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THE LAST WORD: Jimmy Stewart’s role in this Christmas film might surprise you

Kerry Hubartt

On Christmas evening, some of my family gathered around the TV to watch one of my favorite actors, Jimmy Stewart, in a charming Christmas movie.

And it wasn’t “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Many have likely never heard of “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.” I read about the film in an essay on foxnews.com written by Paul Batura, vice president of communications for Focus on the Family, who said he found the movie “touching.”

I searched for it on YouTube, and we watched a crystal clear rendition of the 1980, 25-minute-long film for free.

That’s quite a jump from the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which runs two hours and 15 minutes.

Stewart, born in 1908 in Indiana, Pa., had quite a run in the theater and early films in the 1930s before joining the U.S. Army in 1941, where he flew combat missions as a pilot in World War II. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was his first film after returning from the war a real-life hero.

He was cast as George Bailey, an idealistic young man (he was 38 at the time) with big dreams of doing great things somewhere other than the small town of Bedford Falls in which he grew up. And we all know how he lived with integrity and love for his fellow man despite never realizing his dreams and eventually facing what he thought was a hopeless situation on Christmas Eve.

That movie is built around George’s encounter with God through a prayer of desperation and God’s sending of an angel to prevent him from taking his own life by jumping off a bridge.

It was a role that has been a mainstay in the Christmas experience for millions of Americans ever since.

Fast forward 34 years to 1980, and Jimmy Stewart is now a man of 72 in the role of Willy Krueger, a lonely, widowed janitor at an old apartment building where he lives in a basement flat with his cat George.

It was a made-for-TV movie distributed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In fact, in the film, Stewart appears with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Batura wrote that Stewart, who was Presbyterian, once said he took the role in the Mormon-produced film because it “tells the real, true reason that Christmas is celebrated – the birth of Jesus Christ.”

The film takes place on a cold Christmas Eve during which he frequently lapses into daydreams of imagination about being a man of culture and means, watching an ice dance at Temple Square, taking a sleigh ride, and eliciting an ovation from a huge crowd after conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It’s a heartwarming story of how the old man’s Christmas is brightened by a young child among a group of carolers who come to his apartment.

The short film was broadcast on NBC on Dec. 21, 1980, one of Stewart’s last films. It was broadcast in the U.S. and Canada during the Christmas season, and was rebroadcast during the 1981 Christmas season.

And while I couldn’t remember having seen the film before, I do remember somewhere along the line having watched the key scene, in which the old man lapses into another fantasy where he wanders into a cave, which is the stable in which the baby Jesus lies in a manger, surrounded by Mary, Joseph other onlookers and animals.

Like Batura, I found the scene paralleled George Bailey’s experience with God in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

In this scene, however, as Batura describes it, Willy “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.’ ”

Willy speaks to the baby in the scene in an emotional tribute:

“As long as I can remember you’ve been right by my side,” Willy 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.”

Batura wrote, “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 [the film] was close to my heart.'”

The way he poured himself out in addressing the baby Jesus in his role as Willy Krueger seemed to come from his heart as much as the tears he shed in Martini’s Bar in the 1946 classic. I know I was moved.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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