Since our family moved to Nevada, we have begun each Christmas season with the 1947 classic movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
(Spoiler alert: Ron tells the whole story here, so read at your own risk.)
It begins near the end with many folks praying for George Bailey. Then it recounts the history.
George is an intelligent and likable guy in the Roaring Twenties, dreaming of escaping the small town where he grew up.
But his dad dies, and George must stay to run the family building and loan business, which helps members realize their dreams of home ownership. He sends his brother Harry, whom he saved from drowning as a child, to college and football stardom. George hopes Harry will return to run the business while George goes to college. But Harry gets an irresistible job offer.
Things brighten when George rediscovers Mary, who has adored him since they were children. They wed, and with savings and wedding cash plan an extended honeymoon.
But a Depression-era run hits the business, with nearly all members trying to withdraw their savings simultaneously as villain Henry Potter calls its bank loan. In one of the best film scenes ever, Mary and George reflexively give up their honeymoon bundle to save the business.
George leaves work not knowing where they’ll stay. But Mary has already secured an abandoned old home that she long dreamed of fixing up. In perhaps the sweetest romantic scene ever, she provides music and dinner in a rain-soaked ersatz honeymoon suite she creates, saying, “Welcome home, Mr. Bailey.”
Raising four ideal children in that house, they never leave their small town but instead work hard and become pillars of the community, and they make the town blossom. During World War II, many perform all manner of public service, with Harry and others becoming decorated war heroes.
On Christmas Eve, George learns his unreliable uncle has misplaced a huge amount of cash that falls into the hands of Potter, who dishonestly keeps it. George fears he and the business will be ruined by the scandal and contemplates suicide.
The prayers rising from so many are answered as guardian angel Clarence is dispatched to save George. Clarence jumps into the river himself, causing George, reflexively, to save him. But Clarence is unable to rescue George from despair until George, saying he wishes he had never been born, triggers an idea.
Clarence shows him the world as it would have been without George Bailey: Potter taking over nearly the whole town, which descends into chaos and degradation, Mary and their families and friends leading sad and pathetic lives in Pottersville, etc.
This puts George’s problems in perspective, and in a flush of joy he runs home to find that the whole town, thankful for all he has done, has rallied to save his family and the business.
It’s an adult fairy tale with some lessons.
First, our community, too, has George and Mary Baileys, folks who improve life for all. We shouldn’t wait to save them from debacles we hope never happen, but instead revere and thank them regularly.
Second, we also have Henry and Henrietta Potters, and we need to stand up to them as George did.
Finally, we can each live every day as if Clarence will come this evening to show us the world as it would have been without us. We can strive every day to craft a wonderful life.
Ron Knecht is an economist, law school graduate and Nevada higher education regent.