Howdy-do. Times being what they are (hard), Jim Walsh asked me to fill in for him this week to talk a little about what happened to me and Bedford Falls after the end of "It’s a Wonderful Life." He also wants me to pass along any words of wisdom from the "richest man in town," as my brother and war hero Harry Bailey called me, even though you could argue I’m the same penniless wretch I’ve always been.
Will do. But first, some history.
"It’s a Wonderful Life" was released in 1946. The country was recovering from the one-two punch of the Great Depression and World War II, so a movie about bankruptcy, foreclosures, and suicide did not go over well. Despite it being nominated for five Oscars (winning none), it was deemed a financial and artistic bomb at the box office upon release, and director Frank Capra was instantly washed-up by Hollywood standards.
Since then, of course, the film has become a cable Christmas classic, the American Film Institute named it one of the "100 Best American Films Ever Made," and it tops their list of "Most Inspirational American Films of All Time." I’ve had a lot of time to think about what, exactly, that means, and why it might resonate so strongly this Christmastime in particular.
It’s no secret that we are heading into the New Year with great trepidation. People are losing their jobs and their minds, and desperation — the kind that found me about to jump from the bridge into the icy river in the belief that my loved ones would be better off without me — is palpable at every turn. Most of us are in debt, in doubt, and the worries are piling up like breadcrumbs in the cupboard, even as advertisements blare out expensive gifts and garish festivities, reality be damned.
Which leads me to think that the message of "It’s a Wonderful Life" didn’t translate. It’s the same as the "Rosebud" moral to "Citizen Kane" or the "God Bless Us All, Everyone" goodbye from "A Christmas Carol": Money and materialism is not the point of this life; the simple things, and people and how you treat them is. Most of all, if you feel part of any kind of community like I did then and do now, you indeed are rich.
Now, this is no sugarplum feel-good "count your blessings" conclusion. It’s "lend your hand when and where you can." In other words, as Jim’s Kingfield neighborhood friend and yogi Jessica Bessette recently told him, "With the economy being so bad, people will hopefully focus on other things and let go of the notion that things equal happiness. Maybe a whole city block will share a lawnmower. Maybe more people will barter services. It may be a time of stripping down to the essentials, and learning what those really are. People might panic, but I hope it eventually lends clarity."
Sounds good to me. And Minnesota troubadour Jack Klatt put it this way in one of Jim’s recent stories: "The recent crash is really going to trickle down and start affecting everyone. It’s gonna get worse, man, and it’s gonna get a lot worse. It’s a really bad thing, but when you look at things like the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, it got people to open up their eyes and realize they were being [screwed] by people on top and had been for a long time. So they started to organize. You had regular people who would go, ‘I need some coal to heat my home.’ And someone would say, ‘My buddy Joe’s got a truck, let’s go get some [bleeping] coal and help our families.’"
That, in fact, is exactly what happened at the end of "It’s a Wonderful Life." You all didn’t see it, but after Clarence got his wings and I got my money, family, and life back, the whole town continued to look out for each other. If someone needed help, someone else had their back.
Even Mr. Potter. His business tanked, and while there were a few snide remarks down at Martini’s bar, everyone picked him up and forgave him and he got back on his feet. Don’t forget — Mr. Potter, like Scrooge, was a changed man at the end of his journey. He passed away a few years ago, but his grandkids are alive and thriving and all about service.
So… words of wisdom? Love to, but I gotta go. It’s snowing again, and one of my favorite things to do in the winter is to wander around town, pushing random strangers’ cars out of snow banks.
George Bailey lives and grew up in Bedford Falls. This is his first article for the Southwest Journal.