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Monday, December 19, 2011

Monday Matinee - It's A Wonderful Life

Christmas is one of those holidays that could be one filled with the highest highs and lowest lows.

Think about it for a second. Christmas (and for that matter, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa if you celebrate those holidays) is supposed to be a holiday that is filled with happiness, joy, and euphoria. Or, at least that's what we're told we should feel.

And yes, for most of us, Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year.  It's a time of year where we can be at our best, and treat others with kindness, warmness, and joy...

...well, provided you don't work in retail, as I do.

But sometimes, the Christmas season can cause feelings of a different sort. There's a whole lot of stress that can come from the holiday. Worrying about finding the perfect gift for your loved ones, worrying about affording said gift, and then there's all the stress that comes from preparing the holiday dinner, and making sure that the turkey is perfectly cooked. Yeah, I can see how some people might not find much joy in all that.

Then there are those in which the holidays might bring sadness rather than happiness for a variety of reasons. They might be missing a loved one, or they might be in financial difficulties, or they might be all alone for Christmas.

And for those people, sometimes the smiling elves, the Santa Claus in the middle of the mall, and the happy Christmas carols playing on the loudspeaker can be a bit overwhelming.

So, this blog entry sort of ties along with the idea that sometimes Christmas can make one reflect on their past lives. And not necessarily in a good way.

And since yesterday was the kickoff to the 7 Days Of Box Office Christmas week, where every day is a Monday Matinee, I figure that I have the best possible movie to best display this.

That movie is the 1946 cinema classic, “It's A Wonderful Life”, starring James Stewart and directed by legendary director Frank Capra.

Now, here's a little bit of trivia in regards to the film. The movie, which was released on December 20, 1946, was initially considered to be a flop at the box office when it was first shown in theaters. Why this was the case? There's a couple of theories. When the movie was released, there were quite a few other choices for people to choose from, and the stiff competition from other motion picture companies sort of hurt it. As well, the cost of filming the movie was quite high, with a production cost of $3.15 million, and when the film was released, it didn't even come close to breaking even at the box office upon the film's initial release.

The response to the movie was reportedly so lackluster that movie studios believed that Frank Capra had churned out a rare bomb in his stellar directing career. They had deemed the film a disappointment.

But that was back in 1946. Sixty-five years later, the film is talked about in a completely different fashion. It's now considered to be one of the most loved Christmas classics ever shown, and the movie is shown at least once during the month of December in the years and decades since its release.

The film managed to get five Academy Award nominations (although no wins), and it is widely considered to be one of the best holiday films ever made. In fact, the American Film Institute placed the film at the top spot on their list of most inspirational movies of all time.

So, I suppose in that sense, there's a lesson to be learned here. Things DO get better with age.

Or, maybe the lesson is that you don't have to necessarily make a lot of money in order to be a success?

Or, maybe the lesson is one that we haven't talked about yet, but will be getting to later on in this blog.

Now, the plot of It's A Wonderful Life is one that has been told and re-told in various spoofs of the movie through television and other film projects. But before we get into that, I have a question to ask of you...and keep in mind, it can be a bit of a tough question to ask and answer, but it goes with the theme.

Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if you didn't exist?

I think at some point in our lives, we all have wondered what it would be life if we weren't born, if only for a microsecond. I know there have been times in which I myself have felt this way. Usually in a moment of frustration when it seems as though nothing ever went right. Those feelings didn't last very long though.

For George Bailey (played by Stewart), it seemed as though his life was a shambles as the holiday season was fast approaching. George had a dream of traveling the world, seeing everything that it had to offer. It has been his dream practically his whole life. His dream, however, remained unfulfilled because he almost always sacrifices his dream so that others can accomplish theirs.

It's been a pattern for George ever since he was a young boy. When George was twelve, he saved the life of his brother, Harry, who had fallen into a frozen pond.  However, in the struggle to save his brother's life, George ended up losing the hearing in one of his ears. He also managed to save the job of Mr. Gower, a pharmacist at the drug store where he worked as an errand boy by refusing to deliver an prescription to a sick child that was accidentally filled with poison.

By the time George reaches adulthood, his dream is nowhere near close to being achieved. His goal is for Harry to assume his position at the Bailey Building and Loan Association, an organization designed to provide affordable housing for the people of Bedford Falls. He even shares his dreams with a young woman named Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who has harboured a crush on George ever since she was young.

But in the summer of 1928, it seemed as though everything was finally going his way. Harry graduated from high school, and all was set for George to be free to do what he wanted to do.

But then tragedy struck. George's father had passed away after suffering a stroke. Months later, a tyrannical man named Henry F. Potter arrives on the scene. His first order of business? Trying to persuade the board of directors of the Bailey Building and Loan Association to cease the activity of providing home loans for the poorest citizens of Bedford Falls. 

Knowing that Potter was a major stakeholder in the company, George knew that he couldn't let Potter have any more control in the company. George manages to convince the board members to turn down Potter's proposal, but the only way they'll agree to that deal is if George runs the business himself. George takes the money that he had saved up for college to Harry, with the understanding that once Harry returns, he will take over the business.

After some time passes, Harry comes back home, but this time around, he brings a surprise. He has gotten married and has brought his wife around. Even more good fortune comes Harry's way when he announces that he has gotten a good job offer at his new father-in-law's company. Harry is reluctant to take on the job, given that he had an arrangement with George, but George, not being one who wanted to see his brother turn down a good opportunity, told Harry to go ahead with what he wanted to do.

This basically is the theme for the whole first part of the movie. Whenever some good fortune seems to pass by George's way, George always seems to be out of reach, realizing that others needs came first.

When George and Mary get married and are about to embark on a honeymoon, George is forced to use the money they set aside for their trip to save the Building and Loan from going under. When George is offered a sweet business deal and a new job complete with business trips courtesy of Potter, he is somewhat tempted as this would make his lifelong dream come true...but knowing that his creation of Bailey Park (a housing project) would help more families overall, he has to turn it down. When World War II erupts, George wants to enlist, but due to his hearing loss sustained in rescuing Harry, he is denied. Yet, George's brother Harry is accepted in the forces, and immediately becomes a war hero, shooting down fifteen planes of the enemy and receiving the Medal of Honor.

This is all fine and good for everyone else, but by Christmas Eve, George Bailey's bitterness seems to grow with each passing day. Despite the fact that he has a wife, four children (one of whom has the ridiculous name of Zuzu), and a meaningful job, it's not enough for Bailey. His dreams of seeing the world were not going to happen. It made it even worse when he realized that his brother was essentially living the life that he wanted.

It all came to a head on Christmas Eve. George's Uncle Billy was to make a deposit of eight thousand dollars for the Building and Loan when he literally bumps into Potter. Billy proudly shows Potter the newspaper with the front page showing Harry receiving the Medal of Honor, but Potter is angry when he sees the paper, and immediately grabs it out of Billy's hands.

But when Potter sees that the newspaper contains an eight thousand dollar insert inside, he changes his tune, and heartlessly keeps the money for himself.  At this point, Billy realizes that the money has disappeared, and with a bank examiner set to inspect the books later that day, a desperate George tries everything in his power to get the money back. This includes trying to get a bank loan from Potter. 

Cruelly, Potter denies George the loan. Worse, he decides to get the police involved, claiming that George has committed bank fraud.

George is at this point incredibly upset, and after causing a scene a home where he vents out his frustrations on his poor family, he takes off, gets drunk at a local bar, and without any regard of any drinking and driving laws that may or may not have existed back then, he drives off in his car which crashes into a tree.

Somehow, George survives the crash, and stumbles over towards a bridge. George believes his life is in such a mess that there's only one way out for him. Suicide. After all, George has a life-insurance policy (which apparently covers suicide) worth thousands, and George had the self-depreciating idea that he was worth more to people dead than alive. So he makes the decision to end things once and for all...

...that is until he happens to see someone in the water, claiming that they're drowning. And George, who has always put other people's needs above his own, dives right in to save the man from certain death.

Of course, George didn't realize at the time that the man was incapable of dying. Turns out the man was Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), Angel Second Class. He is assigned to the case of George Bailey, in the hopes of earning his wings by saving George's life and soul. But this was no easy task for Clarence, as George had such a low opinion of himself that he wished he had never been born.

Clarence tries to explain to George that he is his guardian angel assigned to watch out for him, but George (who may have still been under the influence of alcohol) doesn't buy his story. Instead, a bitter George moans on about how much of a failure he is, and makes the declaration that he wished he had never been born.

Clarence decides that now would be the time to take George on a little trip to an alternate reality, to show George that maybe things wouldn't be so good after all if he hadn't existed. And just like that, George's eyes are opened in a huge way.

First change? The name of the town. Instead of Bedford Falls, the name of the place now is Potterville, named after the most powerful man in town, Henry Potter.

Second change? The majority of businesses in town are now sleazy nightclubs and pawn shops.

Because George Bailey never existed, a lot of the things that George had accomplished never came to be. The Bailey Park project, for example, was never conceived. George's brother, Harry was now dead as there was nobody around to save his life. As a result, the people who he saved during World War II were also dead. The druggist that George helped back when he was a young man ended up going to jail because nobody was around to prevent the delivery of the poisoned prescription.

Worse were the fates of his loved ones. Uncle Billy ended up in a mental institution. His wife Mary ended up becoming a librarian who would never date. Worse still, none of his four children would exist.

These visions shake George to the core. He couldn't imagine seeing a world like that, where everyone seems so unhappy and lost in direction...he couldn't bear seeing what would have happened had he not existed at all. But now that he had seen what it was like, could he find it in himself to accept the way things were now?

He finds himself back at the bridge, and begs God to let him live again, and thankfully God hears his prayers.

Now, as I said before...I'm not one to spoil endings of films...I really don't like doing it. But there's one piece that I'll have to reveal in order to bring home the point of this whole blog.

The point is that sometimes we all feel as though we don't seem to accomplish anything in this world. In some cases, people are so blinded by the quest for material possessions and making sure that everything is bigger and better than everyone else that they sometimes lose focus on what's really important.

Sometimes it takes a disaster or something serious happening to someone for someone to realize that maybe they do have it good after all. And maybe, just maybe, they'll realize that while their lives haven't progressed as they like, maybe, just maybe, they'll find that they have a wonderful life after all.

At any rate, George Bailey learned that lesson. He had to learn it the hard way, mind you...but, by George I think George got it.

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