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It's a wonderful huh?

The Christmas season is upon us, and it's time for that festive holiday tradition: the annual torturing of George Bailey.

Wait, wait, hold your e-mails - I know the movie's a classic. Jimmy Stewart? Donna Reed? Both are wonderful. I'm not disputing either the merits or the message of "It's a Wonderful Life." But it's also incredibly tough to watch.

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To folks who accuse Frank Capra of being a sentimental old softie, I say: Have you seen this thing?

My toes start curling up right about the time young George gets walloped upside the head in the drugstore. By the time the honeymoon's canceled, I'm squirming in my seat.

Long before George jumps, I have - off to embroider a new Christmas tree skirt or bake a gingerbread replica of downtown Manhattan, anything to escape the scene of misery and despair unfolding on the screen.

I thought that maybe there was a fatal flaw in my character - a feeling reinforced when on an episode of "The King of Queens," Arthur (the great Jerry Stiller) recoiled in horror the first time he saw the holiday heartwarmer. (Believe me, you never want to side with Arthur on anything.)

But last Christmas, I finally figured out the source of my discomfort. It's not Lionel Barrymore who's deliciously evil as the vengeful, grasping Mr. Potter. (Capra lets him get clean away with it, by the way. Today's directors would have Vin Diesel pummel Potter to death while Tom Cruise helps Mary and the kids move into the mansion.)

It's not even because George never gets to do a single thing that he's dreamed of.

It's all the fault of that butter-fingered, double-chinned harbinger of doom: Uncle Billy, that shining example of why people should never go into business with their relations.

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Iago's machinations pale next to his drunken blundering.

Uncle Billy's incompetence not only chains George to Bedford Falls, his blazing stupidity provides Potter with the means to drive him to suicide.

My husband, who claims that "Gladiator" isn't all that violent, finally begged me to fast-forward the movie because he couldn't take it anymore.

"The difference between Uncle Billy and Scrooge is that Scrooge could be redeemed," he announced later.

So this year, I will cheerfully tune in for the haunting of Scrooge, the public mockery of Charlie Brown, and the robbing of the Whos.

And I'll have a ringside seat as Ralphie tries to shoot his eye out.

But I'm not sure I can stand the ordeal of watching Jimmy Stewart discover, once again, that it's a wonderful life.

Because I know that, lurking among the crowd of well-wishers gathered in the Bailey home, is Uncle Billy - with his whimpered excuses and soft hands - waiting.


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