Thursday, December 22, 2011

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

On the twenty-eighth Lynchian day of Christmas, we present Frank Capra's classic Christmas drama It's a Wonderful Life (1946). One of the most watched and beloved movies of all time, It's a Wonderful Life presents an angel's eye view of the life of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who considers suicide after a particularly bad Christmas Eve brings him to the point of inevitable arrest and ruin. The film takes a powerful Lynchian turn into the bizarre when Angel 2nd Class Clarence (Henry Travers) attempts to help George regain the will to live. Clarence gives George a glimpse of what life would be like for his friends, family, and community had George never been born.
Mary (Donna Reed) Falls in Love with George as Children and
Waits Many Years for Him to Reciprocate Her Feelings
The film begins with George Bailey's friends and family praying on his behalf Christmas Eve. Their prayers are heard and answered and the angels hold a council and assign the simple-minded but pure Clarence the task of helping George choose life over death. We join Clarence as he becomes acquainted with the life of George Bailey from childhood to the pivotal and devastating Christmas Eve in question.
George's instinctual heroics save the day on many occasions, but severely limit his options later in life. George feels his goals and aims are thwarted at every turn, and the life of adventure and excitement he had planned for from youth would never come to pass. At each important crossroad in George's life, he chose to help those who stood in greatest need rather than abandon them to pursue a more selfish path. And in spite of an outward resentment he occasionally feels, George will not let others suffer horribly if he can prevent it.
We discussed yesterday a very similar movie called The Family Man (2000), which clearly pays homage to It's a Wonderful Life (1946). In yesterday's article we showed similarities in plot and theme between The Family Man and David Lynch's films Eraserhead (1977) and Wild at Heart (1990). Of particular interest is the fear young men encounter when leaving behind youthful freedom by transitioning into the more mature responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. It's a Wonderful Life is one of the best films to explore this theme, making us feel the pathos George feels as his options slowly evaporate and his youthful aspirations drift further away from him each day.
George's archnemesis, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), is a wealthy smalltown tyrant who has sought to monopolize all the lending institutions under his direct control. When George courageously stands by the Bailey Building and Loan after his father passes away, Mr. Potter practically stops at nothing to defeat George and drive him into submission. George is the only man in town who will not capitulate to Potter, making him the bane of Potter's existence. The two men reach an uneasy d├ętente, but George's Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) makes a careless but simple mistake at the bank and gives Potter an opportunity to press this advantage to the fullest and shatter George's last vestigial reason to live.
After George erupts at his friends and family and slowly becomes resigned to suicide, Clarence arrives on the scene to help George reevaluate the value of his life. Clarence is not successful at first, but an offhanded remark by George that the world would have been better off had he never been born triggers a clever idea. With the permission of his superiors, Clarence temporarily changes the world to exclude George Bailey's birth. George is then permitted to experience the horrors of his loved ones' existence on this surprisingly bleak Christmas Eve. 
After George prays in tears for the opportunity to live again, he awakes back in reality among his loved ones. Even though he is still on the brink of personal disaster, George finally comes to grips with the beauty of his life and he chooses to welcome his destiny, whatever it might be. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."


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