Monday, December 19, 2011
Still a Wonderful Life
It’s funny how you can watch the same movie a zillion times and still find yourself caught up in it. Last night when my family sat down for our annual watching of It’s a Wonderful Life, I was choked up right on schedule.
In the first minute when one of the little kids prays: “please help my daddy,” I was fighting off tears.
(I’m assuming everyone on the planet knows the gist of this story—an angel visits suicidal George Bailey and shows him what the world would be like if he had never been born.)
Annually, I gasp when Mr. Gower, the grief-stricken druggist, boxes George’s ears. I root for George to leave town and follow his dreams. I tear up when he realizes he loves Mary and won't be going anywhere. I bite my nails when goofball Uncle Billy misplaces the eight thousand dollars. I wince when George loses his temper with his kids on Christmas Eve.
And I cheer when he finds Zuzu’s petals in his pocket and runs around Bedford Falls like a lunatic shouting “Yay!”
It’s a great movie. When our kids were little, my husband and I used to force them to watch it with us. We still tease our daughter for her reaction when she was four years old. At the end, as everyone praises George, and Harry gives his toast—“to my big brother George, the richest man in town”—our daughter remarked: “but what about that old guy in the wheelchair?”
Here’s the thing about watching a movie a zillion times: you notice details you didn't catch the first few times around. Like how brother Harry pleads with his parents to let him drink gin at his graduation party. (They say no.) And how Mr. Potter calls the poor people in town "riff raff" and “garlic eaters.”
And did you catch a glimpse of that human skull on Mr. Potter’s desk?
I once read a review of the movie that said the story is really about the frustration and resentment involved when people realize that their childhood dreams will never come true. I used to see it this way too. I mean who doesn’t feel George’s pain as year after year he sacrifices his own plans and instead helps out his father, and then his brother, and then his town?
He watches doofy "HeeHaw" Sam Wainwright make it big in the city. Younger brother Harry becomes a football star and a war hero, while George stays behind in “crummy little” Bedford Falls.
It’s all so unfair. George is such a good guy. You really want him to get what he deserves. The fancy education. The opportunity to travel the world. A house that’s not drafty. Furs and jewelry for his wife Mary.
The next time you watch the movie, pay close attention to the scene where Mr. Potter offers George his dream job. The silver skull gleams on the desk and a picture of Mr. Potter glares down from the wall, but for the moment Mr. Potter is all smiley, offering George a cigar and promising him everything his heart desires: more money than he can dream of (Twenty thousand dollars a year, instead of two thousand), the chance to travel to New York City and Europe, the ability to buy his lovely wife anything she wants.
All George has to do is shut down the Building and Loan, his family business.
You can see George considering the offer, calculating the enormous sum of money and picturing Mary in furs—just like Sam Wainwright’s wife. He shakes Mr. Potter’s hand and suddenly he freezes.
I wonder every year when I watch this part, what IS it that George feels when he touches Mr. Potter’s hand? Because at that moment, George lets go and wipes his own hand on his coat and angrily says no to everything.
Mr. Potter is greed and power and cruelty personified. Making a deal with him would be like selling your soul to the devil. And nothing is worth that, George instinctively realizes.
The message at the end of the movie, that George had a wonderful life because he made a real difference in the lives of others, is simple and practically a cliché, but at the same time it’s so easy to forget. Especially at this time of year when we are bombarded with messages to buy and spend and want want want.
So stop focusing on the fact that half of the stuff in your house is broken and you never had a chance to take a trip to Rome and once upon a time you dreamed you'd make a million dollars.
Instead, remember this: the town you live in isn’t crummy. A problem that can be solved with money is no problem at all.
And there are people who love you, who will willingly sit with you in your drafty den to watch a movie you’ve all seen a million times.