Sunday, December 19, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life

I've adopted the holiday tradition of watching the classic film It's a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart. This heartwarming story remains so relatable over 60 years after its release. Unfortunately it is frighteningly relatable. People losing their homes. The threat of financial ruin. The regret of yelling at a small child when your day is going badly. The despair of deferred dreams. This part especially is at the core of the story as the main character George constantly gives up what he wants in favor of his duties to others.

George is always dragged away from his aspirations of education and travel. He cannot escape the demands of his family's business, a savings and loan that offers the only meaningful competition to Potter's larger lending institution that seeks to first profit from lending and then transition loan defaulters into tenants, which equal permanent profits. Dire emergencies in which the savings and loan might collapse repeatedly require George to step in save the day by imploring his depositors to stick with him. Potter meanwhile longs to buy out George's savings and loan so as to eliminate the competition. George's do-gooder business philosophy of making a modest profit from financing affordable yet quality home building in the community galls Potter who idolizes relentless exploitation and profit taking without regard to the consequences to the community.

After a series of setbacks, mostly caused by George's inept Uncle Billy, the savings and loan is threatened by bank regulators who will shut it down because it's lacking sufficient funds. This failure will also cause George to be prosecuted and imprisoned. I especially appreciate the irony that Potter's manipulation of the situation turns the bank regulators against the smaller institution that is actually beneficial to society.

Of course, George is famously driven to wish that he had never been born as he stands on a bridge ready to jump. Then Clarence, a second-rate guardian angel who has no wings, shows up to redeem George and teach him to value what he has accomplished for other people. When Clarence shows George a world in which he was never born, George learns how much he has mattered. If he had never been born, he would not have saved his brother from drowning. He would not have stopped the pharmacist from making a fatal mistake. He would not have provided his wife Mary with the opportunity to love and have a big family.

But most importantly he would not have been there to help his hometown of Bedford Falls remain a decent community. Instead George is shown the garish horrors of Pottersville (the new name of Bedford Falls) in which vice and hardship rule, and progress and hope are banished from the landscape. This is the part of the movie that strikes me the hardest. It's too familiar. Pottersville is widespread. I've been panhandled too many times in the parking lots of box stores. I live in a world where most people don't get the happy ending like George where all the people he has helped over the years come together to save him from ruin. Yet, It's a Wonderful Life remains inspiring. This vision of people helping each other through tough times reminds us that communities are supposed to be based on mutually beneficial relationships, not purely parasitic ones. It's a Wonderful Life reminds people to appreciate their small acts of kindness and to reach for redemption. This classic movie dares people to keep dreaming. The rat race can be resisted, if only by small turns.