At this time of year people may be inclined to wonder who is winning: George Bailey or Henry F. Potter.
These are the hero and villain of the beloved Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart as George and Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter.
The movie shows two alternative worlds: one in which George was an active participant and one in which he never lived. These two visions were made possible when the angel Clarence intervened to prevent George’s suicide on Christmas Eve. Everything had been going wrong for George, and he thought that if he threw himself in the river at least his family would have the insurance money.
Oh, but what a world it would be if George had never been. When he was a boy, he saved his brother’s life. Later, during World War II, his brother shoots down 15 enemy planes, preventing the destruction of a ship full of sailors. When he was a boy, George prevented the druggist, Mr. Gower, from accidentally filling a jar with poison, saving the life of the intended pharmacy customer.
George’s dreams were continually thwarted by his sense of responsibility in keeping the Bailey Building and Loan Association solvent. Always waiting in the wings was the predatory Mr. Potter, who was ready to take over the local bank and turn Bedford Falls into his own personal fiefdom.
Clarence shows George what Bedford Falls would have been like if Mr. Potter had had his way. In the alternative world, the town is called Pottersville. Main Street is home to strip joints and noisy bars. Gambling and poverty, desperation and amorality prevail in Pottersville, where Mr. Potter is a domineering presence. All of this exists because George was not there to keep the Building and Loan in operation, making home loans to local residents, financing the affordable housing of the new suburban neighborhood known as Bailey Park.
At the end of the movie, after George has experienced his angel-aided epiphany about the value of his life, we see how life is sustained by warmth, loyalty, modesty, self-sacrifice and the acts of everyday heroism that have characterized George’s life. We have also seen a world dominated by money, where the hopes of ordinary people are crushed by a ruthless banker, and the diversions of gambling, sex and booze fill the void of a vanquished community.
This dichotomy is visible 67 years after the making of the movie. We have been through a period when ruthless bankers have perpetrated frauds that have decimated cities. The tawdry side of life has advanced far beyond anything seen in Pottersville.
Gambling, sleaze, and dissipation are all big business, even in some quarters enjoying a patina of respectability. Every time a state or city embraces the notion of casino gambling, it is possible to see the continuing encroachment of Pottersville.
And yet every Christmas, people are called to their better selves, looking to their families and searching for ways to give, to create the kind of warmth that, ultimately, surrounded George Bailey on Christmas Eve. It’s important to call out Henry F. Potter, to stand up to him, to defend the homely virtues of work, family, self-sacrifice and love. The Christmas season is a time to remind ourselves that the glitz and fakery that is perpetrated by much of our culture is just that — fakery. What’s real was celebrated in the original Christmas story — a humble family, away from home, searching for a place to stay, giving birth amid strangers in the humblest of circumstances.
George Bailey does not see his own worth until Clarence shows up on the bridge to open his eyes. One of the great gifts anyone can offer to friends, neighbors, loved ones, is to affirm their worth in our eyes. Sometimes we don’t see it. At this time of year the miraculous becomes ordinary in ordinary acts of love.MORE IN Editorials
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