A Look On The Lighter Side: Here’s hoping 2021 will be a wonderful year

Judy Epstein


It’s time for one of my new favorite holiday traditions: the annual broadcast of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in the black-and-white Frank Capra classic.

I wasn’t always a fan. I had never even heard of this classic until I moved to New York city, after college. Here, it aired every year at Christmas — possibly because whoever held the copyright had let it lapse into the public domain, which meant the film was free for anyone to air — a lot.

Still, the first time I really watched it, from start to finish, was because I had to. One of my first assignments, upon being hired for a WNET-TV Pledge period, was to supervise the film’s broadcast.

Or actually, the film’s re-broadcast. As best I can now recall, the film was being rebroadcast in its entirety because someone had scrambled the reels and aired them in the wrong order the first time through.

As I sat and watched the film in the darkened control room, I could see how some scrambling might have occurred. Soon after the movie starts, we are treated to scenes of idyllic-seeming Bedford Falls and the small-town life led there by George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) — sledding, saving his brother from mishap and singing “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” as he falls in love with Mary Hatch (played by a radiant young Donna Reed).

But (spoilers ahead!) Bailey’s life takes a dark turn and suddenly — or so it seems — we are plunged into a dismal world: There is no Bedford Falls at all, but just a rundown shantytown named “Potterville;” Mary Hatch never meets him; and Bailey’s own mother doesn’t recognize him.

In short, we are suddenly looking at a completely different reality than what has gone before. Anyone previewing the reel change might reasonably conclude that they were about to make a big mistake!

Of course, the discontinuity in this story is exactly the point. The central theme of the entire film was that just as George Bailey is about to take his own life, believing he’s done nothing good with it and wishing he’d never been born, an angel appears— the improbably-named Clarence — to change George Bailey’s mind.

And the way Clarence does this with Bailey is to show him just what that world without him would really have been. His brother would die young and never live to serve in World War II where he saves a troopship of sailors. The local pharmacist, uncorrected by a young George Bailey, would mistakenly poison a sick child. Young Mary will become a spinster librarian (the least convincing of the parade of horribles) and her family with George would never come to be.  And the local banker, charging usurious rates, would plunge an entire neighborhood into poverty that would have become homeowners with George Bailey’s Savings & Loan.

George Bailey must trudge through this hellscape until he realizes that his life has not only touched those of many others, but made theirs better. That’s when he decides that he wants to live and is returned to that life — as Angel Clarence finally earns his wings.

Over the years, the movie grew on me. I decided it wasn’t really sappy at all. And once I thought about it, I realized that Angel Clarence’s demonstration of “the world without you, George” was simply a clever low-tech, faith-based way to show Bailey — and us — what science fiction folk would call an alternate reality.

This year it all resonates for me much more deeply.

The dysfunctional hellscape, of course, is the world we are in right now — still stuck in a deadly pandemic, not even a vaccine in sight for most of us as the virus rages out of control. And things are only this bad because our leader abdicated his responsibility and made all the wrong choices every time there was a choice to be had.

Fortunately, we have chosen a different future. Except for the small detail that he was picked by the American people and not heaven-sent, Joe Biden — third-time-lucky presidential candidate — will do nicely as my real-world version of the Angel Clarence.

I believe that, in the upcoming year 2021, we can revive our faith in America and our faith in each other — and get back to a better reality.

And I will never be happier to sing “Auld Lang Syne” and see the back of the year we’ve been through.

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