Wednesday, 10 April 2013

A to Z - It's A Wonderful Life

I think most people might have expected me to choose something like Inception or I, Robot for this letter, but I couldn't really not choose It's A Wonderful Life. It's a film that I actually hated for a long time, but after watching it again during my first film degree, I actually found a depth in it that I'd previously missed. It's also a film whose central tenet I utterly refute, and I ignore its sentimental ending in favour of sympathy for our hapless hero, George Bailey.

George (James Stewart) is one of cinema's Nice Guys. He grows up in Bedford Falls, a perfect little town that only seems to exist on celluloid, but he's a young man with an itch, a desire to explore, to see the world. Sadly, this particular itch is to go unscratched. While his brother gets to go to war, George stays behind to run the family business, the Building & Loan that helps the people of the town with their housing needs. He marries his high school sweetheart, a lovely lady named Mary (Donna Reed), and has four kids. But it's not enough. He feels hemmed in, and when his useless uncle puts his business in jeopardy, George snaps. He wishes he'd never been born.

Wishing in films is a risky business, and his guardian angel, an odd little man named Clarence (Henry Travers), pops up to show him what life would have been like if he hadn't been born. George gets that rare glimpse into the effect one person can have in a community, and it turns out that pretty little Bedford Falls would have become a seedy dump named Pottersville, rife with prostitution and poverty, without him. Without George, his brother would have died in a childhood accident, Mary becomes a spinster librarian (who inexplicably needs glasses in the alternate world - apparently his presence also cures her short sightedness), and the world is out of kilter. With this new appreciation for life, he gets to return to his normal existence, cheered by the spirit of charity, and full of love.

I know I probably shouldn't, but I do love the film. I think humans are obsessed with the idea of "What if?", and it's easy to idly wonder how different the timeline would be without us in it. I suppose the film also wants us to realise that it's the little things we do that matter, and any intercession on our behalf can have a ripple effect further down the line. In a way, I guess it's saying "Be a good person and do good things" since a ripple effect from positive actions is more likely to spread positivity (after all, look at the ripple effect caused by the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents) and I'm always fascinated by 'alternate universe' stories. The idea of guardian angels is even more fascinating, particularly when we assume they're always going to be these elegant beings, and Clarence turns out to be a socially awkward little man with a fondness for mulled wine.

But George still never gets to leave Bedford Falls. That's the crux of my problem with the film. Sure, he gets to realise just how important he is to the world which gives him a new appreciation for what he has as opposed to what he doesn't have (which ends up being a little egocentric for my liking, but never mind), but he still never gets to leave - the poor guy doesn't even get to have a holiday, unless that happens after the credits stop rolling. Just as Shark Tale did its damnedest to convince its viewers never to strive to rise about their station in life, so It's A Wonderful Life takes up the refrain of The Wizard of Oz - there's no place like home...

Anyway, I give you George, proving just why he's the guy to run the Building & Loan...

3 comments:

John Wiswell said...

I love the movie, and I'm not sure if it endorses the little things over the big things. Rather, the angel's revelation shows him what the big things really were. His desired vacation was trivial compared to the livelihoods of all those people. I agree that the ending is sentimental, but darn if it hadn't earned some joy by that point. I felt so crushed for him in the third act.

Tony Noland said...

I know someone else who dislikes that movie for exactly the same reason - George never gets to leave. His dreams, his hopes... all of that is still on hold (or lost forever), but his newfound appreciation for what he DOES have is supposed to be full compensation.

It boils down to one of the least comforting sayings: "Hey, it could be worse!"

Beverly Fox said...

This movie has always had an eye-roll inducing effect on me but I think that's mainly because the dream sequence has been repeated- terribly- in so many tv shows I've seen since. ( Think the truly atrocious end if Highlander)

But perhaps it deserves a reviewing... Just not at Christmas...

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