James Maitland Stewart, or Jimmy Stewart as he was known to the American public, lived to be 89, dying in 1997. Between 1935 and 1991, he made 80 movies. He was nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Actor category five times and won once for the 1941 film “The Philadelphia Story.” Along the way, Stewart was a bomber pilot in World War II, and when he returned to the United States in 1945, he was a colonel.
The first film Stewart made when he returned from the war was the 1946 Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The film has been a staple in theaters and on television every year since.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” was directed by one of America’s greatest directors, Frank Capra, who won three Academy Awards himself as Best Director. He is probably best known for “It Happened One Night,” made in 1934, “You Can’t Take It With You,” made in 1938 and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1939.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” was nominated for six Academy Awards and won one, the Technical Achievement Award. Its other nominations were Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Recording.
Stewart was joined by some of Hollywood’s most famous leading and character actors in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He played a small savings back owner, George Bailey, in tiny Bedford Falls, New York, who runs a firm that was in financial trouble. Lionel Barrymore, a member of Hollywood’s royalty and one of America’s great stage actors, played Mr. Potter, the head of the town’s only real bank. Donna Reed, one of America’s most beautiful actresses, played Stewart’s wife, Mary Hatch Bailey. And character actor Henry Travers played Clarence, the angel who looked after Bailey.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” was not an immediate financial success. It brought in $3.3 million in ticket sales and lost $3 million. Over the years, it has been released for TV, DVD and streaming sales.
Over time, the film has gained critical acclaim and, in that sense, it may be Stewart’s most important film. It stands among the American Film Institute’s lists as one of the 100 Best American Films Ever Made. It is also number one on the institute’s 100 CHEERS, which are the 100 most inspirational films of all time.
Among critics, as measured by the film review site Rotten Tomatoes, 94% of professional reviewers rate it positively, along with 96% of audiences. Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune calls it “The most well-loved of all Christmas movies.” Stephen Cole of CBC News wrote, “As warm and comforting as a scarf knit by Grandma.”
How many of Stewart’s other films are seen every year, year after year, for decades, and will be for decades to come? None. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is, by that measure, his masterpiece.