An actor that will always have a place in my heart, who else better to start off my new blog series? I grew up watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ every Christmas, and Stewart became one of my first childhood crushes (joining the ranks of Atticus Finch/Gregory Peck and Captain Von Tapp/Christopher Plummer). But there was also something almost undefinable able him that made him a favorite actor even as I got older … and started to realize that maybe it was strange for a little girl to have such an Old Hollywood list of crushes (but that’s a story for another time).
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is kind of a sad movie. One that when it was first released, was actually kind of a dud. I can see why honestly. A man, so depressed and overwhelmed with his life, goes to commit suicide one Christmas Eve. Only to be stopped by an angel, a rather silly angel, who teaches the man that his life really does have meaning. But even when George Bailey is being … well, a bit of a shit really, Stewart is still an undeniably likable actor. And I was always fascinated by the comparison made between the movie story of the Bailey brother saving a group of troops during WWII, and Jimmy Stewart’s real life heroism.
In the movie, George Bailey was unable to fight in WWII because of he was deaf in one ear (watch the movie, people!). He instead stays home while his brother goes off to fight the good fight. In real life, Jimmy Stewart was also first declared unfit to fight in the war. Why? Because he was five pounds … too skinny.
Jimmy Stewart, at that time a famous movie star, doesn’t take no for an answer. Would anyone ever have questioned his decision to stay at home and in movies? He did his duty. He went to take his medical exam. He didn’t pass. He could have chosen the gilded Hollywood life, and made that decision guilt free. Instead? Well, instead he hires a well-known fitness coach to help him gain weight.
He then tries to enlist in the Air Corps, but still comes in underweight. Does he give up? No. He manages to persuade the enlistment officer to run new tests and he passes. When he was inducted into the Army on March 22, 1941, he became the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in WWII.
At this point, we need to go back a little. Back to 19 year old Jimmy, home from school with scarlet fever, excitedly following the record setting flight of Charles Lindbergh. Jimmy built a display in his family’s hardware store front window that included a hand built model of the Spirt of St. Louis. He eagerly tracked Lindbergh’s flight and would move his model closer to the Eiffel Tower he built. This fascination with flying as a teen meant that by the time Stewart enlisted, he had well over 400 hours of flying time and was considered a highly proficient pilot.
I’m not going to try to throw too many details at you, because I don’t want to get anything wrong. But suffice to say, Stewart fought for a position on the front lines, eventually flying missions within German occupied territory. So not only did he fight for America, he fought to fight. From what I read, more than once someone tried to keep him out of harm’s way. Here was one of America’s famous stars, no one wanted him getting hurt. They tried to keep him in the States. And then, when he made it over to Europe, they tried to keep him from flying dangerous missions by not requiring him to fly the same number of combat missions everyone else. He did it anyways. Even after the war, he stayed on in the Air Force Reserve, only retiring after 27 years of service.
A famous movie star, but more importantly, a hero in the true sense of the word. Later in life he was also active in charities and politics. I was fascinated to read that he was part of a group of actors who made an impassioned plea in front of Congress to prevent the colorization of black and white films. He found it “morally and artistically wrong and [those] profiteers should leave [the] film industry alone.” I’m guilty to admit that my copy of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is in brilliant Technicolor (I always had to make fun of the awful coloring of the food. What ARE they eating?) So, Jimmy, sorry about that.
Right before his 80th birthday, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. “As someone who believed in hard work and love of county, love of family and love of community.”
Well, Jimmy. You got your wish. I hope you and Clarence are enjoying a nice cup of flaming rum punch. Or maybe some mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon.