When I was a kid the meaning of Christmas was taught to us by Charlie Brown and a cute stop-action Rudolph. Christmas meant finding our inner misfit. It meant rescuing crummy little Christmas trees and misfit toys nobody else wanted. We were all for the underdog in the Sixties. So the time was exactly ripe in around 1978 when a forgotten James Stewart movie began appearing at odd hours on local TV stations, and found the audience it had never reached in 1948. We watched it alone late at night on TV in the kind of low-rent apartments lived in by recent Liberal Arts graduates with lousy jobs. Sometimes we saw it twice in a December. And then, when we drove home to Mom and Dad’s for the holidays, we asked them about it. Most of them didn’t remember ever seeing it. Most of our parents preferred Bing Crosby movies about song and dance men rescuing cozy resort hotels to George Bailey and Bedford Falls. Christmas wasn’t a good time of year for complex messages.
We were a thoroughly cynical generation, hung over from the riots and assassinations, a war we probably shouldn’t have fought, and the armies of homeless men left over from it, and the hearings and the scandals that embodied the decade before. We were tired of fighting. Come December we didn’t want to serve soup to the poor or spend hours at the Mall, we wanted to curl up under a blanket and pray for snow. We wished for a snowy Christmas, but more often we wished for a nicer place to live, a better world, a decent job so we could afford to have a family of our own. Many of us wished we’d never been born. There was something about this forgotten movie that reminded us of what the world was like when neighbors looked out for each other, and what could happen if they didn’t. Wasn’t looking out for each other the whole idea of Christmas--at least the idea of Christmas in America?
George Bailey, the nice guy James Stewart plays in the movie, did his duty by everyone he knew. Was he a fool for putting everybody else first? In a Harvard Businesss School sense he was. He took over the family Building & Loan his dad had founded, even though he had the smarts to go off and become a millionaire somewhere else. He did it because he saw his duty there. Profits were small because the Building & Loan was just that; it wasn’t a gold mine, it wasn’t about taking and keeping, it was about building and loaning, helping neighbors to live a better life. Even though he was sorely tempted, George Bailey never fired the loyal, befuddled Uncle Billy, and he never would, because he was loyal to his employees. He didn’t sell out to old man Potter, either, because he knew Potter only meant to shut the office down, consolidate, fire people, eliminate the competition and raise prices afterwards. If Potter had his way, nobody in town would own his own home; Potter would own everything.
Then, in his dark night of the soul, which every good Christmas Story since Dickens has in it, George Bailey sees his world falling apart around him. In a mixture of foolish accident and malice, a sum of money goes missing. Ruin stares him in the face. He wishes he’d never been born. And he gets his wish. He gets to see what the world would be like without him. He gets to see all the small favors he had done all his life, undone. Bedford Falls wasn’t Bedford Falls anymore; it was Pottersville. People didn’t own their own homes, the bank did. Potter’s bank. The sharpies, or the one sharpie-in-chief, had taken over the town and renamed it after himself. Everybody else had to scrape and scramble to make ends meet. People were so busy looking out for themselves they didn’t have time to look out for each other. You could see the suspicion and the worry in every eye. Pottersville is an ugly place to live. Fewer libraries; more casinos. Bigger mansions and bigger cars for the boss and his cronies; crowded quarters and low pay for the average Joe. It is pure, hard Capitalism, and devil take the hindmost.
I have George Bailey’s dreams often these days. I worry that I will wake up in a world where, in the words of Leona Helmsley, “Only the little people pay taxes.” Where the fewer and richer prosper from what they own, and the rest of us work harder and harder for less and less. Where security belongs to the few who can accumulate their advantages. Where the comfortable classes send the striving classes to fight their wars for them, and still manage to impugn the patriotism of the war veterans who stand up to disagree. Where the lucky few get their faces lifted while the unlucky cannot afford their chronic pain medicine. Where the rules are written by the small club of players who own the game. Our Pottersville is a place where Mr. Potter tells us to jump and we ask “How high?” And then we are told to feel proud for how high we can jump.
In a few days will it be goodbye Bedford Falls?
I know it’s only a movie, and none of us gets the chance to see what life would be like if things came out differently. It’s too bad Christmas comes two months after an election, instead of coming a week before. How differently would we behave in the voting booth if we were thinking of our neighbors, especially the less fortunate ones, when we pulled that lever? Or should we be voting to please our masters? Should we remember the lesson learned by the everyman George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life? Was George Bailey a complete fool, or did he know something we've forgotten? Would the world be a better place if we voted the way he would?