Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Lessons learned from George Bailey (Dec. 06 News Advocate)

Associate Editor

It’s one of the ultimate Christmas cliche’s, sitting down to watch Frank Capra’s classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Before there were VCR’s, DVD players, 200 cable channels, and pay-per-view, you could only see this film once per year on television, maybe twice if it was replayed. This is the way I remember the film from when I was little.
Just about everyone has seen it. Most people love the film. Some are sick of it — probably because it gets played and re-played so much now that it’s been run into the ground a little.
But I still love the movie, and I think most people will agree with me. With my timeworn copy on videotape, which I only view once a year, and only at Christmas time, I watch every season — just like when I was growing up.
And I only watch the black and white version. I remember when they colorized it and had a “world premiere” several years ago. Whoever it was who had the idea that we wanted to see our favorite black and white films re-mastered in color (I think it was Ted Turner), must have been smoking something.
I remember fighting with my Dad one Christmas because I turned the color setting all the way down on the TV so I could watch it in black and white, and he just didn’t understand why. I have been a movie purist since I was old enough to appreciate films, and tampering with one of my favorites of all time was the equivalent of blasphemy.
The reason I love this film is because just about anyone can relate to George Bailey. I have felt like him at several points in my life — the guy who always had big plans, but whenever he felt close to accomplishing one of his dreams, something happened to foil those plans. To put it simply — life happened.
Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor of all time, not because of this film alone, but because of his entire body of work, from another Capra classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but also his westerns, like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and “Winchester 73,” to his work in films for great directors, like Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” and Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder.”
One of the greatest Christmas gifts I ever received was a framed collage of movie stills from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” along with Stewart’s autograph, from my wife, over 10 years ago. It has hung on the wall of every apartment and house we’ve lived in since then.
One of my favorite scenes in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is when George, coming home to his “drafty old house,” frustrated by yet another setback, begins to make his way up the steps, and that piece of the bannister comes off in his hand. He wants to throw it, wants to take out some of his aggression, but wills himself to put it back where it belongs. I can relate to this type of frustration, just wanting to blow up, and then re-composing myself.
That is what George does for the entire film. He is constantly fighting frustration, disappointment, and adversity – and overcoming it all, dusting himself off, and continuing on. We can all learn something from George.
We all know that the overall theme of the holiday classic is seeing how life would be without you. Yes, we all have it better off than we thought we did; we can all stand to remove ourselves from the grind of every day life to realize how much of a difference we make to others. There are other lessons at work in the story, as well.
Everyone has a Potter that they eventually need to stand up to. And hopefully, we all have a Mary to keep us sane, and to be our partner when times get rough.
I can also relate to George when he yells at those poor kids. There are angry words I have used towards my children when my patience runs thin, maybe the bills need to be paid, or something has gone wrong at work. That’s why, when George rushes home and hugs his kids, and kisses his wife, I know how he feels.
We’ve all been a little short with our friends and loved ones at times, and need to let them know we’re sorry. My kids have such short memories for these events, much shorter than mine. They forgive pretty quick, and realize when it really isn’t directed at them. The Bailey’s knew their father’s true nature, too.
George’s character arc in the story is certainly the most important, but not the only story of redemption we can learn from. There’s Violet, who realizes the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, Mr. Gower, who George saves from making the biggest mistake of his life, Uncle Billy, who just needed someone to believe in him despite his careless ways, and all of the other citizens of Bedford Falls whose lives George Bailey touched by sacrificing so much of himself.
Every one of us has our own demons, our shortcomings, misgivings, regrets, and broken dreams. At some time or another, we’re all George Bailey. This is the biggest lesson to learn from the film in the coming week when you and your family sit down to once again view this timeless holiday classic.
It’s really a story about second chances. We need to give them to other people, and we need to take them when they’re offered to us.
Most of all, we need to give them to ourselves.
Cean Burgeson can be reached at:

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