Why 'It's a Wonderful Life' matters

Tis the season to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Until you experience it on the big screen, with an audience, you have not felt the majesty, magic and joy that emanates from this classic. It is essential that you watch the film in a theater — like the Senator Theatre at 10 a.m. Dec. 23 (free with a suggested donation of at least $5 worth of non perishable food items to be collected by Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation). When you see this film surrounded by your community, you truly understand the moral “No man is a failure who has friends.”

Our hero is George Bailey, an everyman who follows in his father’s footsteps and sacrifices his own ambitions and career as a would-be Ayn Randian builder to answer the higher calling as the steward of his community. He is the last line of defense in maintaining Bedford Falls as an honest and pleasant place, where people from different backgrounds are treated with dignity and respect — and where they are afforded the opportunity of “a couple of decent rooms and a bath.”

George Bailey’s nemesis is Mr. Potter, the wealthiest man in town and a solitary figure who employs a scorched-earth, win-at-all-costs attitude whether dealing in business and personal matters. Mr. Potter’s greed knows no bounds, and he expresses disdain for common people throughout, referring to them as “riffraff,” “rabble,” “suckers,” “garlic eaters” and worse.

Mr. Potter is vindictive and petty. He lords his position of authority over those he resents. When George comes looking for help, Mr. Potter spits old words back at him: “Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me ‘a warped, frustrated, old man!’ What are you but a warped, frustrated young man?”

Those who plan to celebrate Christmas this year with an overpriced, limited edition, “Make America Great Again, Merry Christmas” cap, need look no further than It’s a Wonderful Life for a blueprint for this so-called “Great” America — but it ain’t Bedford Falls.

No, the kind of small town invoked by “Make America Great Again” is the alter-ego to Bedford Falls, a town called Pottersville that would have existed if George didn’t. It’s an alt-right libertarian dreamscape, where it’s every man for himself, where an egotistical leader puts his name on everything, shores up every aspect of public life, lords over his fiefdom and profits from every angle.

Pottersville is a gaudy, free-market free-for-all, where the local movie theater, which would otherwise be playing “Bells of St Mary’s,” is a “Girls-Girls-Girls!” burlesque. The blaring glare of the neon signs on Main Street suggest a bastardized Times Square — a town littered with shattered dreams, broken homes, pawn brokerages and dance halls.

Reduced and divided by Mr. Potter, the social fabric of Pottersville is rotten, and meaningful relationships have fallen away: Ma Bailey is alone and embittered; Ernie the Cab Driver’s wife has left him; Mr. Martini’s neighborhood bar is now Nick’s, a place that serves "hard drinks for men who want to get drunk fast.” In this world, Mr. Martini, an immigrant, is replaced by a white working-class hero like Nick, who is hardened and bitter and homophobic (“Out you two pixies go … through the door or out the window!”) In Pottersville, Bert the cop shoots first, and asks questions later. Corruption, greed and immorality thrive in this world without compassion.

Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” invites us to reset our moral compass. We bear witness to George Bailey’s life and weigh the sum of his actions, deeds and the choices he makes — from grand gestures, like saving his brother’s life, to small and simple acts of kindness that create light in the world, like approving a mortgage for a working-class immigrant like Mr. Martini or not delivering Mr. Gower’s tainted pills.

The values, compassion and decency on display in “It’s a Wonderful Life” resonate today as resolutely as they did 71 years ago.

Director Frank Capra does not create a perfect world. Instead, he gives us in Bedford Falls a post World War II American small town full of decent people striving together for democratic ideals worth fighting for. By opening a portal to what could have been in Pottersville, Capra shows us what happens when we buy into the bogus vision of a greedy billionaire and lose sight of the very things that truly make America great.

Gabriel Wardell (Twitter: @gabesmail) formerly hosted Cinema Sundays at the Charles Theatre and coordinated programming for the inaugural Maryland Film Festival; he currently teaches film at the University of North Georgia. The opinions here are his own.

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