What if George Bailey lived in Atlanta?

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(Photo by Bill Deloach)

It was a weekend where running into It’s a Wonderful Life seemed unavoidable. But what also became unavoidable, after attending a play, finding the subject come up during trivia, and finally capitulating to a millionth movie viewing, is the notion of how prophetic the movie remains in 2007.

The weekend started out innocently enough on Friday with a trip to Theatrical Outfit to catch the excellent It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, which serves as an homage not just to Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic but also to the bygone era of live-radio productions (with their actors playing multiple characters and myriad sound effects). Everything was going along fine until those high-ideal comments about community and home ownership came spilling out from the stage. When George Bailey tries to calm the fears of share-holders his family’s building-and-loan business, he explains the vested interest of all involved — that it’s not like at a bank:

No, but you … you … you’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house … right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?”

The word “foreclose” — which seems to have become the most used word in Atlanta right after “drought” — rang like a cracked bell.

George concludes his speech: “Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”

And so it went; as good as the performance was — read Curt Holman’s review in our upcoming issue — I couldn’t help but think of how vital the story remains 60 years later. The subject came up the next night at a holiday party thrown by friends in their cozy, 1940s-era bungalow in Druid Hills. We were playing “Holiday Trivia,” and sure enough, the question came up: What holiday classic was deemed Communist propaganda by the FBI? Yup, It’s a Wonderful Life, which was considered subversive for its negative portrayal of rich people and bankers (through the character Mr. Potter as portrayed by Lionel Barrymore).

At the heart of the battle between George Bailey and Mr. Potter seems to be the heart of the battle between the average Joe today and a system that constantly makes a game of Russian Roulette when it comes to home ownership. Sure, people with bad credit take huge risks when they take risky loans. But as George points out in his best tongue-lashing of Potter (he gets in a few), it’s all about building a better community. Watching the film version on Sunday drove the point home, so to speak…

"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 just 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?”

With Georgia leading the nation in foreclosures, maybe it’s time to bring some of those high ideals back into focus.

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