Paul Greenberg

Southern ladies are like that, or at least I hope they still are. One day they casually mention that the town could use an arts center or library or, in this case, a symphony orchestra, and the next thing you know, you're buying season tickets. It all seems to come together as graciously as an afternoon tea. Complete with those little cucumber sandwiches with the crusts removed.

I don't think I could explain how all this happened to that professor in Boston, mainly because I have no idea how the ladies pulled it off. But I do know it was no tragedy. It was a triumph. And so was George Bailey's life. Why, he was the richest man in town, as his brother says at the end of the film. He makes Mr. Potter, the old miser in the movie, look like a pauper -- because George Bailey had loved and sacrificed and built and given. He'd even stood alone a time or two for what he believed. No, he never got to take that grand tour of Europe, but he didn't go through life as a tourist, either. He lived.

Not all the characters in the movie are heroes. And not every banker is a W.E. Ayres. With his camera eye, Frank Capra saw the sordid Potterville inside every wholesome Bedford Falls. He saw the jealousy, envy, greed and misplaced values. There's that devastating moment when George sees his friend The Success driving off to Florida, complete with homburg, plaid suit, limo and a wife out of the 1940s' Good Life catalogue, fur piece and all.

At that moment, like the professor in Boston, George sees his life as tragic. All he can think to do is stare at his own old jalopy and kick the door. He's convinced he's missed The Chance of a Lifetime. And here he is stuck in a miserable little town that's never going to be anything but a miserable little town. He doesn't see how important, how central, how essential he's been -- until Clarence, his bumbling guardian angel, opens his eyes.

The movie is a celebration of the ordinary middle-class virtues -- like fidelity and family, not to mention hope, faith and charity. Virtues that aren't nearly ordinary enough in these times, or in any other.

If Frank Capra's is a sentimental review of Americana, it's the kind of sentiment that beats "realism" all to heck. Just one so-called ordinary man, like a George Bailey, or a W. E. Ayres, can make all the difference. Think of all those who make a difference in your town -- and those who don't.

I often think of that professor/film critic at this time of the year. I hope he's had many a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year since he wrote that silly review -- and, yes, a wonderful life.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.