James Stewart's daughter, Kelly Stewart Harcourt, loves watching her father every year at the holidays on the silver screen as George Bailey in the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The actor puts on an unforgettable performance as Bailey, a frustrated businessman on the brink of suicide, visited by an angel named Clarence, played by Henry Travers, who shows him what life would be like for those close to him if he never existed.
"My father often said his favorite movie was It’s a Wonderful Life," Stewart Harcourt, 69, told Closer Weekly this month ahead of the Christmas season her father's most famous movie has become a classic part of. She continued that her father, who died in 1997 at the age of 89, always went the extra mile to make their family's Christmas extra special, even if it meant drawing on his skills as a performer.
"Once my dad dressed as Santa Claus and came into our bedroom — my sister and I were astounded," she recalled of a 1958 Christmas trip to Hawaii. While the girls eventually figured out it was their father in costume, Stewart never broke character. "I slapped him on the back and nudged him, but he just carried on as Santa."
Stewart was one of Hollywood's leading men during his career, making a name for himself in hits like Rear Window, Vertigo and Harvey. When World War II broke out, Stewart was quick to enlist. His experiences in the war would make his acting and internal life a far more serious thing upon his return, Robert Matzen, author of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, told Closer. "He had seen dark things and internalized some rage," the author shared. "After he returned, he sought more challenging roles. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George reaches a breaking point, has that flash of temper and destroys the models in his living room. I don’t think that scene would have been possible for Jimmy before the war."
Troubled by nightmares after his experience at war, Stewart's daughter explained he drew comfort from his faith as he sought healing for himself, which Stewart Harcourt said drew him to It's a Wonderful Life's melancholy, juxtaposed with its message of love and community. "When he needed strength, help and comfort, he would pray and go to church," she explained of his attraction to the film.