends Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan. After leaving Princeton, he roomed with Fonda in New York, as they looked for work on Broadway. First bit parts and then more substantial work followed. Fonda was the first to get called by Hollywood, but it wasn't long before Stewart made the trip as well, being put under studio contract for seven years at 350 dollars a week.

In  Hollywood he hooked up with his good friend Margaret Sullavan who had for a year been Henry Fonda's wife before that union collapsed. She encouraged Stewart to be himself on film. Being himself is what made Jimmie Stewart one of the most popular actors of all time. People paid and paid to see Jimmie Stewart weave his magic on film. He was charming and awkward. There was a lot of acting intelligence behind those eyes. But perhaps that was why he was such a good actor, because he wasn't only an actor. He also played the accordion, and you gotta love someone who plays the accordion.

He made such films as the western 'Destry Rides Again', as a pacifist sherrif with costar Marlene Deitrich,  'The Shop Around The Corner' with his good friend Margaret Sullavan and 'The Philadelphia Story with Katherine Hepburn which garnered him an Oscar as best actor. He beat out his good friend Henry Fonda and his portrayal of Tom Joad in 'Grapes of Wrath'

Stewart also collaborated with  Director Frank Capra on two films; 'You Can't Take it With You', and 'Mister Smith Goes to Washington'.

World War Two then put Stewart's acting career on hold but it allowed him to pursue another love; flying

When The Second World War hit, Stewart who had gotten his flying license in 1935, was drafted. He was initially rejected not once but twice, because he was underweight, but he wasn't going to let a little thing like that get in the way of his boyhood dream and he enlisted the help of a Hollywood strong man to bulk up.

The army relented and eventually Stewart, who was a skilled pilot, was put in charge of a bomber group rising to the rank of colonel as he led many sorties into the skies over Germany, including the infamous Black Thursday attack which saw over 60 bombers shot down.

By the time Stewart's flying career ended he had won ten medals.

After the war in 1946, Frank Capra tapped Jimmy Stewart on the shoulder for his new film 'Its a Wonderful Life' based on a novella called 'The Gift' by Philip Van Doren.

The movie cost over 6 million dollars to make and was the story of George Bailey who is trapped in a small town existence. He is a good guy, making sacrifices for other people. never thinking of himself first. His dreams are probably like Jimmy Stewart's dreams of being a pilot. of seeing the world. But instead of George Bailey going to fight it is his brother Harry who becomes a pilot and who wins The Medal of Honour. Of course, what is ironic is that Stewart himself had won medals for his air heroics.

In the movie Bailey faces financial ruin and is about to commit suicide when an angel rescues him, well a second class angel rescues him, well I guess he doesn't actually rescue him, he jumps in the water and forces George to rescue him. In order for an angel to get his wings, he has to save someones life and he has been assigned to George, a perhaps extraordinary man who lives an ordinary life. Clarence the angel shows George what life would have been like had he never been born, and the sacrifices he has made tells a larger story of the lives far from his own that he has affected.

The world without the good heart of George Bailey is a dark nightmarish vision of the town that he has grown up in. Interestingly, Bailey's good deeds include providing low income housing which we now know becomes poverty traps and he also provides low interest loans to the poor so they can buy houses. The sub prime monster just waiting around the corner.

Of course they sounded like good ideas at the time.

Stewart having seen death and destruction all around him infuses the movie with tremendous life and charm. His George Bailey, like Stewart himself and like the United States had wakened from a nightmare and returned to the comfort of family and friends. The ordinary man and woman, and ordinary children with extraordinary names like Zuzu, can sing poignantly about Peace on Earth.

In the movie, a bell rings and an angel gets his wings. Stewart answered that bell and got his wings. Stewart served for 27 years in the air force and reached the rank of Brigadier General. He served the professional stage and screen from 1932 to 1991 and achieved ten lifetime achievement awards and one Oscar.

'Its a Wonderful Life' failed at the box office and Frank Capra's new film company collapsed into bankruptcy and they never worked together again. But while other award winning films and actors fade from memory, 'Its a Wonderful Life' lives on at Christmas time, on television and on dvd. The film had been nominated for five academy awards and received none. Jimmy Stewart was nominated for best actor but didn't win. He was nominated five times and won only once. But his affect on American cinema is certainly reflected on his many lifetime achievement awards and the fact that ten of his films are regarded by the American Film Institute as in the top 100 films of all time.

Christmas is a time to invite friends and family in to your home, exchange gifts, eat too much, and to share another Christmas with Jimmy Stewart and 'Its a Wonderful Life'. As George Bailey gets a second chance at Christmas time, so did Jimmy Stewart, Frank Capra and 'Its a Wonderful Life'

Merry Christmas!

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