For those familiar with “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the last part of the film shows the main character, the much-loved and celebrated George Bailey, in despair to the point where his guardian angel gives him a glimpse of what life would have been like in his Bedford Falls community had he not been born.
It is not a pretty world. This picture-perfect town, a postcard-like slice of post-war Americana in the eyes of Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra, is an ugly slice of dystopia. It is everything the George Baileys — the “good” people of the world — have worked so hard to prevent. It culminates in Bert the cop, a beloved friend in the alternate universe of George’s real life, shooting at him as he flees an altercation at Nick’s (Martini’s) bar.
In the beginning of the movie, the archangel de tutti archangels asks Clarence, one of his subordinates, to take a good look at a young, happy and optimistic George Bailey and remember the pose as the years eat into his subject’s youthful naivete and turn him bitter.
I’d like to see someone take a snapshot of the United States in 2018 and for the rest of us to give it a real good look. Because, in these eyes anyway, it is beginning to look like Capra’s parallel-universe vision of dystopia.
The overriding theme to “It’s A Wonderful Life” is that George was a force of good in his community. He used “Bailey Building and Loan” as a way to lend immigrants who’d settled in the town the money to buy their own homes rather than pay rent for overpriced slums owned by Mr. Potter, George’s main antagonist.
George’s good deeds netted tangible results. He was a pillar of the community and Bedford Falls, in general, had a nice, friendly vibe.
Potter, of course, is a miserly old man with a callous attitude toward people he considers beneath him — George being one of them. Potter’s character is such that he is the movie’s single representation of the dystopian world that Capra obviously feared when he envisioned the film.
When George has to grovel before Mr. Potter to get out of some financial trouble (that Potter himself has caused), he laughs at George and threatens to send him to jail.
George grows more and more despondent until we see him alone, standing on a bridge, in a Christmas Eve snowstorm, with the waters raging below him, contemplating suicide.
Clarence intervenes and George is thrust into a parallel universe where he realizes — by its omission and altered results — all the good he’s done and how needed his presence has been.
What follows is one of the all-time happy endings. And you just wish it were that simple in real life.
It’s not, obviously.
I don’t want to draw any parallels here (well, I do; I just don’t want to be so obvious about it). But I would like to ask if there’s a Clarence out there who can intervene and give us a glimpse of what life would be like absent all the resentment and rancor that has taken over the country.
What was the turning point? It’s easy to point to historic events and peg our national attitude on them. Was it JFK’s assassination? Martin Luther King Jr.’s? Bobby Kennedy’s? Vietnam? Watergate?
Was Jimmy Carter right when he basically said we were a bunch of venal, miserable people, with no justifiable reason for it (he never used the word “malaise”)? Are we still?
When did we reach the point in our lives where a government official can go on national TV and shamelessly politicize the sad death of a little girl? Or try to justify tear-gassing children? When did any of this become acceptable? I think of tear gas and I envision fire hoses and vicious dogs being used against civil rights activists. It conjures up every negative, unpleasant, and, yes, ugly moment about this country we’d prefer to forget … but can’t.
I do not think this, or other draconian methods of law enforcement we’ve come to accept without even a shrug, comes within a mile of being legitimate or humane.
Someday, we’re going to have to accept, however grudgingly, that negativity begets negativity, and belligerence begets belligerence. You never get anything from being mean, except for the meanness you get in return.
Conversely, goodness begets goodness. Maybe John Lennon was right. All you need is love.
And this is what’s borne out in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Without George to lead the way, Bedford Falls becomes the same type of venal, miserable community we see way too much of today because he wasn’t there to act as a check and a balance against the Potters of the world.
However, because of his innate goodness, that same community, out of gratitude toward him, dips into its collective pocket twice to save George from financial ruin and worse.
Which America would you like us to be?