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Published: Saturday, 12/3/2011

Capra's Bedford Falls is a metaphor for America today

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Bedford Falls, the fictitious town in Frank Capra's classic film It's a Wonderful Life, is so much more than a memorable setting of an old story. Bedford Falls is a metaphor for America today.

Like the fabled hometown of George Bailey, the country is on a precipice between dream and nightmare. We, like Capra's reluctant hero, must choose to live either in Bedford Falls or Pottersville.

The former is a place where folks look out for each other. The latter is a heartless hole where it's every man for himself.

In Bedford Falls, the 99 percent had a choice. They could succumb to the 1 percent, who owned practically everything in town, and make the hated Henry Potter even richer -- or not.

The community could summon its own powerful instinct to take care of one another, to do whatever needed doing in a crisis, as Americans have done at every critical juncture in their history. It's a trait of a generous people to intercede when bad becomes unbearable.

By contrast, controlling corporations don't have souls, only shareholders. Modern-day Potters, greedy for ever-bigger profits, recognize no responsibility for the proletariat who keep them in the 1 percent.

"What people like Potter don't understand," said Matt Parker, who plays the character at the Sandusky State Theater, "is that they need the proletariat more than the other way around."

The stage production of It's a Wonderful Life runs this weekend at the State Theater, and -- full disclosure -- my budding-actor son is part of the cast. But even cast members may not be aware that what they're performing was never intended as a warm and fuzzy Christmas tradition.

"The story is about dreams being thwarted, about tragedy," said director Trish Sandberg. "But it's so American in spirit, so typical of people wanting to help."

Jim Manton, who plays the affable cab driver Ernie in the play, says the message it gives is right on the money.

"So many are down in the dumps now, suffering, hurting, don't see any way out of it," he said. "But there's always a way out with faith, hope and charity."

"This resonates with people who have the same financial problems, bankruptcies, foreclosures, evictions, prison, scandal," said Charles Lieber, a former teacher who plays bungling Uncle Billy. "But it says if you stick together, keep relations intact, don't let situations tear you up, wonderful things can happen."

George Bailey thinks he is a failure when money problems threaten to overwhelm him. He needs a divine nudge from the irrepressible Clarence, his guardian angel, to remind him that his life is not all futility.

A beautiful family and loyal friends are not nothing. They're worth living for, even on the darkest day.

George had given up a lot for his family, neighbors, and community. Like many others in the 99 percent, he faced plenty of disappointments. He did without extras -- trips around the world, an idyllic retirement cottage on the lake.

He may be forced to do the same work for the less pay and take additional jobs to cover basic expenses, put the kids through college, whittle down bills. But he does it, he perseveres -- just like the rest of the George Baileys out there -- because it's the right thing to do.

Generations of Americans have connected with George in this touching tale of family obligation and civic duty, because he doesn't give up when he has every reason to. Instead, he triumphs because of all the hard work he did before misfortune struck.

The relationships and trust he built over the years give him the strength to conquer despair. In many ways, he's like other small-business owners who take care of their customers, cut them a break when budgets are tight, and are aptly rewarded by loyal patrons.

Unlike the ruthless Mr. Potter, or the faceless conglomerates indifferent to the communities that support them, George realizes wealth is not the true measure of a man. What matters is making lives better because he was there.

George is part of something bigger than his building and loan. He is part of a place where families make homes, sacrifice, struggle, and lean on each other. Every Bedford Falls across America can relate.

And they all need more George Baileys to show that despite the times, genuine caring can still make it a wonderful life.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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