A Wonderful Life

In 1941 Jimmy Stewart received a phone call from his dad—a hardware-store owner in Indiana, Pennsylvania. "I heard you won some kind of an award," his father said, "Is it a plaque or something? Bring it home and we can put it in the store window." The "award" was Stewart’s Academy Award for Best Actor. It sat in the window of his father’s hardware store for the next 25 years. The worldwide grief over Stewart’s death last week underscores the assertion by Washington Post critic Paul Hendrickson that America’s love of Jimmy Stewart "is of a different order of magnitude" than our attachment to any other actor. That attachment, I would argue, is a moral one. As Hendrickson noted, Stewart’s appeal was "something beyond acting, something beyond cinema. [It was] something that got into the core of our being." Jimmy Stewart, Hendrickson concluded, "was about enduring American values. He was about decency." This decency is on display in two of Stewart’s greatest films, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr. Smith, which tells the story of a lone senator’s fight against corruption, is idealistic. It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, is dark and sometimes depressing, although the film has an uplifting ending. But these films share a common moral message: The importance of doing the right thing regardless of the cost. Thus we see Senator Smith pressing on despite the risk of political ruin, and George Bailey’s obedience to duty costs him his lifelong dreams. But both films make it clear that the only treasure worth having is a clear conscience. This sense of honor and decency was evident in Stewart’s off-screen life as well. In 1941, at the height of his popularity, Stewart voluntarily took a 99.9 percent pay cut to join the army. Stewart volunteered for the most hazardous duty possible—flying bombing missions over Nazi Germany. He completed 25 combat missions and came home from World War II a full colonel and decorated war hero. While many of Stewart’s contemporaries practiced serial monogamy, Stewart himself remained married to the same woman for 45 years. And while many of the sons of the rich and famous avoided the draft, Stewart’s own son died in Vietnam. It was because of qualities like these that Americans so loved this lifelong, devout Presbyterian from Indiana, Pennsylvania. As Hendrickson writes, "Who will ever sit around at parties 40 years from now doing impressions of Harrison Ford, or Mel Gibson, or even Robert Redford?" The odds are good they’ll still be doing impressions of Stewart. And that’s why our nation is in mourning. We’re unlikely to see the likes of Jimmy Stewart again. Stewart’s passing marks the passing of an era—not just in filmmaking, but in our country as well. Decency-the commitment to doing the right thing regardless of personal cost—seems a quaint notion in post-Christian America. Making a film celebrating something as bland as this virtue is unthinkable in today’s Hollywood. Why don’t you help your own kids get a head start on those Jimmy Stewart impersonations by renting a couple of his films? I can think of no better way to celebrate the decency embodied by Stewart-a man who demonstrated what it means to live a wonderful Christian life.


Chuck Colson


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