Monday, December 23, 2013

Everything I Know in Life I Learned from the Movies: It's a Wonderful Life



The conceit of this 1946 film is simple (and has been copied many times since):

Would the world really be better if you'd never been born?

How many of us have melodramatically opined that same sentiment in our lives? 

Director Frank Capra took a small short story, The Greatest Gift, and crafted it into a masterpiece of angst and ultimately, inspiration.  Jimmy Stewart didn't win his Oscar for the role of George Bailey, he won it for The Philadelphia Story, but this is acting: the upstanding fellow who always does the right thing and yet is so bitter about doing so gets under our skin.  This to me is the full-meal-deal Christmas movie - no saccharine here and if you think the ending is schmaltzy, well it's our just desserts from sticking it out with this man who is constantly seething under the weight of his obligations and his belief that every opportunity has passed him by.

The choice of Jimmy Stewart is inspired.  In 1946 he was freshly back from the war, and I have often suspected that his war time experiences infused the part of George Bailey in ways that might not have been possible before the war.  The rest of the supporting cast is pitch-perfect: Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore, Beulah Bondi, Henry Travers, Gloria Grahame.  If there was a Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble in 1946, this cast would have won it.

After the overly sweet confections we've been subjected to for the whole month of December, this is the movie to sit down to watch if you want to remind yourself that a) the little things matter and b) good story and acting matter.

Everyone in our household loves the film.  Barry and my son have been known to act out the line between Peter and Harry Bailey on many evenings when dear son is heading out to socialize:

"No gin tonight..."
"Aww Pop!"
"No Boys - not one drop!"

So many lessons...

Choosing to the right thing is not always easy and it often pisses you off..

George can't help himself; he is always going to do the right thing.  And usually, that right thing is at the expense of his own happiness.  So many stories and movies depict characters happily doing the right thing, happily sacrificing their dreams; It's a Wonderful Life shows us the other side of that coin - the one where we do the right thing because that's how we were raised, that's our innate character, but we don't have to like it....

I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm comin' back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields, I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm gonna build bridges a mile long...

But there are other rewards, Donna Reed for example...

When George is wooing Mary, he asks her what she wants and offers to lasso the moon for her.  Later, this becomes a point of pain for George, who  feels he hasn't lassoed anything but a rickety old house, a business that struggles to make ends meet.  He's a failure compared to his war hero brother Harry or his rich friend Sam Wainwright (HEEHAW!).  What he fails to understand, until it is all taken away, is that he has already lassoed the moon, he just didn't know it...



There are Mr. Potters everywhere

There is no grand comeuppance for Mr. Potter at the end of the film.  He will continue on his merry way, trying to spin webs and capture others' dreams.  But he is a weaker man  and if he is technically correct that George is worth "more dead than alive", his inability to understand what worth really is, and that not everything in life can be commoditized, leaves him marginalized and alone.  I always tell my kids that it is awful to have people be jerks to us but the worse thing is to be the jerk.  We can walk away from them, they carry their pain with them wherever they go...



How many lives DO you touch?

It isn't until Clarence grants George's wish of never being born that George realizes the impact that he has had on others.  I think many of us are guilty from time to time of thinking that our lives are small or dull compared with the exciting lives we see being led by others in the blog world or on Facebook.  And yet we neglect to recognize or underestimate the impact that we have on those whose lives we touch now or touched in the past.

I was reminded of that twice this week.  The first time was when our own beloved Tabitha re-entered the Kingdom of Blog, clearly shocked by how sad her early retirement had made her loyal followers.  She may profess to lead a quiet life, but it's a quiet life I want to hear about! And it is a pretty interesting quiet life...

The second time was an email I got this week out of the blue by a former staffer who wanted me to know what a difference I had made in her career.  To say I was gobsmacked and touched would be an understatement.  We touch more lives than we think we do and each word out of our mouth, each stroke of the pen, each action we undertake has many ripples in the grand pond around which we paddle.  George Bailey shows UP from the time he is a young boy, and that makes all the difference in the lives of those around him.



Money is not everything, Character is

We forget that sometimes, surrounded as we are by media and others who tell us that having this thing or that thing will ascribe us with status.  I forget that from time to time; I think that if I had this purse, or that coat or a bigger house or whatever I would have it all.  Things are the flotsam and jetsam of our lives; they come and go and in the end, we cannot take them with us.  The kindness and love people have shown me in my life are more real than any purchase I could make; when we think with fondness of special Christmas gifts we have received in our lives, what we are most often thinking of is the love of the parent or friend or family member who took the time to find that thing which makes our heart sing.  The email I got this week is now forever embedded in my DNA, like other kindnesses and kind words I have received, I will carry it forward with me for the rest of my life and it will shape me and my actions in ways that the finest sweater or purse could never. 

George forgets what true wealth is until in an hour of need it shows up, un-asked for by him, at his door.  His brother Harry toasts him as the "richest man in Bedford Falls" and Clarence inscribes Tom Sawyer with some of the truest words ever:



I am most convinced of a higher power, a higher something, when I see the kindness and goodness of people stepping up to help in the hour of need, whether a small need or a disaster.  I see it over and over again and it always humbles me.  Thanks to the gift her receives from Clarence, George sees this before it is too late, before he has wasted his life in regrets and what-ifs.  For it is in the mundane where the beauty is: the breath of the person in bed next to you, the smile of your mother, the laughter of your children or of a friend.  This movie reminds us that these are not to be squandered, and that ultimately, it is the journey that matters.


If you haven't seen this film, take a gander.  If you have watched in the past and dismissed it, take a more critical look.  In 1998, the first year the American Film Institute created their list of the top 100 movies of all time, It's a Wonderful Life was number 11.  It is higher than that on the Wendy list, and I do well to watch it each Christmas Eve, reminding myself of the quote I love so much by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

These Happy Years are Passing by, These Happy Golden Years. 

Yes George, it is a wonderful life...

Have you seen this movie?  What lessons have you gleaned from it?

Still not too late to enter the blog giveaway - pop over to last Friday's post and let me know you want in!

Have a great day and stay safe out there...



















 

36 comments:

  1. Reading this made me cry, it was every bit as powerful as the film was. You are so right about character, it is so underrated these days, in fact it's a word I barely even hear used any more, its almost out of vogue when in fact it's something we should all be working on and striving for but our selfish 'gimme gimme society' has eroded its importance.

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    1. I have to constantly remind myself that my worth is defined by me just being me, not by the stuff I do or do not have, and you are right, our society makes that a challenge! But I was genuinely touched by the outpouring of affection shown to you and your blog and it reminded me that there are many who read us who we never know, because they don't like to comment, which I completely respect, and they and their energy is right here too! So far that is my only resolution for 2014 - positive energy!

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    2. Agree word for word with Tabitha.

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    3. That's why we love our Tabs!

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  2. This movie is so sweet and idealistic but I get saddened bc not many have the same realisations so for many it feels futile. Very important movie that I think needs to be remade for the new generation!

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    1. CSW - I hear you! It is funny; over the past year I have been on such a journey and my feelings and expectations have changed dramatically - I am a sunny person, but I used to be much more judgemental than I am now - people are on their own paths and we can maybe inspire them along the way by our actions, but we can't tell them what to do or how to get there!

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  3. I tell my kids, and myself, the right path is not always the easy path. I have never seen this movie. I will give it a go on your recommendation. I do know it is very hard to be gracious and then humble about it. The need to be shown appreciation by grand gestures is something I battle with. Of course, if some one would just take out the trash with out be asked is a huge gesture in my book. We are in "family home" for a week now and I love em but am starting to get irritated. I know... off subject. Too much "bonding".

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    1. Ha - I hear you! I have been practicing this thing for many months where when you feel yourself judging someone you are supposed to add "just like I am sometimes" - as in "Wendy never shuts up, just like I don't shut up sometimes". Good lord it is hard sometimes!!!! I am trying to be very present this holiday season, though the dog waking me up the last 3 mornings at 4:30 am to go out to the bathroom makes me less than sunny... Hang in there - Santa Claus is coming!

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    2. Oh, BB, I hear you, too! Taking deep breaths already!

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  4. What a beautiful post Wendy. Thank you so much for this! Merry Christmas to you and your family!

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    1. Thanks Melissa - right back at you! Merry Christmas!

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  5. Wendy, you have a wonderful way with words. I seldom comment, but I read all of your posts, and this one hits the nail right on the head. Beautiful summation of the movie and what is important in life.

    I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas!

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    1. Thank you so much! Merry Christmas to you and yours!

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  6. We love this movie , too. "Mary, doncha know me, Mary?" So heartbreaking!

    Our interactions are seeds; we can plant them, but we do not know what the will grow into. It is humbling to have had such an effect someone's life, an honor to cherish. As you will.

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    1. Lane - with you 100%!

      I have to admit, I always loved the line "I wish I had a million dollars - hot dog!"

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    2. Haha-- "hot dog" was up there with "goody gumdrops"! Hard to imagine such a time.

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    3. Oh Lane, my dad used to say that all the time.

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  7. I adore this movie. Watch it almost every year. Another favorite that is tied for 1st place for me with "It's a Wonderful Life" is 1951's "A Christmas Carol" with Alastair Sim playing Scrooge. Great acting and great lines like Kathleen Harrison as Mrs Dilber saying "And a Merry Christmas Mr Scrooge, in keeping with the situation!" Love those movies.

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    1. You are so right! The 1951 version is by far the best and in black and white - SCARY!

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  8. I don't know this movie, but I love this post ans it is the right time to read (write) it. Thank you Wendy. I agree with everything you say here and with the comments that have been posted.
    Wishing everyone a Merry Xmas.

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    1. Merry Christmas Steph! If you see this on TV this season - give it a whirl!

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    2. I'm more a Miracle on 34th Street girl, me. Wonderful Life never reached me, but I did appreciate your reflections. Actually your thoughts are far superior to the WL script. We never know if or when something we say or do will change someone's life, for good or ill. If I let someone in a checkout line go ahead of me, will she be home in time to make a hot meal for the kid who'll grow up to cure cancer? Or will she be hit by a drunk driver who would not have crossed her path had she reached the intersection 5 minutes later?

      Merry Christmas, Wendy, Barry & family.

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  9. I watch this one almost every year too. My takeaway, in addition to what you discussed already, is that there is beauty and worth in the ordinary. Lots of times, an ordinary, boring life is a lot to be thankful for. That is easier to swallow when you have already "seen the world", though, so much harder for George to know it.

    I am halfway through watching Love, Actually, Wendy (I'm late to that party!). I loooove this movie! I saw it a long time ago, but I like it even more this time around.

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    1. Cate - so glad you are liking Love Actually more this time - I think I liked it better from the second time onwards!

      You are right that we are more able to love our lives if we have seen some of the world, though I think of my mother-in-law, who hates to travel, who feels very content at the extent of her travels! Poor George!

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  10. What a beautiful post. I love that film and you've made me see it in a fresh light. Thank you!

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  11. HELLO BEDFORD FALLS Christmas isn't Christmas without two things on the telly, IAWL & the Queen's Speech - well message. (My whole holiday will be an utter muddle when I have to start listening to Charles, or, heretically, just skip.) Wendy, this goes in your Top 10 posts of 2013.

    I think the biggest thing this movie has reminded me with repeat viewings, something I truly struggle with, is that life is supposed to be largely not what you planned, imperfect and messy. But that the misses and the flaws make the other bits truly wonderful, despite the pain or sacrifice. It's like the Italians talking about sweet needing bitter. That and fact that love comes in all kinds of often unexpected guises, romantic, family, community, higher powers and greater common good.

    I guess it's about having to say farewell to what you thought you wanted in order to fully appreciate what you already have. Think it's also true that some many who survived wartime understand that in a way most of us don't.

    Will think of you when watching tomorrow night. Happy hols all!

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    1. Well I will be watching both of your "must-sees" and will follow Charles - I am an utter Royalist to the end. I will say that life just happens, doesn't it, and I am always reminded of that quote (and am going to misquote it!) - when you change your perspective about something the thing you are looking at changes" or something similar -

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    2. King Charles (sure given history he will pick another moniker?) will need an ardent cheering section.

      Did you mean, "Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change." -- somebody Dwyer I think.

      My version has always been Lennon's 1980 Beautiful Boy capture of a brilliant phrase from earlier decades, "Before you cross the street take my hand. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans."

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  12. Lovely post Wendy. I've only watched this movie once, a while ago now, but everything you say resonates.

    Thanks for a year of great posts and great conversation in the comments, Wendy. Here's wishing you and the family a wonderfully merry Christmas!

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    1. Thank you Patricia! Merry Christmas!

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  13. Wonderful post on the wonderful life! Hoping your Christmas is fabulous!

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Kindness is a virtue...