It's a Wonderful Life

At Cinemark

Sunday at 2 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 and 7 p.m.

(PG)

Grade: A

As Christmas approaches, life isn’t wonderful for George Bailey. He’s standing on a bridge, in the snow, preparing to jump. The family Building & Loan is near bankruptcy, and gentle George feels responsible.

“He’s going to throw away God’s greatest gift,” says one angel to another, looking down from above.

And so Clarence, a frumpy angel Second Class who has yet to earn his wings, is dispatched to see if he can help George. If Clarence accomplishes his mission, he’ll earn his wings.

Clarence has a two-part plan. First, he will jump off the bridge himself, knowing the unselfish George will jump in to save Clarence.

Next, Clarence gives George “a chance to see what the world would have been like without you.”

Turns out that, without George, Bedford Falls would have been Pottersville -- not at all a wonderful place. George learns he’s made a difference and prays to return to his family.

“You see, George,” says Clarence, “you really have had a wonderful life.”

I, like so many others, love Frank Capra’s 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” -- and not just because it was shot only months after I was born.

Along with Alastair Sim’s 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol,” Capra’s classic sits atop my list of the best Christmas movies of all time. In fact, if that list were a Christmas tree, those two movies would both be stars shining up top, and then we’d have to skip a few branches before any other holiday films would adorn our Tannebaum.

I dropped a note Bob Welch, an Oregon friend of mine, who I knew loved Capra’s movie. He was my editor when we both worked at the Bellevue, Washington, Journal-American in the 1980s.

Turns out Bob’s written a book, “52 Little Lessons from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’” It’s quite a lovely reflection on the values that anchor the film.

Among Bob’s “little lessons” are to treasure friends, to encourage underdogs, to pray in hard times, to count our blessings and to find joy in what we have. He ends the book by suggesting a new ending where the angels reconvene and decide to send an angel down to melt the cold heart of the town Grinch, Henry F. Potter.

“If I could point to only one more lesson it would be perspective,” said Bob. “After George’s trip back in time with Clarence, circumstances haven’t changed at all. He still owes $8,000. There’s still a warrant for his arrest. Potter is still out to get him. But circumstances no longer matter because his change of perspective makes him realize it’s about people, relationships, family, community — not money, power, even reputation.”

My own love of “It’s a Wonderful Life” stems from my appreciation for its humility.

It’s a humble, quiet film full of flawed characters, like the rest of us. George is depressed, and on the verge of suicide. Clarence is an angel without wings. Absent-minded Uncle Billy loses his envelope full of company cash. The townspeople are mostly just getting by.

Mary’s unconditional love for her husband George is part of the second reason I love the movie. It reinforces the belief that friends and family come to the rescue of each other in hard times.

My third reason: Jimmy Stewart.

Jimmy Stewart seems a good enough man to deserve to play George Bailey. Stewart won an Oscar for “Philadelphia Story” and then enlisted. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was his first film after his return from WWII.

It seems clear that he channeled his sadness over losing friends in the war in his portrayal of George Bailey’s depression.

Stewart was married to Gloria Hatrick McLean for 45 years. He was often described as gentle and generous. When the Journal-American held a “Wonderful Life” contest, Stewart happily gifted the paper a copy of a book about the movie, with his autograph personalized for the winner.

The New York times obituary quoted Stewart as saying he ''believed in hard work and love of country, love of family and love of community.''

Stewart once described himself as an ''inarticulate man who tries,'' and who doesn’t have ''all the answers, but for some reason, somehow, I make it.'”

In short, Jimmy Stewart wore the same big-sized shoes -- and the same small-sized ego -- as George Bailey.

Finally, I love “It’s a Wonderful Life” because it’s a tribute to small-town America. Bedford Falls is not unlike Port Angeles, Washington, where I was raised. Port Angeles was around 12,000 people in the years of my childhood, with one central downtown street where I wandered to shop before Christmas.

Port Angeles was a town where people helped each other. When my family fell on hard times, the town staged a benefit just to help us out. When I needed to learn to tie a tie, I walked downtown where the owner of the men’s clothing store happily showed me how to tie a double Windsor. That’s still the only knot I know.

The pastor of our Methodist church, who always hoped I’d become a pastor, came out of retirement to marry my wife and I. That’s what small town folks do for one another.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” brings back all those idyllic memories of a time that is no more.

Then again, we still have towns like Bedford Falls right here in Montana.

Helena has lots of people who suffer from the George Bailey syndrome of “caring more about others than about themselves.” We all could nominate many: Billie Shephard of The Panhandler, Sandy Shull of Birds & Beasleys and Ray Domer, former owner of The Mercantile, come quickly to mind.

Yes, we have a wonderful life right here in Helena.