Although it incurred a $525,000 loss at the box office in 1946 and drew the ire of the FBI, who charged producers of the script, “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters,” the popularity of the classic continues unabated.
Stewart appeared in more than 92 films and received numerous honors and nominations, including an Academy Award for “The Philadelphia Story.” But cast as George Bailey, an idealistic small-town young man with big dreams that are tragically scuttled, leaving him hopeless one Christmas Eve, the Indiana, Pa., native found the role of a lifetime.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” was the first film Stewart made upon his return from flying combat missions in World War II, a chapter in his life he rarely discussed but a heroic and highly decorated one of great significance. He officially retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1968 as a brigadier general.
But if Stewart’s first post-WWII film about Christmas was his most notable and well-known, one of his last in 1980 is arguably his most obscure – but it is also both poignant and profound. You can watch it online for free.
Titled, “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas,” the short film stars the then 72-year-old actor as a lonely, elderly janitor of an old apartment building. Living in a dark and dingy basement, widowed Willie Krueger’s only companion is a cat named George and the tenants who bang on the pipes to get his attention and chide him to stoke the furnace for more heat.
The made-for-television movie was distributed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Although not Mormon (he was Presbyterian), Stewart once said he accepted the role because it “tells the real, true reason that Christmas is celebrated – the birth of Jesus Christ.” I'm not Mormon either – I'm an evangelical Christian – but I find the movie touching.
At the time of the film’s release, the veteran actor, who died in 1997 at the age of 89, said, “I’ve always looked to Jesus Christ for guidance and help, and I always thank him for the blessings that come my way. So it was close to my heart.”
Only the most jaded and hard-hearted person can watch Mr. Krueger and not feel empathy for the lonely and isolated people that surround us. Forty years later, loneliness is still a modern-day plague with no easy solution, especially as we live longer and too many families are either unable or unwilling to care for aging loved ones.
The impact of this epidemic is steep. Researchers suggest the physical toll that loneliness and isolation have on a person is the equivalent of the damage done by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
But Jimmy Stewart as the downtrodden Mr. Krueger ultimately doesn’t pull or leave you down. Like in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the charm of the movie is found in its heartfelt and happy conclusion, which I won’t spoil for you.
The turning point of “Mr. Kruger’s Christmas” doesn’t come in a bar but rather a fantastical scene with the old man at the baby Jesus’ crèche.
Yet, the most powerful moment of the short film for me is in many ways a mirror of what happened inside Martini’s Bar in the 1946 classic. As you’ll recall, George Bailey is at his wit’s end and, contemplating suicide, begins praying in earnest as he sips his drink. Stewart would later say he was so engrossed in the emotion of the moment that the tears and quivering voice came naturally.
The turning point of “Mr. Kruger’s Christmas” doesn’t come in a bar but rather a fantastical scene with the old man at the baby Jesus’ crèche. Surrounded by Mary, Joseph and the animals, Stewart pours his heart out to the newborn child who would one day grow up to elicit the “thrill of hope” as a “weary world rejoices.”
“As long as I can remember you’ve been right by my side,” he says. “I’ve always been able to count on you when I’ve felt dark inside. Even when I didn’t feel good about myself, I knew that you cared for me, and that made me feel better. I love you. You’ve been my closest friend, and that means that I can hold my head high wherever I go.”
Of course, Jesus didn’t come to earth to boost our self-esteem. He came to save us from our own helplessness and sinfulness. But He is, in fact, my greatest friend, too, who is there, as the old hymn goes, for “All [my] sins and griefs to bear.”
Whether George Bailey or Willie Krueger, Jimmy Stewart’s endearing characters live on, reminding us that even a tough and sometimes lonely life can still be wonderful, especially at Christmas.