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'It's a Wonderful Life' — unless you're Cosby, Ghomeshi, or Sterling

by R.H. Greene | Off-Ramp®

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Actor Jimmy Stewart, shown with Donna Reed, in a still from the 1946 film It's A Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra. RKO Pictures/Getty Images

It's the film almost everybody loves, except for that one minor detail. As the popularity of "It's a Wonderful Life" grew over the years, filmmaker Frank Capra's fan mail changed. Nearly every letter started to ask, "Mr. Capra, why did you let Mr. Potter keep the money?"

In the film's climax, Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter, the bitter, wheelchair-bound miser, whose predatory lending practices nearly destroy Bedford Falls, accidentally comes to possess the $8,000 Jimmy Stewart’s Bailey Building and Loan needs to avoid bankruptcy. It isn't Potter's money, but he keeps it anyhow, setting in motion the crisis that defines a dark film's harrowing but redemptive finale.

WHOAH! In a nasty part of downtown LA, there's a harpsichord factory!

George is saved by the many people he's helped down the years. In his hour of need, they shower him with quarters, dimes, and paper money, in an orgy of communal generosity that saves the day. But as the film fades to black, Potter is still out there, his larceny undetected. It's a storytelling choice so notorious, it spawned a classic "Saturday Night Live" sketch about a "lost ending," where Mr. Potter gets beaten to a pulp:

To audiences used to seeing the guilty punished, letting Potter get away with it feels like bad filmmaking. To me, it's always been a sign of Capra's greatness. Because to view "It's a Wonderful Life's" ending as a happy one, you have to embrace its value system, which is that money and power are booby prizes. Friendship, love and altruism are the values that make life worth living. And I've been struck by the wisdom of "It's a Wonderful Life's" vision again and again in 2014, a year filled with real life Potters, who often got to keep their worldly trappings , but who were dis-invited from the communal banquet of everyday life.

I can remember sitting in my car last April, unable to turn off the radio, as the NBA announced the banishment of Clipper's owner Donald Sterling for his racist comments. In the end, a show of solidarity, encompassing ballplayers, owners, coaches and NBA brass — the pro-basketball equivalent of Bedford Falls, rallied to save some vision of a better self.

The Year of the Big Shun was born.

(Former CBC Radio hostJian Ghomeshi. Image: CBC)

Then, we have Jian Ghomeshi, the hipster with the clenched fists, whose syndicated Canadian chat show shared KPCC's airwaves. Ghomeshi made himself into a spokesmodel for public radio values: Inclusiveness. Intellectual curiosity. Tolerance. Then, in one remarkable news cycle , Ghomeshi's musical protégé, his former bandmates, and his agent all joined with his former employers at the CBC and much of his fan base in denouncing him. Even his PR firm abandoned him, and now he's been arrested and charged with assault.

And all of this was just a prologue to the sad spectacle of watching Bill Cosby's legendary career come crashing to the ground over the past few weeks.

LISTEN to the deafening silence from Bill Cosby on NPR's "Weekend Edition"

We shunned them. Like Capra's Mr. Potter, when the circle was drawn, they stood outside.

(Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks at the Diner.")

This holiday season, I've been daydreaming.  I see Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby sitting at separate tables in some imaginary diner in this, the year of the Big Shun. In a corner booth, Mel Gibson, a regular, murmurs epithets and punches air. Donald Sterling is tracing out legal stratagems on a cocktail napkin with a cramped and trembling hand.

There's a TV on, the way there always is in any sad cafe. On the black and white screen, a smiling young hero has just come home from a good war. He raises his glass to make a toast: "To my brother George! The richest man in town!"

The Big Shun. It's powerful stuff. Let's use it sparingly, and only as necessary. And see you at the party.

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