`It's a Wonderful Life'

IT's not even December and already the Frank Capra movie, ``It's a Wonderful Life,'' has begun its work of redeeming the holidays from the seasonal deluge of commercialism and personal despair. It will be shown dozens of times again on the local channels, colorized and in black and white. In the story, Jimmy Stewart contemplates suicide. An inadvertent loss of money threatens foreclosure of the family savings and loan. He feels mean, wasted, and worthless. But he witnesses a vision of his community had he not lived. His brother, whom he'd saved from drowning, would not have subsequently become a war hero who saved a shipload of lives. The savings and loan that helped townspeople afford homes would have been sold to the villain Potter long ago had Stewart not sacrificed his dream of seeing the world to stay with the family business.

The flashback, the genius of the improbable angel Clarence, provokes a will to live in Stewart, the kind of release of Christmas joy that Dickens evoked in Scrooge in ``A Christmas Carol.'' In an epiphany of affection, friends and townspeople chip in their modest savings to bail out Stewart in his hour of testing.

Social commentary, anger and violence, are evident in the Capra film, much as meanness of spirit and class oppression underlies the Dickens tale.

Sometimes it takes such art to give us access to public as well as private needs.

Nearly 700,000 Americans will be spending this Christmas in federal and state prisons. Gathered in one place, they would make a penal colony larger than the city of Boston. Prisoners did not come into this world alone. Most have families who silently share their ignominy. Some 46,000 prisoners were added in the first half of this year alone, as Americans pushed for more drug arrests, longer prison terms, and shorter parole.

Sophisticated New York City carries in its streets and doorways 90,000 homeless. Across America, 220,000 school-age children are homeless. More than one in four do not make it to school regularly.

Kirby Puckett, the American League baseball batting champion, is awarded a $10 million contract. Unnoticed, 325,000 foster children are shuttled from shelter to shelter across America, with only 125,000 foster homes to absorb them.

Do the scents for men and women we see promoted now in gilded, glossy ads tell us as much of loneliness as of affluence?

An uncertainty. Wang Laboratories, the Massachusetts computer firm, has laid off 7,000 workers the past year, with more layoffs expected. To this add the other struggling computer companies and the auto industry and investment house layoffs.

The idled can watch golfers Strange and Nicklaus make $100,000 between them in a day's ``skins'' competition.

Is it worth it to live a ``normal'' life of little civilities, attend the local high school play, give to the Salvation Army, call an old friend in St. Louis - that is, to keep an account at the savings-and-loan level of benefactions if we are closed out of the investment banking class of holiday largess?

Back to the prisons. Our penal colony is getting ``geriatric wards ..., protection from aggressive inmates, different diets and even architectural alterations to accommodate wheelchairs,'' it is reported.

Humane treatment of offenders deserves support. But what triggered the offense? What put the homeless out of homes? What put the parentless on the interminable rounds of the foster care bus?

Art - films, books, paintings - can do a better job of arousing the conscience than million dollar studies, congressional hearings, and ``news'' accounts.

We can keep an account at the savings and loan of private sharings. It's one way of joining in a wider redemption.

Have we kept a kid from falling through the ice of school failure? Did we restore the old house rather than slick it up and sell it off to the next careless buyer? Did we keep the leaves from building up on the walk of the just-widowed woman next door?

The irony of the title ``It's a Wonderful Life'' is unmistakable. It tests us: Do we care? And do we show that we care?

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