December 25, 2015

James Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life


You know I had to save James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life for Christmas day! Believe it or not, I had actually never seen It's a Wonderful Life before, and I was partially convinced it wouldn't live up to its hype as one of the definitive Christmastime films. But I should have known better--Frank Capra, who may very well get my vote as the greatest master of cinematic experiences from this era, crafts a delightful, feel-good picture, and Jimmy Stewart, ever the dependable leading man, is It's a Wonderful Life's heartfelt nucleus.

At first glance, Stewart's George Bailey bears a striking characteristic resemblance to Jefferson Smith. Both come in with a naive, spirited, enthusiasm, and both become wholly disenchanted over the course of their respective pictures by the harsher realities of life. Compared to the likes of a stagey Laurence Olivier, a stiff Gregory Peck, or an old-school hammy Larry Parks, Stewart stands out on the basis of his own sincerity. The man acts with his heart on his sleeve, such that it's difficult not to be completely charmed by him. I like to think that Stewart's upbringing in a small Pennsylvania town is what gave him the understanding of how to approach the role of the small-town-boy-with-big-dreams. Or perhaps it isn't even an understanding, perhaps it's an innate facet of who he is? Nevertheless, Stewart is in complete control throughout the film; he is dorky and lovable as a young chap and even better as the brittle, embattled George. Early on, Stewart does a great job at shading George's feelings as he slowly but surely finds his life's disappointments piling up, and he completely demolishes the final act of the film, reining in a harrowing sensitivity and emotion which tugs at your heartstrings. All throughout he peppers his performance with bursts of gusto that's so nice to watch (I'm particularly thinking of the wild shrieks of joy he lets out once he is back in his real life). I love that he can be such a fragile performer when it's required of him; he can convey pain in a beautifully poignant manner that I don't see in other male actors of his time. All these elements fall into place and make a perfectly identifiable everyman--the kind of man I imagine Stewart to have been--that's what makes this performance work, which in turn is what makes this film one that folks revisit each and every year.


  1. Amazing performance, I love how he balanced out the sentimental moments with the darker scenes (the scene where he contemplates suicide really gets me). Hope you will find Celia Johnson brilliant and Jennifer Jones hilarious (unintentionally).

    1. Totally agreed!

      And I've just finished up watching one of those two ladies...thoughts to come soon :D

  2. What a great review! You capture the essence of Stewart's performance perfectly. He runs the gamut from youthful cockiness to centered young adulthood to desperate middle age and is entirely believable throughout. I also think he has excellent chemistry with Reed and, actually, with everyone including Barrymore (the way they spark off one another adds tension to the film). I think my favorite moment is when Stewart topples that stand in the living room in front of his family on Christmas Eve. He's not just showing desolation here: it's visceral and you really feel it. I don't think I've ever seen anguish displayed on film quite so potently as Stewart's in these final moments, which makes his redemption all the more powerful.

    I think he deserved the Oscar here, but "Wonderful Life" failed at the box office while "Best Years..." was the hit of the decade and I think Hollywood felt they owed it to Frederic March more than Stewart, who got one for more inferior work in "The Philadelphia Story" just six years earlier. That's too bad. I think it's just another example of where the Academy got it wrong...both times.

  3. 1946 is a weak year, but Jimmy and Celia Johnson... omg, two of the best performances ever.