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Jimmy Stewart Was A WWII Veteran And His PTSD Affected The Filming Of 'It's A Wonderful Life'

Entertainment | November 11, 2019

3/24/1941-San Pedro, CA: James Stewart's costume for this next production is from a new costume department--the U.S. Army. Yes, Jimmy's passed his physical and he's in the Army now. The Nations number one draftee had to eat himself into a new role. He was

In World War II, Jimmy Stewart answered the same patriotic call as many men and joined the military. Even though Stewart was a working actor at the time, he felt the call to duty like anyone else and made it his mission to serve America in its time of need. For Stewart it wasn’t just about gaining the accolades and attaboys, he genuinely wanted to serve his country, but that came at a price. By the end of World War II he was suffering from PTSD, something that affected him deeply while filming It’s A Wonderful Life

Jimmy Stewart Was Rejected From The Military On His First Go Around

source: military times

When Stewart tried to join the military in 1940 he was rejected because he was five pounds beneath the required weight for his height. He was certain that this wouldn’t happen to him again so he sought out the help of Don Loomis, a trainer who was famous for getting stars to their preferred weight. Once Stewart put on the five pounds he convinced the military to retest him and he was allowed in the military. After completing training he quickly advanced through the ranks and became a second lieutenant in January of 1942. That's not bad for someone who was underweight just a few years before. 

The Military Really Didn't Want To Put Stewart In Harm's Way

source: reddit

Even after Stewart fought his way into the military he wasn’t given the real military experience that he was hungry for. He expected to be a pilot, after all he had more than 400 flight hours, instead he was assigned to train pilots and star in promotional videos in the safety of the United States. After a series of appeals to his commanding officer he managed to be placed in a unit overseas, and in 1943 he was fighting with the 703rd Bombardment Squadron.

Stewart continued to rise through the ranks while in the 703rd. He began as the first officer before working his way up from Captain to Major while performing missions over Germany. After flying several missions over Nazi occupied Europe he was promoted to chief of staff of the 2nd Combat Bombardment wing of the Eighth Air Force and finally to colonel. He was one of the fastest rising soldiers in the US military. 

He Finished His Military Career As A Two Star General

source: reddit

Rising through the ranks in the military isn’t an easy task, which makes it all the more astounding that Jimmy Stewart managed to tear through the ranks until his official retirement on May 31, 1968. In the interim between World War II and Vietnam he appeared in multiple movies while continuing to serve as he Reserve commander of Dobbins Air Reserve Base. In 1959 he became a brigadier general, and after continuing to fulfill his duty to the Air Force Reserve in the Vietnam war he was promoted to Major General, and given two stars to place on his lapel.

Aside from being promoted to a two star general throughout his time in the military, Stewart received a slew of medals and awards while serving in World War II including two flying crosses, a French Croix de Guerre with Palm, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

He Was Suffering From PTSD By The End Of World War II

source: reddit

By the end of World War II Stewart wasn’t doing well. Men serving with him at the time said that he was suffering from battle fatigue, not in the sense that he was afraid of going into battle, but that he was worried about losing men while performing missions over Europe. This kind of “endless stress” is what grounded him for good towards the end of the war. Biographer Robert Matzen wrote:

The war had changed Jim down to the molecular level. He could never begin to articulate what those four-and-a-half years, including fifteen months in combat, had done to him. One thing he could do was express a bit of it on-screen.

The first film he signed on for following the war was It’s A Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra. Both Capra and Stewart had been away from Hollywood for five years and in that time their stars were eclipsed by new actors and directors, both facts meant that their Christmas movie about a suicidal man was a huge gamble. 

The Set Of 'It’s A Wonderful Life' Was Tense

source: RKO Radio Pictures

Both Stewart and director Frank Capra were dealing with their own personal demons while they were filming It’s A Wonderful Life, but Stewart was certain that he didn’t know how to act anymore. Biographer Robert Matzen writes:

If you watch that performance by Stewart, there was a lot of rage in it and it's an on-the-edge performance because that's what those guys were feeling — they were scared that this wasn't going to work. That the audience wasn't going to buy it. Donna Reed (playing Stewart's wife in the film) is one of the eyewitnesses who said, ‘This was not a happy set.’ These guys were very tense. They would go off and huddle say, ‘Should we try this? Should we try that?’ And it proceeded that way for months.

Stewart's pain and stress is evident in every scene of the film, it's likely why the film is so affecting. 

The Film Underperformed But Stewart Won In The End

source: RKO Radio Pictures

In spite of the tense set, Stewart made it through It’s A Wonderful Life without losing his nerve. When the film was released it wasn’t a massive hit, but it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including a Best Actor nom for Stewart. It wasn’t the return to Hollywood that Stewart wanted, but he made it through the fire and was stronger for it. Rather than run away from the camera he continued acting and became one of the most important actors of the 20th century. By 1990 the film was included in the United States Library of Congress’ National Film Registry after being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

People love It's A Wonderful Life. It hasn't just become a beloved movie, it's a major part of the holiday season. To know that Jimmy Stewart was suffering from intense emotional stress during the making of such a wonderful film is heartbreaking, hopefully he was able to find the same joy in life fans of the film found in his work. 

Tags: Jimmy Stewart | Rare Facts And Stories About History | US Military | World War II

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.