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One of the most popular, perennial Christmas season movies replayed ad infinitum is IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE with James Stewart and Donna Reed. Earnest, responsible George Bailey is the victim of the lies and illegal behavior of rich, unscrupulous old Mr. Potter. These days Mr. Potter might be the hero of the film, although his story could benefit by the addition of a beautiful, unobtrusive wife. Potter already has at least one loyal employee who’s willing to keep quiet—and perhaps twist the truth—even when he knows for a fact Potter has effectively stolen the money from the Savings and Loan. Potter is clearly the slickest character in the film. He can promise his followers financial benefits. His biggest drawback as a hero seems to be his lack of popular appeal. Perhaps he needs to be able to transform his wheelchair into an invincible iron suit or a fabulously expensive Italian ensemble. If he had gullible citizens behind him, what couldn’t he accomplish?
Potter needs to spend time in the spotlight on television to hone a good-ole-boy persona. He definitely needs a hair and make-up artist, wardrobe advisor, and acting coach; he can afford them. He should be able to deliver one-line zingers with a sly grin. He needs to use his wealth to create a fantasy bubble around himself where basic rules of behavior can bend and break and people will still laugh with him, thinking they’re in on the joke. Although he is encouraged to be hateful to women, poor people, and minorities, the original Potter is simply too grumpy to be attractive. With his present personality and looks, the best he could hope to achieve would be to be named majority leader of the Senate, where his clout would outshine his ethics.
In contrast, George Bailey couldn’t make it as a 2019 hero. First, George is “disabled” (partially deaf). When he has to turn his good ear to hear what people are saying, that gives Potter a perfect opportunity to mock him as weak. George’s wife was a librarian, someone who was apparently destined to be a skittish old maid if George hadn’t deigned to marry her. Worse, George doesn’t fight—his bad ear disqualified him to be a soldier. (How can you have a super hero who doesn’t fight!) His best friends are a middle class cop and a taxi driver, but he also befriends minorities such as women, immigrants, and black people. He claims to believe they all deserve decent homes. He couldn’t even appear on HOUSE HUNTERS, because he doesn’t take home enough money to live in anything beyond his badly renovated old house. Finally, George can fall into depression—considered another weakness. He actually attempted suicide and deserves to be locked up or pushed aside so tougher people could take his job.
As for Clarence the angel, well! He is clearly anti-Christian by many current definitions. By comic book standards, he doesn’t belong in the story at all if he doesn’t work miracles that are more impressive than quietly altering George’s perception of reality. Clarence needs a weapon and a physical foe.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE draws an audience each year because it’s about the triumph of goodness and truth, even though goodness is frequently at a disadvantage in these times of canny mass manipulation. It’s about the priceless love of friends and family. It reminds us that we don’t have to have ACCOMPLISHMENTS in neon letters to be living meaningful lives. In fact, huge wealth is an encumbrance to focusing on what’s really important. Many billionaires go to bed each night taking tranquilizers to prevent the truth of the harm they’ve done from creeping into their awareness. We underlings have a far easier path to reaching out with love because we’re on the same level as the rest of humanity.