Holiday classic rewinds at GPAC

First Posted: 1/15/2009

PEMBROKE -- Back in 1946, few believed in the real-life lessons of the holiday season in director Frank Capra's “It's a Wonderful Life.”
It was neither a critical or popular favorite. It was shredded in The Hollywood Reporter and viciously trashed by The New Yorker. Mushy and improbable, not to mention very forgettable, were the words some critics associated with the film.
And although being nominated for five Academy Awards, it was snubbed like grandma's fruitcake.
In the past 50 plus years, however, that opinion has changed dramatically. The American Film Institute ranked it the No. 8 movie of the past 100 years.
Today it's a movie even industry kingpins seek to used as an example.
Director Stephen Spielberg told the Associated Press that he carries a copy of the film on location. “I show it to the cast and crew,” Spielberg said, “and tell them, 'This is the kind of movie I hope we can make.'”
Thursday, the stage adaptation, “A Wonderful Life” will be performed by Mainstage Productions at the Givens Performing Arts Center on the UNC-Pembroke campus.
A rewind of lessons learned in the past, but still relevant today begin at 8 p.m.
The sentimental fable touches an everlasting chord because it addresses a basic truth of life: Every person has the power to influence, nurture and make a difference in the lives of countless others. Money and fame are but tiny parts in the game of love-giving, and interestingly far less powerful than many other components.
Bailey's journey
“Wonderful Life” is a tale about George Bailey, an unsung hometown hero from the fictional town of Bedford Falls. Bailey's dream of big-city fame and fortune are washed away soon after he marries when he is forced to save Bedford Falls' Building and Loan after his father passed away.
Bailey's selflessness was seen earlier when he jumped into a pond to save his brother's life. Throughout his life Bailey lived by a creed that always placed human need above riches. As a result, friends, family and small-town folk who borrowed money from the bank to build modest homes and businesses were treated with fairness and honesty.
His chief nemesis is Mr. Potter, a shrewd businessman who uses his wealth to bleed the residents of Bedford Falls. In his world, bribing, lying and taking from others is the way to accumulate power and money. He is indeed a man of many crooked schemes.
Bailey and Potter's paths cross and what emerges is a battle of over business, personal and moral values.
Bailey's bank is in trouble but when business partner Uncle Billy mistakenly loses a huge stash of cash earmarked for a deposit, complete bedlam breaks out.
He is so distressed that he attempts to take his own life by jumping off a bridge. This is when the miracle begins, as bumbling guardian Clarence rescues Bailey. Clarence, an angel second-class, is seeking to earn his full wings by showing Bailey how different everyone else's life would be had he succeeded in the plan to drown away his troubles.
Now is there anyone who can't relate to having seeming insurmountable problems?
“It's a story about a man whose dreams don't come true, which I think is something a lot of people can connect with,” said Douglas C. Wagner, artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. “George is a compulsive rescuer -- a man thwarted by his own humanity.”
The motion picture and musical celebrate the ordinary life of one man, which, in a way, turns out to be not so ordinary after all.
“It's very much the same as what Thorton Wilder talks about in “Our Town,” Wagner said. “There's a deeper, almost spiritual value to everyday life that is precious, more precious than any kind of success or material acquisition.”
Touching lives
Venturing into a world where George Bailey never existed serves as a reality check through self-examination. Clarence shows him exactly what Bedford Falls would be like without Bailey. Yes, even the little things done in life count more than a person may ever realize.
Some of his findings are:
n Bedford Falls would become Potterville, filled with burlesque houses, sleazy dance clubs and bars, and the downtown district of the small town would be a display of capitalism at its worst.
n Uncle Billy would attempt to run the bank before entering an insane asylum after the death of his father.
n George's mother would be a proprietress of a boarding house, existing on a meager income.
n Bailey's wife, Mary, would never marry and become a sad, lonely, frightened librarian.
n Bailey Park would never exist and hundreds of low-to middle-income, families would not have homes in Bedford Falls.
n Bailey's good friends Bert and Ernie would run a shifty bar instead of a friendly town watering hole.
n George's brother Harry would drown because no one was there to save him. And Harry would never have never been a war hero, saving a fleet of men during the war.
Many feel the movie is best summed up by one of Clarence's final statements to Bailey, who after seeing the dismaying difference begins to yearn to live his life again.
“Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?”
Stewart's signature
The late Jimmy Stewart played Bailey in the film version and said it was his favorite role. Donna Reed was Mary Bailey and Lionel Barrymore portrayed Potter.
Yet Stewart and Co. are not needed to convey the meanings and messages of “Life” to the musical.
In the happy ending, Bailey receives a wheel barrow of gratitude, Clarence his angel wings, and in most cases the audience is allowed a small peek into their own souls.
Turning famous movies into stage musicals doesn't always work, but in this case the script and message carry the production. Musical highlights include: “One of the Lucky Ones,” “If I had a Wish,” “Wings,” “I Couldn't Be With Anyone But You” and “Precious Little.” The song's lyrics were written by Sheldon Harnick, with music by Joe Raposo.
This show has become a winter staple, ringing in the true spirit of the season like a collectible Currier and Ives Christmas card after a tough day at work or school.
Tickets are $26, $24 and $22 for adults and $10 for students and children.
For information, call 521-6361.

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