In a 1980 production of a low budget and not-so widely distributed film directed by Academy Award winning director Keith Merrill, Jimmy Stewart gives the holiday performance of a lifetime.
Unlike that other Christmas movie (It’s a Wonderful Life) starring Stewart nearly forty years before this one features neither the predictable sub-plots of good versus evil or the triumph over Christmas disasters.
Stewart plays Willie Krueger, a lonely old man enduring a Christmas alone in his basement apartment with his cat George. We never learn why he is alone and why there is no family about him, save only that he was once married but that his wife has passed on.
Willie Krueger wants nothing to do with being alone at Christmas. And while the world around him thinks it is better to just ignore him, Willie gets along just fine imagining people and warmth surrounding him whenever he gets to hearing favorite carols sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Music is Mr. Krueger’s escape. Each different Christmas carol conjures up a new image or memory in his mind. Through the music Mr. Krueger is loved, respected and accepted.
It paints almost a pathetic picture of this lonely character and causes one to wonder how many folks out there just might be on the verge of perceived madness because fantasy is their only refuge. Other characters in the film treat Mr. Krueger warily and these scenes of him lost in thoughts of better and more hopeful situations almost takes us there too.
But the mind of Willie Krueger is what makes this a warm and wonderful Christmas classic. Through the every-man quality that can only be conveyed through Jimmy Stewart, we know this character’s heart and mind. We know how he thinks.
We understand therefore when Willie contemplates the birth of Christ and in one powerful classic Christmas scene is taken to the manger. There time and worlds collide as Willie Krueger shows himself not as a tired old man prone to daydream and fantasy but actually a humble believer who recognizes the power and influence of Christ in his life. It is a surprising scene, unexpected and raw.
The story is told of the making of Mr. Krueger’s Christmas when director Kieth Merrill began to shoot the manger scene. The lovefest between Merrill and Stewart had blossomed as Jimmy Stewart claimed to have fulfilled a lifelong dream of directing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a spontaneous scene that was later added to the movie.
But the manger scene was planned and reminiscent of the “kissing scene” in It’s a Wonderful Life (the first such scene Stewart had after the long layoff of World War II).
Jimmy Stewart was hesitant, concerned and uptight about performing the scene. This classic American actor, with decades of experience behind him in what at the time appeared to be a role few would ever really see, just wanted to do the scene justice.
“I’ve only got one of these in me,” Stewart reported told Merrill. After the first take was shot Merrill turned to the cameraman to confirm he got the shot. “I don’t know,” the cameraman admitted, “I was crying.”
Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, like It’s a Wonderful Life before, has become a Christmas classic thanks to constant television exposure over the decades. Though not a full length feature film – it is only about a half hour long – the movie continues to get endless replay as the years pass.
Unlike It’s A Wonderful Life, which has remained timeless, Mr. Krueger’s Christmas has not aged well.
The fashions and influences of the 1980s almost gives the film a cringe worthy quality in spots. But in the end it isn’t the set, the costumes, the writing, the photography or the fashions that give this movie heart.
It is Jimmy Stewart – and a heartfelt scene of unforgettable Christmas spirit.