Richest Man in Town

I admit it: I cried like a little girl.

The end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Seen so many times it’s like a cliché. It’s the hokey ending that solves all the problems in one beautiful bow, the sort of thing that never happens in real life. From his barstool on “Cheers,” Norm (George Wendt) even grouses that during the many times in his life he’s been in trouble, no one ever came to his door with a sackful of cash to bail him out.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is certainly dated, if that is a crime. It has its flaws of logic and characterization – for all Mary’s strength and self-assuredness in the original timeline, where is it in the alternate timeline? Are we to assume that her strength came only from her husband, when she certainly showed it long before she became Mrs. George Bailey? Is it logical that the good people of Bedford Falls would have become a seedy crowd of rabble-rousing drunkards without a Building and Loan? While loss and grief would certainly change a person, is it likely that every single person would become an angry, suspicious, hateful wretch?

I can live with these issues.

Still, my main problem has always been Potter. He gets away with $8,000, essentially framing George Bailey for his own accidental embezzlement. “Saturday Night Live” solved that one for us – five minutes after the movie ends, they say, Uncle Billy remembers where the money went and the whole crowd storms over to Potter’s mansion to beat the hell out of him. Catharsis.

The movie is more than the standard Frank Capra Vaseline-on-the-camera-lens glorification of small-town American life. The people of Bedford Falls are not perfect. Mr. Gower did, in fact, come close to killing a patient. The bank president and the Building and Loan trustees are responsible for kowtowing to Potter and essentially handing over the town to him. George’s brother Harry goes off to his perfect life and reneges on his promise to George. Mary plays a few games of her own to try to “catch” George. The friendly citizens were all too quick to turn on poor George Bailey when they thought their money might be in jeopardy. Sam Wainwright is obnoxious and full of himself. Uncle Billy… do I even need to say that Billy should never be in any kind of financial position of power or influence?

Even our hero George, when faced with the final adversity, takes it out on his family in harsh, hurtful words and a fit of temper. He's also a drunk driver, crashing his car into the tree in a sodden stupor, lucky not to kill himself or anyone else.

But it’s that very depth of character that makes it real. Small towns are never full of saints – there’s ugliness and cruelty and selfishness, the same as in large towns. Modern American cinema has made an entire genre out of displaying the two-faced darkness of suburbia, whether it’s for laughs (“The ‘Burbs”) or ennui (“American Beauty”) or outright horror (“Arlington Road,” “The Stepford Wives,” more that I could name). In my own work, I’m in the middle of creating my own fictional small town, and it’s been important to me to make it as nuanced and three-dimensional as possible. Somewhere between Bedford Falls and Castle Rock lies Jericho, Illinois.

Once upon a time, I could enjoy “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the beauty of Frank Capra’s vision, and the incredible performance of Jimmy Stewart. Playing a man from his youthful exuberance to the crestfallen young man to the exhausted father to the bitter man on the brink of suicide, and back again. We forget that the clichés begin with something truly memorable, so good that it is repeated and imitated and finally lampooned into meaninglessness.

But tonight, it’s Norm on his barstool who comes to mind, as I watch the money spill out on the table in George Bailey’s living room. Norm, who grouses into his beer that no one ever came to his rescue. And this year, I realize that someone came to my rescue. Several someones, as a matter of fact. I wasn’t facing jail and a public scandal, just another in a long line of financial crises that happened to come at a very difficult time for me personally.

And the town showed up, with a sackful of cash.

But it’s not the money that brings tears to our eyes, is it? It’s the whole town, gathered in one room, celebrating the importance one man had to their lives. It’s the sense of a community banding together around one of its own, not out of pity, but out of joy and friendship and charity in the true sense of the word. Together we are more than we are alone.

My one regret is that I could not gather my helpful angels into a room, playing carols on the piano and drinking wine. But rest assured, somewhere a bell rings for them. If Clarence is right, no man is a failure who has friends. That makes me the richest woman in town.


  1. DrBlasphlemy6:44 PM

    Now that my dear is beautiful.


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