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The Richest Man In Town

By Tim Hayes

It started bubbling up, right on cue, as I knew it would.

As soon as Mary throws open the front door and waves in half the town, with scatterbrained Uncle Billy carrying a large laundry basket full of bills and coins, dumping it onto the dining room table – I can feel it coming on.

Uncle Billy gives Mary all the credit for the miracle about to unspool right there, then fades off to the side, mumbling and weeping with joy.  Oh boy, the dam rises a little higher.

Characters from earlier in the story – Martini the bar owner, Mr. Gower the druggist, the high school principal, and even a telegram from plastics baron Sam Wainwright advancing 25 grand to the cause – cite how their lives benefited by the man they’re honored to help now.  And more cracks start to appear in my emotional defenses.

Then kid brother Harry arrives to cheers, having flown in during a blizzard.  Steady, big fella.

Someone hands Harry a glass.  Here it comes.

“Good idea, Ernie – a toast!” Harry cries.  “To my big brother George!  The richest man in town!”  And, finally, I can’t hold it back any longer, and the tears start to trickle out.

Then, as a final sweetly savage kicker to my heartstrings, our hero, George Bailey, picks up a copy of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” that has mysteriously appeared on top of the pile of money.  He opens it to read an inscription:

“Dear George – No man is a failure who has friends.  Thanks for the wings!  Love, Clarence”

And I’m gone, awash in a puddle of my own tears, touched, moved, joyous, grateful, and as thoroughly wrung out as yesterday’s dishrag.

Of course, I’m referring to Frank Capra’s holiday classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” starring the great Jimmy Stewart.  I first saw this film about 35 years ago, when we lived in Jimmy’s hometown of Indiana, PA.  An event screening a number of his movies – intended to raise funds for the town’s upcoming celebration of his 75th birthday – featured this one.

The ending knocked me for a loop that night, and with every viewing since.  Such a beautifully crafted manipulation of the viewer’s emotions, which the great movies accomplish quite by design.  Think of the final moments of “Rocky,” or “Rudy,” or “Field of Dreams,” each of which wipes me out, as well.

I worked as a reporter at the town’s newspaper when Jimmy actually came to Indiana, PA, a year later.  After I got to meet him, watch him, and even interview him one-to-one, well, I had my new all-time Hollywood hero locked in for life.

In fact, the bronze statue of Jimmy that got unveiled that weekend in 1983 – and which still stands today in front of the county courthouse – reflects his appearance as George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  Jimmy even said that George Bailey was his favorite character to play, in a career totaling more than 90 movies, and that it was the first role he played after returning from World War II as a decorated bomber pilot.

We had the chance to see the film at a local movie house on the big screen this weekend.  Charming in its black-and-white photography, and expertly crafted in every frame, this film has endured for 72 years because of its simple, yet powerful and resonant message – relevant at all times, and especially during the holidays – that success comes not from material things, but from how well, gently, and lovingly people treat each other.

As the story begins, and Clarence the “angel second class” receives his assignment to help George, he sees a fancy carriage being drawn by a horse and asks, “Who’s that?  A king?”  To which his heavenly supervisor, Joseph, replies, “That’s Henry F. Potter, the richest, meanest man in town.”

Conversely, at the finale, after all the goodwill George has bestowed on his family and friends over the course of his wonderful life comes back to him tenfold, he has supplanted Potter, and Harry now hails George as “The richest man in town!”  Not in dollars, although that is no longer a concern, but in heart and goodness and respect.

And it’s no wonder I cry.  Every time.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes