Updated: Jan 17
Dr. RB McFee
From It’s A Wonderful Life RKO Pictures
No surprise this discussion is based on the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” directed by Frank Capra, and starring Jimmy Stewart.
Truth be told, I had never seen it until about 8 years ago after my friends and I performed in an annual “Lantern Light Christmas” production at Mystic Seaport. And as anyone who has ever been on stage, especially after a really good interaction with the audience can attest, you are wired up hours after and full of energy.
Taking that energy home, with a mug of hot chocolate, I couldn’t sleep. So I went to the TV to see what was on. At the time, my cable package provided about 150 channels, give or take. And as I scrolled down the menu guide there it was “It’s a Wonderful Life”…and as I continued searching, all I saw was “It’s a Wonderful Life” in black and white (about 20 stations), “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in color, Spanish, French, hieroglyphics, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Chinese, and other languages, too! There were even cartoon, graphic novel, anime versions, and It’s a Wonderful Life with puppets, and, well you get the idea. In other words, the choice was watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or read a book!
All of a sudden I remembered a few weeks ago, my friends and fellow members of the production shared what their favorite Christmas movie was. What’s yours? Ever think why?
Since I spare no effort at intellectual, or spiritual pursuits, my choice was Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol. To my surprise, about a third of the company said their favorite was “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Having never seen it, I figured, why not. After all how bad can it be with Jimmy Stewart in it. After all, he pulled off “Harvey!” Besides the TV Elves weren’t giving me much choice.
OK before we get any further, here’s a point of full disclosure…. After watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the first time I swore the next time I viewed it would be as a hostage. It was for me, the Christmas equivalent of “Gone with the Wind” (the Civil War took less time than that movie)…you would have to kidnap me and tie me to the chair before I ever watch either movie again!
For starters, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about as much of an uplifting Christmas ho ho ho frolicking, or inspiring or fun film as a medical video watching a recreation of 1770’s amputations without anesthesia. Actually I preferred the medical video.
That was until a month or so ago, when I came across a discussion on the back story of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the effect it had on Jimmy Stewart, and arguably the nation. Maybe, us, too? I started to replay the film in my mind. All of a sudden, I got it, too!
“It’s a Wonderful Life” was filmed in 1946. A global war had just ended, and many of America’s servicemen, and women, were returning home, or had just come home. Not only was the country healing from war, but from the Great Depression as well. These were the unspoken healing years. It was a time when industries that had converted to the war effort were resuming peace time commercial applications. Women in the workforce were finding new roles in society. Lots of questions and challenges yet to be solved.
But what was never discussed in the ‘40s and ‘50s the way it is today, the horrors of war – what we now refer to as PTSD – were manifest in homes across the planet.
Returning combat veterans who had seen too much, done things called upon them that most humans have no instinct or appetite for – killing – who were exhausted mentally, physically and spiritually, were reentering a society that had no real idea what it was like to spend a blizzard in a self dug hole, or Christmases dodging bombs and bullets, or seeing the half charred remains of buddies who didn’t survive a direct hit on their tanks, or, well you get the idea. And the loved ones who were seeing their GI Joe and Jane after a four year war were not prepared for the mental and spiritual wounds of war in returning family members and friends.
Jimmy Stewart was one such combat veteran. He was a bomber pilot, and squadron commander who flew many missions over Europe. The intensity and death, responsibility, and weight of his years dodging flak, and enemy fighter planes, trying to protect his team, and losing friends, the intimate knowledge of killing, and death nearly broke him. In fact before the war ended he was grounded for what we now refer to as PTSD.
When he returned home, Hollywood had gone on without him. He was asked “If you’re going to make a picture now, what do you want to make? Jimmy Stewart answered “A comedy. I have to make a comedy. The world has seen too much trauma and horror and suffering.” *
One producer wanted to make a movie about Stewart’s war time heroics. Stewart wanted nothing to do with it.
Then “It’s a Wonderful Life” came along.
When you see the scenes Stewart seems lost, enraged, disheveled, the stranger at the Christmas tree who once was the gentle father, son, brother, uncle, and now someone barely recognizable, it wasn’t just Jimmy Stewart speaking for George Bailey, but for households all across the nation, and one could argue the world, too.
The audience saw something from their favorite leading man in a film that reflected what they were seeing.
Consider George Bailey before he decides to take the plunge. “Disheveled and desperate, he offers up a Hail-Mary prayer to a God he’s not sure is listening. I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope.” **
Years later Jimmy Stewart admitted those were real not prop assisted tears.
Perhaps his own brokenness of spirit is why Stewart’s performance is so powerful and believable on screen, and palpable to audiences.
Bailey wrestles with all the dark feelings we fellow mere mortals do. Christmas merely amplified the pain at a time when it should have lessened it – for him and us.
Perhaps that is why “It’s a Wonderful Life” resonates so much with a broad audience, and has done so for nearly seventy five years – at one time or another we all are broken in spirit. Maybe we have seen too much in a conflict zone, or lost too many loved ones, have experienced too many illnesses and disappointments, the list that cause darkness in our lives is a long one.
But as we see, Christmas is indeed a time of and for miracles. Bailey gets an angel. The world got Jesus.
How about us?
The message of Christmas, when we surrender our burdens to the manger, to the Cross, to the Light of the World – Immanuel, God with us, we can become transformed from a soul only seeing shadows, to one that celebrates “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Lest we forget, Jesus lived among, and as us. He was born, not beamed down from Heaven. He had to experience infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, with all the joys and challenges life throws at us. At some point He knew personal sadness, not just as God among His creation, seeing the vast suffering, but feeling it as any of us would. Consider at some point Joseph died. Undoubtedly Jesus wanted to change that outcome on at least a human level.
There was war and suffering in Israel. As God incarnate, Jesus would know and see this as Creator, and as part of that Creation.
No, Jesus was not immune to what we feel, and experience – insult, injury, love, joy, laughter and tears. But then isn’t that the point of how God entered the world, our world?
None of us can pray the words “God you don’t understand what I’m going through,” without Him smiling and thinking “beloved, you don’t know what I went through on the Cross, but I know what you are feeling – been there, done that.”
God being incapable of lying, or misleading us, made a promise that Jesus is the Light in the darkness. He came in mortal form so we could relate to Him, and He could relate to us.
Wow, if that’s not an amazing Christmas gift, what is?
Life isn’t without problems. Jesus reminded us of that in Scripture. But He promised us His Peace, now and forever. And it started with Christmas.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” reminds us of the healing and transformative power of Christmas, and the God who loves us so much that His Son sat in our midst, enjoying, and consoling those with whom He shared flesh and blood, dreams and sorrows, loved ones and lost ones.
Like Jimmy Stewart who started the healing process on a movie set, creating a film that eventually became a cherished Christmas inspiration, one wonders, can we, too, start the healing process this Christmas.
We are never too disheveled, angry, sad, sick, remote or broken that the Power and Presence of Jesus, God incarnate, and the indwelling Holy Spirit Who breathed life into Christ, and us, can’t transform.
Healing, redemption, and transformation take time. But with Christ we have a new beginning. Let’s travel the road to transformation in Jesus together this Christmas and beyond…..
And may the joy and power of this Christmas season bring us to feel “It’s a Wonderful Life” too!
*From a story published in the Chicago Tribune https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/ct-jimmy-stewart-book-mov-1202-20161201-column.html