It's a Wonderful Life
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In fact, I'm going to spoil the hell out of this movie. I don't know how to explain it without recounting pretty much everything that happens. I'm going to omit very little (though I suppose I'll leave a few details unspoiled; there are so many great little details...), so on the off chance that you haven't already seen the movie, and don't want to be spoiled, read no further than this first paragraph. It's a story about the difference one person can make, no matter how futile his efforts may seem. It's beautifully written and performed, a very tight story with no wasted effort, and almost unbearably moving, full of humor and drama, great characters and great... well, everything. Now, on to the spoilers (okay, after the next paragraph)....
Originally, I put this in the "holiday movies" section, but later moved it to "classics," though I still link to it in both sections. ...I generally tend to think, this isn't necessarily a Christmas movie, but since all the TV networks have always liked to play it around Christmas, and everyone in the world seems to think of it as such, well, who am I to suggest otherwise? Besides, even if it isn't set entirely on Christmas, Christmas is the crucial night in the story. And the opening credits do rather have a Christmas card look to them. And while the movie has become something of a cliche (aside from the predictable annual airplay being joked about almost as much as fruitcake, this story- along with "A Christmas Carol"- has become the premise for countless holiday episodes of TV shows), it really is an incredible story. I do love the movie... if I watch it straight through from beginning to end, it can always make me cry tears of sorrow, and of joy. The joy at the end is certainly a very Christmasy feeling....
Well, it starts with a snowy night, and we hear several different people praying for God to help a man named George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart). Then we pan up into outer space, where we see a couple of lights (like stars) talking. One is named Joseph, and the other... I dunno, maybe it's God. They're talking about these prayers and how tonight is the crucial night for George. In one hour, he'll be thinking of killing himself. The two lights call in another light, named Clarence. He's an angel (in life he was a clockmaker, and a rather simple man; Joseph says he has the I.Q. of a rabbit, which I find unlikely for a clockmaker, but whatever). Anyway, for the purposes of this film, let's just forget that angels were never human, shall we? He's been waiting 200 years to earn his wings, so far with no success. But if he accomplishes the mission of saving George Bailey, he'll finally earn his wings. So he spends the hour before the critical moment watching scenes from George's life up to this point. And these, of course, are the scenes we the movie's viewers also watch for the first hour (or two)....
It starts when George was 12 years old, in 1919. He and some friends were sliding on shovels, down a snowbank and onto a frozen lake. His little brother Harry fell in the water and would have drowned if George hadn't saved him. In the process, George lost his hearing in one ear. A few weeks later he returns to his job at the drug store, where he works for a man named Mr. Gower. Here we see there are two girls who like him, Mary and Violet (but Mary says Violet likes every boy), though he seems quite oblivious of their affections. We also learn he wants to be an explorer. After serving the girls their candy, he reads a telegram Mr. Gower had received informing him of his son's death, so he goes to see if his boss needs anything. He's clearly been drinking, and George sees that he mistakenly put poison in some capsules instead of medicine. Gower sent George to deliver the medicine, but instead he went to ask his father what to do. Unfortunately, his father, who runs the local Building & Loan (along with his absent-minded brother Billy) doesn't have time to talk to George. He's in a meeting with Mr. Potter, the richest man in the county, who is quite heartless, very Scroogelike in fact, who considers Peter Bailey a failure. Anyway, George goes back to the drug store, where Gower is upset to learn he hasn't delivered the medicine. The scene where George tearfully explains his actions and Mr. Gower realizes his mistake, is rather powerful, in my opinion.
We then flash forward to George as a young man, about to leave Bedford Falls. We also meet a cop named Bert and a cabbie named Ernie, who pop up now and then throughout the movie. (Just so you know where the Muppets got their names.) Apparently after graduating high school, George worked for four years with his father and Uncle Billy at the Building & Loan, and now that Harry has graduated high school, George is ready to go to college. Four years later, Harry would be expected to go to college himself. We get to see a talk between George and his father, who would like him to come back to work at the B&L after college, but George has bigger plans. He respects his father a great deal, but that life just isn't for him.
Then George goes with Harry to a dance for the graduating high school class, where he sees some old friends, including recent college graduate Sam Wainwright, and Violet Bick, and Mary Hatch (Donna Reed). And though he's known her since they were kids (as mentioned previously), it's like he's seeing her for the first time. The attraction (after all these years) is instantaneous. Well, there are some scenes of fine humor and fine romance, interrupted by news of his father's stroke. So he gave up the trip to Europe he was going to take before college, and spent a few months helping get things in order at the B&L. After that, Mr. Potter (who was now on the board of directors) wanted to dissolve the institution, but George gave an impassioned speech to keep it going. Without the Building & Loan, most of the people in town would be completely at the mercy of Potter (who of course has no mercy). So the board voted to keep the business going, but only if George took over in his late father's place. So he gave Harry the money he'd saved for college over the past four years, so that his brother could go to school in his place, while George abandoned his own dreams to keep his father's dream alive, and give hope to the community.
Harry comes back from college four years later, with a wife, and a job offer from her father. He was supposed to take over at the Building & Loan so George could finally get his own plans back on track, and he doesn't want to leave his brother holding the proverbial bag any longer, but.... George being the selfless fellow that he is, he couldn't let Harry pass up this opportunity. Meanwhile, Sam Wainwright has been dating Mary, but he's off in New York now, and his business is starting to take off. And Mary... well, she still loves George. And finally, as the two of them them share a phone conversation with Sam, he begins to get over his confusion and realize what he wants, even as it conflicts with his lifelong dreams. It's a great scene.
Sigh. George and Mary get married. They're about to leave on their honeymoon, but George Bailey just can't catch a break. There's a run on the bank, I guess; certainly there's one on the B&L. At this point Potter controls pretty much everything in Bedford Falls. He's just taken over the bank, and called in the Building & Loan's debt, which they couldn't completely cover. And now everyone with money in the B&L wants it. Of course the only cash they have on hand is what George and Mary were going to use for their honeymoon, so they loan it to their many shareholders to tide them over til the bank reopens in a week. Pretty damn selfless, though of course if everyone demanded all their money right away, the Building & Loan would be finished forever, and Potter would have complete control of the town and everyone in it.
And yet, more fine romance. Later, a housing development called Bailey Park is starting to worry Potter, taking tenants away from Potter's Field, so he offers George an extremely tempting job. And George is extremely tempted, but ultimately he knows he must refuse. Still, his past haunts his thoughts, all he ever wanted and all he hasn't got. This is, however, overridden by the knowledge Mary soon imparts to him: that he's going to be a father. Over time they have four children. Then there's World War II, in which Harry earns the Medal of Honor for saving a troop transport.
The movie is pretty much all killer, no filler. Everything in the story serves a purpose, which is understandable when you remember that purpose is for Clarence to learn about the subject of his mission, George Bailey. And so we come to Christmas Eve, with George so proud of his little brother that he's handing out newspapers to everyone he knows. But perhaps you've noticed a pattern? Anytime something good happens, something bad comes along to ruin it. There's a bank examiner who needs to see the B&L's records, and meanwhile, Uncle Billy absent-mindedly misplaced $8000 at the bank while taunting Potter. When George finds out, he's of course terribly upset with Billy, and has no intention of taking the fall for his mistake. But of course eventually his inherently selfless nature will take over. Anyway, he goes home an emotional wreck, upsetting his family greatly. Then he crawls on metaphorical hands and knees to the reprehensible Potter (something he's worked many years to ensure no one else in town had to do), and asks for a loan. This is, it goes without saying, ill-advised. And yet it's through that scene that we learn he has a life insurance policy, and as Potter points out, he's worth more dead than alive. Of course, rather than help, Potter swears out a warrant for his arrest.
So, he goes to Martini's bar, gets drunk, prays, runs into some bad karma, then leaves and crashes his car into a tree. He wanders to a bridge and just as he's thinking of jumping into the river, Clarence jumps in. And so naturally, rather than kill himself, George jumps in to save him. Which is how Clarence saved George. As they're drying off, Clarence Oddbody explains this, and describes himself as "AS2. Angel, second class." Which is the one thing that's always bothered me abou this movie. I mean honestly, the S stands for "second," and so does the 2. There's no C in there for "class," is there? No, just two ways of saying "second." But I'm being nit-picky here, it's not important.
George, of course, doesn't believe him at first. But hey, George Bailey's greatest defining trait is that he helps people, right? So, naturally he'll end up helping Clarence earn his wings. But that's getting ahead of myself. George realizes he shouldn't kill himself, and instead decides it'd be better if he'd never been born. So Clarence grants that wish, and proceeds to show him what the world would be like without him in it (though it comes pretty far into the movie, this is the scenario that so many shows use for the aforementioned holiday plot device). The first thing George notices is that he can hear out of his trick ear for the first time since he was 12. Obviously, he never jumped into the lake to save Harry all those years ago, since he'd never been born. He soon finds that he had no car to crash into a tree, and also Bedford Falls is now Pottersville.
Well, then they go to Martini's, but it isn't Martini's, it's Nick's. Much seedier place than George remembers, and Nick the bartender isn't so friendly as he remembers, either. Plus, of course, he doesn't know George. This, incidentally, is the scene in which we learn, famously, that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. And George finds that Mr. Gower spent 20 years in prison for poisoning a kid. After getting thrown out of Nick's, George learns that he has no identity, no identification... and his daughter Zuzu's flower petals, which he put in his pocket earlier, aren't there. Obviously, he has no children. He still isn't ready to accept Clarence's story, so he goes home, to the run-down old Granville house, which Mary had fixed up (imperfectly) for them to live in, a longtime dream of her own. And, well, it isn't fixed up at all. It's just as run-down as ever. The whole town has become pretty seedy, and there is no Building & Loan. Bert and Ernie don't know him. His mother doesn't know him. Billy's in an insane asylum. There is no Bailey Park, it's just a cemetery. Harry has been there since he died as a child (and all the men on the transport died because Harry wasn't there to save them). Mary doesn't know him. Everyone thinks he's crazy. Oh yes, it's all very Twilight Zone.
Finally he realizes he wants to live. So he gets his life back. People know who he is, and the town is as he remembers it. He goes home, where the bank examiner is waiting for him, along with the police and a reporter. His children are there too, but not Mary. She soon returns, however, having scoured the town telling everyone that George is in trouble, having learned the facts from Uncle Billy. Everyone comes in with money to help him out. Sam Wainwright wires from London saying his office will advance up to $25,000. Harry returns from the war. Everyone sings "Auld Lang Syne." Clarence gets his wings. This, my friends, is the happiest ending in the history of happy endings. Now excuse me whilst I blow my nose; if you'll recall those tears of joy I mentioned earlier....
It also makes me sad because when I try to imagine what the world would be like if I'd never been born, I'm forced to admit that I'm no George Bailey, not by a long shot. There are people who love me, so if I died they'd be sad, but if I'd never existed, would they be any worse off? Um... doubt it. In fact most people in the real world probably don't have nearly as much impact as George Bailey. But forget that. It's still a bloody awesome movie, and it always gets to me in a big way. It may be unrealistic and manipulative, but I don't give a damn, I love it anyway, and it makes me feel good. So there. No doubt I'm forgetting to say some things I meant to say....