Jimmy Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Psalm 91

This beloved Christmas classic celebrating its 70th anniversary brings to light a few connections likely not realized about Stewart and George Bailey.

(photo: RKO Radio Pictures, via Wikimedia Commons)

In March several years ago, I heard from Jimmy Stewart. Sorting distractedly through the usual mail, I was surprised by the return address on a greeting-card sized envelope. It was quite modest, yet it stood out like a six-foot rabbit: “James Stewart, Beverly Hills, CA.”

Although never one to write a celebrity, many weeks earlier I had made this one exception because, in a way, Jimmy Stewart was Everyman. Even playing a senator, heroic aviator, or cowboy, he was the quintessential "regular guy," plain and simple, without airs. He was the guy trying to solve his dilemma and overcome conflicts without losing integrity or sacrificing principles.

Two things prompted my letter. First, years ago I had come across an incident that made its way into his biographies. It happened when Stewart was leaving for Air Force duty as a B-24 bomber pilot during World War II. 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.

You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day (v.5)...though a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right side, near you it shall not come (v.7)...For to his angels he has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways (v.11). Upon their hand they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone (v.12)...Because he clings to me, I will deliver him; I will set him on high because he acknowledges my name (v.14).

We can only guess how many times he meditated on its verses during his time in the war.

I believed that surely this little anecdote sent many of us to our Bibles to re-discover Psalm 91 and again acquaint ourselves with this uplifting Psalm and prayer of God's protection. I wanted to tell Stewart how much this indirect reminder meant to us.

Then, I had just finished watching Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. Stewart made no secret that in a career spanning over 50 years this was his favorite film and George Bailey was his favorite role. I had stopped counting somewhere after my one hundredth viewing since it was part of a Catholic school film course I taught at the time. But no matter how many times I'd seen this film, the story remained ever fresh, poignant, and remarkably uplifting. Even the teenage audiences were always moved by it too. So it was only natural to thank Jimmy Stewart.

No wonder that the beloved story came to be the "American Christmas Carol." Only in this version, the focus is on someone a bit like Bob Cratchit — better known as George Bailey, a heroic figure who doesn't realize he is one until God's angel with the unlikely name of Clarence Oddbody (Angel, second-class) makes it clear George’s simple, ordinary life really disguised an extraordinary one.

Now that Stewart was George Bailey, the angels who watched over him during his harrowing flying missions a few years earlier were still on the job. Only this time one of the enemies was George himself.

George was frustrated over his unrealized youthful goals which he thought would have made a world of difference. What appeared to him and a few others as commonplace and routine was just the opposite. Then Angel Clarence gives him heavenly help at the critical moment.

The connection becomes unmistakable between George Bailey and Jesus' explanation of the last judgement in Matthew 25. We can picture George someday surely standing there among the sheep asking Jesus, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we welcome you away from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were ill or in prison?"

And the answer George would get hear: "I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers" — the people in Bedford Falls like Ernie the cabdriver and Burt the cop who came to the Bailey Savings and Loan; the immigrant families over whose heads you put a roof; the misguided like Violet to whom you gave a helping hand without thought of repayment; bumblers like Uncle Billy who you treated with patience and love; those ill like Zuzu who you cheered and uplifted; those whose lives you saved like Old Man Gower and you kid brother Harry; and the Bailey family that you sacrificed for — "you did it for me."

But before that George is blessed. Clarence the angel shows him what the town would be like and how others would have suffered if he'd gotten his wish and were never born. Psalm 91 was taking over — “For to his angels he has given command over you, that they guard you in all your ways. Upon their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

That’s not all.

Decades later, Stewart recalled the moment eventually leading to the revelation. In that scene, George believes his life is a shambles, and he's on the point of despair. Yet deep inside him there's a spark of insistent hope.

Stewart explained that he followed the script, pleading, “God...God...dear Father in heaven...I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way.” And as he said this, Stewart said he "felt the loneliness of people who had nowhere to turn," and his "eyes filled with tears."

“I broke down sobbing,” he said. “This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer, the realization that our Father in Heaven is there to help the hopeless, had reduced me to tears.”

The spontaneity stayed. Director Frank Capra worked hard to transform the unscripted, unrepeatable, heartfelt honesty into a telling close-up of that moment in the story.

Years later it also brought to mind how Psalm 91 ends: “He shall call upon me and I will answer him, I will be with him in distress; I will deliver him and glorify him; with length of days I will gratify him and will show him my salvation.”

Capra, the Norman Rockwell of movies, explained in detail what he had wanted to accomplish in It's a Wonderful Life. One major goal was “to show...that each man's life touches so many other lives.” Though in his isolation and desolation George Bailey didn't know it, that's exactly why the townspeople were at the very same moment praying for him.

It also reflected Capra's major ideas and intentions in making movies.

“I will show the overcoming of doubts, the courageous renewal of faith,” he wrote in a book, “...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 I love them, and that peace and salvation become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.”

The prayers of the Bedford Falls townspeople that Christmas Eve were answered. George gets the rare gift of seeing that his supposedly commonplace, routine life has truly been a wonderful life — a life that's tremendously helped make others' everyday, ordinary lives shine as worthwhile and wonderful too.

That's why Jimmy Stewart just had to be thanked for his gifts to us, from Psalm 91 to that honest end-of-the-rope scene, and for really becoming George Bailey, “the richest man in town,” to inspire those of us living miles and years beyond Bedford Falls.

George promises his future wife the moon: “Just say the word, and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down...I'll give you the moon, Mary.” At that moment Jimmy actually fulfilled that promise for all of us.

Now, here was that unexpected envelope in my hands, from Bedford Falls' “richest man in town.” I opened it to find a personal thanks on private stationery, signed James Stewart.

The note was very simple and sincere, and in those few words, genuine and real, exactly what George Bailey would have written.

And if George's wonderful life included a 75th birthday party as Stewart's did in his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania, the “richest man in town” would repeat what Jimmy said at that birthday party: “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, both men remind us, is truly the way to a wonderful life.