When America entered World War II in December 1941, numerous Hollywood actors, directors and other film crew members joined the US Army, Navy or Air Force. After the war had ended, these men, while perhaps physically okay, came back emotionally changed. Trying to return to a life of normalcy, it wasn't always easy for them to immediately find work again. James Stewart, for instance, struggled to resume his acting career in the months following the end of the war. "I don't know if I'm an unemployed actor or an unemployed pilot", he famously said. Stewart's contract with MGM was about to expire and the lack of film offers made him wonder if he should return to the screen at all. He even considered going back home to Indiana to run the family hardware store. But then Frank Capra, who had previously directed Stewart in You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), offered him the role of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Stewart accepted and the rest, as they say, is history.
|James Stewart remained in the U.S. Air Force Reserve after the war. In 1959, Stewart was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the highest-ranking actor in American military history.|
Stewart was certainly not the only one to feel concerned about his film career after returning from the war. In a letter to influential columnist Hedda Hopper dated 31 October 1945, Frank Capra talks about all the other ex-service men — apart from actors, there were writers, directors, cameramen etc. — who were worried about their careers after years of absence, "scared to death the public [had] forgotten them". Thanking Hopper for the "nice plug" she had given him and Jimmy Stewart, Capra asks her to think of the other men too. He emphasises how grateful they would be for "any crumbs of publicity thrown their way" and how "a word of encouragement" from her would surely boost their spirits.
31 October 1945
Mrs. Hedda Hopper,
6331 Hollywood Blvd.
Thanks very much for the nice plug you gave me, Jimmy Stewart and "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON."
We are still hoping to get Jimmy for my first picture*, but the deal has not been closed. He is still not quite free from the MGM contract, although it looks certain he will be shortly.
However I want to repeat again how appreciative these ex-service men are and will be for any crumbs of publicity thrown their way. Most of them are scared to death the public has forgotten them, and that their future is unsafe. They are amazed at how the public has lionized the 4-Fs. A good many of them feel that the public nausea for uniforms will react against them.
It's a pity if the careers of some of these public figures are to be jeopardized because they answered their country's call. Many of them did not have to go.
This applies not only to actors, but there are hundreds of writers, directors, cameramen and other technicians who are worried silly about their future after several years' absence. They are bewildered by the new faces, new producers, new directors, etc., some of whom have never heard of a good many who went into uniform.
A word of encouragement from you now and then would do wonders for the low spirits of many worried and confused guys.
-*It's a Wonderful Life was Capra's first picture for Liberty Films, an independent production company which was formed by Capra and fellow directors George Stevens and William Wyler. Following It's a Wonderful Life, the company would make just one more film, State of the Union (1948), also directed by Capra.
-Frank Capra did not enlist in the army but was commissioned by the US government to make documentaries about the war. Capra's Why We Fight documentaries are war information films, explaining to soldiers "why the hell they're in uniform". The series is considered a masterpiece in its genre and won an Academy Award.
|Frank Capra receives the Distinguished Service Medal from General George C. Marshall in 1945.|