“Wonderful Life” maxims

Posted on December 25, 2009. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

The snowy lawns and eves gave my sister’s neighborhood in Michigan a distinct Bedford Falls effect as I watched Frank Capra’s classic masterpiece.

It’s been part of the holiday as long as I can remember. Indeed, I can recall as a teen-ager the days when it was shown mainly on New Year’s Eve, as “The Late Movie” feature on the local CBS network affiliate out of Memphis.

It was already an “old movie” back then, having been released in 1946 in traditional black-and-white. Perhaps, like ole mossback George himself, it was born old.

Although it’s overflowing with great character actors, memorable lines and a truly heart-tugging ending, at its core the film remains a study in contrast between the Henry Potters and George Baileys of the world, between selfish greed and self-sacrifice and their respective effects on the local communities where most of us do our working and paying and living and dying.

If ever there was a ready-made promotional film for a small state full of small towns like Arkansas, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is it. It comes complete with great lessons about friendship, family, love and war (although Mrs. Bailey wouldn’t know anything about the latter) and how easy it is to discount some of the less flashy assets of life’s ledger.

The state could show it in public schools, where it might curb the itch of local high school scholars-the smartest of the crowd, mind you-to shake the dust of little Arkansas towns off their feet. It’d be a worthwhile investment, too, for the state to rent out a movie theater in every community during the holidays and show it at no charge. No, that’s not George’s trick ear; the state wastes millions every year on far less worthy projects.

Besides, there are hundreds of old retro theater screens that, just like the old Bedford Falls tool and machinery works, could be gotten for a song.

The more of the state’s 2.7 million inhabitants who can be exposed to the film and its messages, the better. There are simply so many maxims in its 130 minutes that all viewers of every age can come away with something insightful, positive and valuable.

For youngsters, there’s the scene in which young George witnesses his employer, Old Man Gower, distractedly mis-fill a prescription with poison after receiving a telegram announcing his soldier son’s death. Unsure of what to do after being ordered to deliver the tablets, George eventually suffers punishment before Gower realizes his error-and George’s integrity.

Young adults smitten with hankerings to “do something big and important” can glean much from Peter Bailey’s conversation with an impatient George, who feels like he’ll go crazy if he stays cooped up at the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan’s shabby little office.

“You know, George,” his father says softly, “I feel that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, andwe’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.”

Smaller communities need a tight social fabric to be vibrant, which is a recurring challenge for rural areas battling economic setbacks.

The movie captures a critical moment of truth during a Depression era run on the bank in Bedford Falls. In a capitalist exploitation of the situation, Henry Potter saves the bank-most say stole it-and offers to redeem B&L shares for 50 cents on the dollar.

Today it’s fashionable to seek a government bailout or buyout or both, but George confronts the crisis personally. With his panicked customers demanding withdrawals, he eloquently explains his business and their connection with one another through it.

“You’re thinking of this place all wrong, as if I had the money back in a safe,” he tells a customer. “The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house, right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can. “Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?”

Finally, facing bankruptcy and scandal and prison over a mistake, a suicidal George gets a glimpse of his little world without him. He then receives the blessing of local community, and of thinking of others first, when everybody pitches in to avert his financial collapse.

In a time when Washington, D.C., and Wall Street leaders dismiss “wonderful life” and “small town” as mutually exclusive terms, and celebrity role models are falling like Bedford Falls snowflakes, it’d be great to treat the state population to George Bailey on the big screen, yelling, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!”

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2 Responses to ““Wonderful Life” maxims”

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That CBS affiliate wasn’t “out of” Memphis. It was in Memphis.

Yes, I think I got a little clumsy in my grammar there. Those were broadcast days, not cable, and I was thinking and writing in the nomenclature of the time, in which a station was broadcast “out of” its area of origination. Thanks for the correction!


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