It can be a wonderful life
December 27, 2013
Since our family moved to Nevada, we begin each Christmas season with the 1947 classic movie, "It's A Wonderful Life."
(Spoiler alert: Ron summarizes the whole film here, so read at your own risk.)
It begins near the story's end with many folks praying for George Bailey, who's in deep trouble even though he's completely blameless. Then it recounts the history.
George is an intelligent, energetic and likable guy in the Roaring Twenties, dreaming of escaping the small town where he grows up, traveling the world, going to college, and building skyscrapers, bridges, etc.
But his dad dies, and George must stay to run the family building and loan, which helps its members realize their dreams of home ownership. He sends his younger 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, again thwarting George's dreams.
Things brighten, though, when George rediscovers Mary, who has adored him since they were children. They wed, and with savings and wedding cash plan an extended honeymoon — some of the travel George wanted to do.
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But a Depression-era run hits the business, with nearly all its members trying to withdraw their savings simultaneously as the story's villain, Henry Potter, calls its bank loan. In one of the best film scenes ever, Mary and George reflexively — instinctively concerned for others — contribute their honeymoon bundle to save the business and its members.
George leaves work not knowing even where they'll stay. But Mary, as perfect a wife as he a husband, has already secured an abandoned large old house 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 as their parents were, 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 V-E Day and V-J Day, "They wept and prayed."
On Christmas Eve, though, with a federal examiner at the business, George learns that his unreliable uncle has misplaced a huge amount of cash, which falls into the hands of Potter, who dishonestly keeps it. George fears that he and the business will be ruined by the scandal – and in the darkness after a frantic day of scrambling, he contemplates suicide from a snowy bridge over the river.
The prayers rising from so many are answered as his guardian angel, Clarence, is dispatched to save him. Clarence does so by jumping into the river, himself, causing George, reflexively, to save him. But Clarence is unable to rescue George from despair, until George triggers an idea by saying he wishes he had never been born.
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 instead of flowering as it did; Harry not being around heroically to save two large ships and thousands of sailors in the war because he drowned as a child; Mary, their families and friends leading sad and pathetic lives in Pottersville; etc.
This catharsis 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's done, has rallied to save him, his family and the business.
It's an adult fairy tale, but one with some lessons.
First, our community, too, has George and Mary Baileys, folks who continuously and quietly improve life for all. We should appreciate, revere and thank them regularly.
Second, we also have Henry and Henrietta Potters, and we need to stand up to them as George did continuously.
Finally, we can each live every day as if Clarence will come that 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.