Note: This is the message I ‘shared’ on the occasion of the home-going of my dear friend Pastor Larry Johnson
My name is Jim Jenkins and I was supposed to be conducting this service today. Due to Ice storms in Oregon where I live and glitches in airline reservations I am not able to be there today. I’ve asked his daughter Melissa to read this. Before she begins, she will say,”Please turn to the person next to you and say ‘Praise God…I’ve heard Jim preach before…and he goes on forever…even longer than Larry!’”
As I thought on what I may say on this occasion, the movie It’s a Wonderful Life came to mind
What follows is the back story you may not have known about the star, Jimmy Stewart and the Director Frank Capra.
The 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life is now a Christmas classic… It was the first movie actor James Stewart made when he returned home after serving as a pilot in World War II. His military service was an experience that left him adrift and not without psychological fallout.
Author Robert Matzen writes about this postwar period in the actor’s career in the new nonfiction book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, and said that during the course of his research, he spoke with “the guys that flew with him, who told me about the fact that he went flak-happy on a couple of occasions – which means, shell shock, battle fatigue, what we now know as PTSD. He wasn’t afraid of bombs or bullets. He was afraid of making a mistake and causing someone to die. That was his endless stress, and that’s what ended up grounding him.”
Which is to say that much of movie character George Bailey’s angst was, to some extent, Stewart’s own. Before agreeing to do the film with director Frank Capra (recently back from the war himself), he considered quitting acting altogether.
It’s a Wonderful Life helped set him back on a path in Hollywood.
“The war had changed Jim down to the molecular level,” Matzen writes. “He could never begin to articulate what those four-and-a-half years, including 15 months in combat, had done to him. One thing he could do was express a bit of it on-screen.”
The following is an edited conversation with Matzen about Stewart and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Q: When did Stewart return stateside after the war?
A: He flew his final mission at the end of February 1945 and he was grounded because of his PTSD issues and then he came back at the end of August.
He returned to Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his parents lived and he’s home for a week or 10 days and realises, “I have to go back and face Hollywood. I’ve been away for five years, other people are taking my roles.” There’s a whole new generation of leading men that are younger or more vital, and he didn’t know where he fit anymore.
So he goes back to Hollywood and has no place to even live – he lives with Henry Fonda, who offers him a room. Fonda had just come back from the Pacific, and they both just sort of unwound and didn’t get any job offers. The only job offer Stewart had was, Louis B. Mayer, his old boss at MGM, said, “Let’s do The Jimmy Stewart Story – we can show you flying over Frankfurt, we can show you as a military hero.” And Stewart said no. He wouldn’t talk about it.
Q: Why wasn’t he getting job offers?
A: He came back looking like hell. There’s a before-and-after photo in the book that shows him in 1942 looking all youthful, and then in 1944 looking like hell. And now there were stars like Gregory Peck who were getting roles he might have gotten.
But it was only a couple of months until Capra called with this idea of It’s a Wonderful Life.
The back story here is that Stewart, very publicly, when he got back from the war was asked, “If you’re going to make a picture now, what do you want to make?” And he said, “A comedy, I have to make a comedy. The world has seen too much trauma and horror and suffering.”
So when Capra calls, Stewart gets his agent, Lew Wasserman, and they sit down with Capra, who tries to tell them the story, telling him about this role and how only Stewart can do it and it’s about a guy who wants to commit suicide. And Stewart’s like, “Well, wait a minute. That’s not what I want to do.”
Q: What was it like on set, since it sounds like Stewart was a reluctant participant?
A: Capra (Who had some severe PTSD of his own; having filmed the atrocities of the death camps and the horrors of war) had supreme confidence in this story. Stewart not so much, but he got on board with it. It was this sense of, “This is our last shot. Hollywood went on without us, we’re not getting any younger, and if this bombs after we’ve both been away for five years …”
They started shooting at the beginning of ’46 and it was a long shoot, it went into June. It was a very expensive, exhaustive production. It cost $3 million to make the thing.
Q: Was Stewart also on edge because he was still working through some of his PTSD?
A: Oh, absolutely. At this point, he had just started to eat again. He always had a high metabolism and always had trouble digesting food, and during the war it got worse and worse. He himself said that the only thing he subsisted on was peanut butter and ice cream. He just hadn’t been able keep food down. Now he’s starting to gain weight. But he’s still having nightmares and the shakes and the sweats. He’s got some hearing loss now, from the sound of the bombers on those seven-, eight-hour missions. So now you have an actor who, it’s not easy for him to hear his cues.
Q: He wasn’t of the Method actor generation, but it sounds like he was, intentionally or not, drawing from his life in that performance, especially those scenes that reveal how untethered or frantic George Bailey is feeling.
A: It was a personal and professional risk, playing that role. While he was making that film, he was questioning the superficiality of Hollywood and acting in general, and Lionel Barrymore (who plays Mr. Potter) said to him, “So, are you saying it’s more worthwhile to drop bombs on people than to entertain them?” And that really hit Stewart and was one of the things that turned him around and made him think, “OK, I do have an important role and there are things to be done.”
Another writer talked of Stewart and George Bailey and the inevitable similarities
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.
So, who was this Larry Johnson
- Known frequenter of donut shops
- Dachshunds fanatic
- The one who honored WWII veterans by opening their meetings with invocations he took weeks to prepare
- The one with such respect for Civil War history that he bought uniforms to re-enact Civil War battles
- And with brother Ron… Shot Stonewall Jackson (See Gods and Generals)
- The one holding the hands of parishioners as they died
- Who held babies and children as their parents were being were arrested in the middle of the night
- Who cried every time a police Officer was killed in the line of duty
- Who prepared to preach with a care and study worthy of Charles Spurgeon
- Who stared down Cancer and followed His Lord to the end
Who’s Larry Johnson?
It’s easy…sometime over this Christmas season lift a glass and give a toast…
“To Larry Johnson… The richest man in the world”