When it comes to a Christmastime movie, a perennial favorite of most everyone is It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart made no secret it was his favorite film and favorite role as George Bailey.
The poignant slice of Americana is on the Vatican’s film list and No. 5 on the Register’s 100 best films list.
No matter how many times we watch it, the story remains fresh and remarkably uplifting. And with strong spiritual implications whose foundations were laid before filming began.
Before Stewart became George Bailey, his guardian angel surely watched over him during harrowing combat missions in World War II. When Stewart, a Presbyterian, was leaving for Air Force duty as a B-24 bomber pilot, his father slipped a copy of Psalm 91 into his uniform pocket, telling his son to pray it often — it would help him get through the war safely.
This simple incident made its way into Stewart biographies. We can only guess how many times he meditated on its verses: “You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day (verse 5) … Though a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, near you it shall not come (verse 7) ... For God commands the angels to guard you in all your ways (verse 11) … With their hands they shall support you, lest you strike your foot against a stone (verse 12) ... Whoever clings to me I will deliver; whoever knows my name I will set on high (v.14).”
Surely that little anecdote inspired many readers over the years to discover or reacquaint themselves with this uplifting Psalm of God’s protection.
Maybe Stewart whispered it to George Bailey. At a critical moment, Clarence Oddbody, AS2 (Angel, second-class) makes it clear George’s simple, ordinary life really disguised an extraordinary one. Can’t we picture George standing among the sheep, asking Jesus, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? … a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you … ill or in prison, and visit you? (Matthew 25:37-39)
And George would hear from Jesus: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine” — the people in Bedford Falls who came for help to Bailey Savings and Loan, like Ernie the cabdriver and Burt the cop and immigrant families; misguided people like Violet you helped without repayment; bumblers like Uncle Billy you treated with patience; those ill like Zuzu, whom you cheered; those whose lives you saved like Old Man Gower and your kid brother Harry; and the Bailey family you sacrificed for — “you did it for me.” (verse 40)
Director Frank Capra, a Catholic, explained that in It’s a Wonderful Life one major goal was “to show ... that each man’s life touches so many other lives.”
It also reflected his intentions in making movies.
“I will show … the courageous renewal of faith,” he wrote, “and I will remind the little man that his mission on earth is to advance spiritually. ... My films must let every man, woman and child know that God loves them … and that peace and salvation become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.”
George’s supposedly commonplace life tremendously helped make others’ everyday, ordinary lives shine as worthwhile and wonderful, too. He may not have known of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, but he was heading along her “Little Way.”
If George’s life included a 75th birthday party, as Stewart’s did in his hometown, the “richest man in town” would likely repeat what Jimmy said then: “This is where I made up my mind about certain things — about the importance of hard work and community spirit, the value of family, church, God.”
Living life simply, in the love of God and neighbor — truly it’s a wonderful life.