It's Still a Wonderful Life

Paul Greenberg

12/22/2010 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

To many of us, the season wouldn't be complete without at least a few scenes from "It's a Wonderful Life." The movie wasn't much of a hit when it was first released just after the Second World War, but it's acquired quite a following since -- and even a certain critical acclaim.

But there are those who still give it a thumb's down. Years ago I read a (too) critical analysis of "It's a Wonderful Life" by a professor of American Studies at Boston University, bless his heart. His conclusion: While the movie shows that life can be "an enriching Norman Rockwell experience, it also can be smothering, where you end up marrying the girl you went to high school with, and you never get to go to Europe. ... It tells us George is one of the most sad and lonely and tragic characters ever imagined. I cry when I see it."

That's about the only similarity between the professor's take on the movie and mine -- because I've shed a few tears myself over "It's a Wonderful Life." But not for the professor's reasons. Nothing in the movie seems as sad to me as the professor's analysis of it. Take it from somebody who ended up marrying his high-school sweetheart: A tragedy it isn't. It can be a comedy, an education, a dance to the music of time ...l that and a lot more. But a tragedy? Please.

As for the idea that not getting to Europe is a tragedy, that notion would have much amused my immigrant mother. To her, the tragedy would have been not making it out of Europe.

I think about "It's A Wonderful Life" and small towns and happy marriages and lives well spent when I remember a banker I knew in Pine Bluff. His name was W.E. Ayres, and it's hard to think of any good work in town he -- and his wife, Diane -- didn't have something to do with, from Lakeside Methodist Church to the Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra.

Miss Diane and a couple of other ladies started that orchestra from scratch. Well, maybe from the strings program in the local school system. Anybody who was there at the creation of the orchestra will remember the brainstorming sessions, the scramble for financing, the mailings, and how improbable the whole business seemed at the time. But the improbable these women accomplished routinely; the impossible just took them a little longer.

How did they do it? Beats me. You just take one banker's wife (Mrs. Ayres), the local strings teacher (Ellen Nuckolls) and another lady whom it was my pleasure to know (Carolyn Greenberg) and before you know it, you're watching a conductor lift his baton at the premiere of a symphony orchestra.

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.