In the weeks since the election of Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln has been center stage. We're being told that President-elect Obama is fashioning his cabinet in the manner of his illustrious predecessor. Well, why not? Lincoln has always been a figure of enormous influence. Even the fictional George Bailey owes his existence to America's sixteenth president. It happened like this.
Philip Van Doren Stern was a successful author whose books often focused on the American Civil War. In 1940 he edited the once-definitive Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln. Two years prior to that, while shaving on the morning of Lincoln's birthday in 1938, Van Doren Stern began to imagine how the world would have been different had Lincoln never lived. By extension, a story idea came to him in which an ordinary man named George Pratt wished he never had been born, then was allowed to see how different the world would have been without his presence.
After he finished shaving, Van Doren Stern promptly wrote a two-page outline. But he didn't complete the story, which he titled "The Greatest Gift," for five years. When no magazine would publish it, in 1943 he privately printed 200 copies in pamphlet form and sent them out instead of Christmas cards. The story's originality was not lost on the author's Hollywood agent, who soon sold it to the RKO Radio film studio. RKO bought it for Cary Grant, who flirted with the idea of starring in a film version. That, of course, did not happen, and in 1946 Frank Capra obtained the rights. As "The Greatest Gift" was adapted into It's a Wonderful Life, George's last name was changed from Pratt to Bailey.
Enter Jimmy Stewart, just back from World War II, where, as a commanding officer in the Army Air Corps' 445th Bomb Group, he had flown in many precarious air raids over Germany that resulted in casualty rates as high as 75 percent. Stewart returned home a changed man. Prior to the war, he personified the dewy-eyed innocent (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). By war's end (as he later acknowledged) he was on intimate terms with fear. When in November 1945 he returned to acting by signing to star in It's a Wonderful Life, a clause was added to Stewart's contract forbidding any publicity that would capitalize on or exploit his stellar war record. Nevertheless, the war had a profound effect on Stewart's portrayal of George Bailey.
I once spent an afternoon with the iconic actor. Mindful that Stewart believed film performances were made up of moments — "little pieces of time," as he put it, "a look, a reaction, the way you said something" — as we sat in the den of his Beverly Hills home I didn't ask him which was his favorite movie but rather, out of his 90-plus films, what moment was he proudest of? He singled out George Bailey's prayer at Martini's Bar, even reciting the dialogue (or a close variation): "Oh God, if you're up there...."
With its message of faith in the value of every individual, It's a Wonderful Life has come to be regarded as the ultimate Christmas movie. I have never heard it described as an outgrowth of World War II. But surely Stewart could not have played that scene as he did before he went to war. Those words are spoken by a man who learned how to pray while dropping bombs from airplanes in a squadron that endured casualty rates of up to 75 percent.