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Hollywood's Greatest Tribute to Level 3

The following article is a popular reprint penned by the Spitzer Center’s inaugural editor, John Keenan.
When I was a kid, my siblings and I found it fashionable to mock It’s a Wonderful Life and regard it as one of those holiday chestnuts that TV stations roasted to death every Christmas. The running joke was that after Thanksgiving, the movie took over the tube and held it hostage. “Are there any movies on tonight besides It’s a Wonderful Life?” we’d ask each other.

I have to admit, as I got older the film really grew on me, so much so that I bought my own copy and made it a family tradition to watch it every season. I am not ashamed to admit that there are scenes I still can’t get through without moist eyes.

It’s not easy to explain why certain movies touch the heart, while other films that strain mightily to achieve this impact fall short. (I assume that everyone reading this knows the movie and needs no synopsis. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and go rent it Or turn on the TV; it’s bound to be somewhere.)

Having been thoroughly Spitzered by my work at the Center this year, it dawned on me as I watched it again last week just why it retains its enduring appeal. It’s a Wonderful Life is Hollywood’s greatest tribute to the higher levels of happiness.

It’s not just a tribute; it’s more like a transplant that gives you a Level 3 heart every time you see it. You would need a Potteresque spleen not to see George Bailey in much the same way the angels see him, with empathy so pronounced you absorb his emotions. When the druggist, Mr. Gower, slaps his bad ear, you wince in response. When his friends pour into his home at the end of the movie, your spirit soars.

Hollywood often struggles to make Level 3 look both attainable and appealing. You get characters so heroic, they don’t provoke any fellow feeling. You get characters so gosh-darn good, they resemble archetypes more than actual people. But George Bailey is no plaster saint. His life hasn’t worked out at all as he hoped it would, and he’s haunted by unfulfilled desires. His decency lies less in his zeal to do good than his inability to do wrong. Life keeps shoving tough choices his way, and he keeps deciding to do what’s best for others. He would rather someone else did it instead, but he can’t bear to see people's genuine needs go unmet. He feels stuck in Bedford Falls for much of the film, but he also finds deep satisfaction in helping his family, his friends, and his neighbors.

His nemesis, Mr. Potter, is just the opposite. If Level 2 were a fountain drink, Potter would be the syrup they use to make it. George’s father sums him up perfectly as a man who is “frustrated and sick. Sick in his mind, sick in his soul, if he has one. He hates everybody that has anything that he can't have.”

One of my favorite scenes occurs early on, when George is completing his “temporary” stint filling in for his deceased father at the Building and Loan. The board of directors is assembled, and Potter proposes they pull the plug on the establishment. George takes offense at the slight to his father’s legacy. He confronts Potter in a speech that crystallizes the distinction between a Level 2 and Level 3 worldview.
“Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was … why, in the twenty- five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what's wrong with that? Why – here, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You… you said … what'd you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them?
Until they're so old and broken down that they ... Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about ... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be.”

The remark sticks in Potter’s craw and stays there. He spits it back out nearly 20 years later, when a desperate George goes to see him on Christmas Eve: “You once called me ‘a warped, frustrated, old man!’ What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No securities, no stocks, no bonds. Nothin' but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. … You're worth more dead than alive!”

The English novelist George Elliot wrote that, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” George Bailey lacks the perspective to see the great things his small deeds have wrought, until Clarence the Angel provides him with a Heavenly point of view on his "wonderful life." While the movie’s theology is a tad creative, the essential point that Heaven cares and sees us more clearly than we see ourselves is worth sharing.

I pine for a sequel where Potter’s guardian angel, played by Chuck Norris, comes to earth to pound enlightenment into his skull. I realize that this is a somewhat Level 2 desire on my part, but as I said, it's been more than a week since I watched It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s starting to wear off. Maybe that’s why TV stations used to play it over and over. At this time of year, we need as much Level 3 and 4 inspiration as we can get.