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Category: Arts & Entertainment / Topics: Christmas History Holidays Movies

A Wonderful Life

by Dan Seagren

Posted: December 14, 2008

Many of us have loved the movie "It's a Wondferful Life," but perhaps didn't know how it all began…

My wife picked up a copy of a December 1955 issue of Guideposts. I took a sneak peek (as much as I am an admirer of Guideposts I don't see it very often). I read several of the articles and was intrigued by the story of It's a Wonderful Life by Jimmy Stewart as told to Richard H. Schneider, one of the 44 persons (I counted them) who in 2005 created the magazine.

Many of us have loved that story but perhaps didn't know how it all began. Jimmy Stewart had returned home in 1945 after three years in the Air Force. His contract with MGM had run out and he wasn't sure how to get started again. Then one day Frank Capra called Jimmy and said he had an idea from a Christmas story written by Philip Van Doren Stern. But Stern couldn't sell the story so he had 200 twenty-four-page pamphlets printed and sent them to his friends as a greeting card.

Capra was a bit embarrassed as he told Jimmy about Stern's story of the Lord sending an angel down to earth because of a fellow who was in trouble. So this heavenly being goes down and discovers that this poor fella thinks he is a failure in life and jumps off a bridge. The angel named Clarence, who hasn't yet earned his wings, jumps into the water to save the guy but doesn't know how to swim. He is then rescued by the fellow who was in trouble.

Frank Capra paused, and wiping his brow, muttered, “This doesn't tell very well, does it?” Jimmy jumped up. “Frank, if you want to do a picture about a guy who jumps off a bridge and an angel named Clarence who hasn't won his wings yet coming down to save him, well, I'm your man!”

The production of It's a Wonderful Life started on April 15, 1946. A lot of effort had gone into the film. Two months had been spent creating the town of Bedford Falls. At the time, it was one of the longest American movie sets with 75 stores and buildings on four acres with a three-block main street lined with 20 full-grown oak trees. Jimmy played the role of George Bailey, an ordinary man who aspired to be a famous architect but feels trapped in a humdrum job in a small town. When faced with a crisis he flees to the bridge and its icy water flowing swiftly below.

Clarence, who doesn't know how to swim, jumps in to save him but instead gets rescued by Bailey. Clarence then shows George Bailey how his loyalty at his banking job has saved families and homes and how his little kindnesses changed many lives making the world a better place. But not everything in the movie production goes as planned. In one scene, George Bailey is faced with unjust criminal charges, ends up in a roadside restaurant, slumped in despair. Jimmy, in playing the part, is so emotionally involved he broke down, sobbing, “God, dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you are up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope.”

As he said this, his eyes filled with tears as he sobbed agonizingly. Frank, who loved spontaneity in his films, was ecstatic. Capra wanted a closeup but realized this breakdown was real and couldn't be repeated. He spent long hours in the film laboratory creating a closeup of the real thing. He felt so strongly about the film that he hoped it would be nominated for a several Academy Awards. Not so. The critics had mixed reactions and the film ranked twenty-seventh in earnings in 1947. Fortunately, when the film was shown on TV, “a whole new audience fell in love with it.”

Forty years later, Jimmy Stewart, with some 80 films to his credit, had his senior moment as he realized that the film had become “an American cultural phenomenon.” Stewart remarked that “there is nothing phenomenal about the movie itself. It's simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and a selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life.”

Now, that's the kind of senior moment worth having.

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Dan Seagren is an active retiree whose writings reflect his life as a Pastor, author of several books, and service as a Chaplain in a Covenant Retirement Community.

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Posted: December 14, 2008

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