Saturday, December 20, 2008

It's A Wonderful Life -- touching lives

Director: Frank Capra, 1946.

Voted second in a recent poll of best movies never to have won an Oscar (Shawshank Redemption came in first), It's A Wonderful Life is a classic Christmas film, a feel-good fairy story. An independent film that flopped at the box office, it has been picked up by the networks and is the one Christmas tradition, it seems, that continues through good times and bad. You can count on Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey to pick up your spirits. If you haven't seen this movie, where have you been! It's a must see movie. But keep the tissues handy. I cry through many of the scenes, though I've seen it times over. Be warned, those of you who have not seen it yet: this review might give away some spoilers.

The film opens with a view of the heavens. One "star/angel" is talking to another about the happenings on earth. A man, George Bailey, is about to make a calamitous decision to end his life. To intervene, Joseph commissions angel second class Clarence Oddbody to save George's life and thereby earn his wings. He gives Clarence a retrospective view of George's life to help him in this mission. And this review takes us through the first two acts of the film.

George grew up in Bedford Falls, New York, with grandiose plans -- to travel and explore the world, then go to college, before spending his life and career building towers and bridges. He knew what he was going to do. He had the ambitions and plans of youth. But the very day he is leaving town, after working for years in his father's small building and loan firm, his father dies. George defers his trip. When the firm is about to be forced to close by Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the cold-blooded miser who owns almost all of the town and wants more, there is only one hope. Only if George stays to run the company will it survive. So loyal George puts his town, his community and his friends before himself. He sacrifices his plans on the altar of community need. Later, when younger brother Harry returns from college and is expected to take over so George can himself go to school, George puts Harry's career ahead of his own, and commits to staying at the helm of the firm. He sacrifices his dreams on the altar of sibling need., to add insult to injury, on the day of his wedding to Mary (Donna Reed in her first starring role), when they are about to leave on their honeymoon, George sees something happening at the bank. Economic depression has hit home and hit hard. There is a run on the bank and then on his savings and loan. Fear causes his mom and pop investors to demand their money. Of course, the money isn't available. So, George, at the prompting of understanding and generous Mary, gives away their honeymoon-travel money to save his firm and his friends. Now he has sacrificed his savings.

This extended prolog builds up George's character and sets the scene for the final act. After the war, George and Mary now have 4 children and have helped many in the town to move out of Potter's slums into their own homes. They have little to show for it, except for an old house that is being transformed into a home by Mary's renovation skills. But when Uncle Billy loses $8000 (a fortune in those days) in Potter's bank things become very bleak. Potter finds the money and realizes he can keep it and bankrupt Bailey. George finds this out on Christmas Eve, with a hawkish bank auditor in his office. Realizing he is ruined without the money, he goes to Potter begging for help. Seeing his main asset, a life insurance policy, Potter tells him: "You are worth more dead than alive!" And finally George is en route for a jump from a bridge. Jimmy Stewart communicates so well with his facial expressions and mannerisms a man with no hope, whose life has hit a dead end, aman whose dreams have evaporated and who finds himself in a nightmare.

George's focus on his circumstances causes him to unravel psychologically. So much so that he becomes angry and abusive with Uncle Billy. He returns home frustrated and fretful. To Mary, decorating the home for Christmas, he shouts, "You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?" I have been there, so frustrated that I have verbalized these sentiments. Though not genuine, in the heat of the moment and when losing sight of the big picture, it is easy to feel powerless and defeated.

George's impotence and despair leads to thoughts of suicide. However, unlike Roy in The Fall, who wants to take his own life because he has lost what he thought was the center of his world, George wants to commit suicide to help his family through his life insurance. A desperate act to solve a desperate problem. But regardless of the motive, suicide is a sin, as discussed in my review of The Fall. Suicide is not a solution to a problem, even a problem like George's. Suicide is a selfish way out, an escape from the problem. It leaves the survivors, like Mary and her children, to face a lifetime of soul-searching questions, berating themselves with feelings of guilt over what they could have done to notice and prevent the act. three. Step in gentle Clarence. He comes down to earth on what seems an easy mission. But it is more difficult than it appears. The opening he needs appears when George wishes verbally that he had never been born. Clarence grants him his wish: "You've been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you." And, in a twinkle, the world of Bedford Falls no longer exists; it is now the world of Pottersville. George's friends are now lonely, living sad, even sinful lives, having never known him. Worse, Harry is not a war hero. Harry is dead, since George was not there to save him. As Clarence tells him, "Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

Touching lives is the main theme of the film. George has touched almost all of the people in Bedford Falls through his savings and loan business. And he has unknowingly touched others across the country through the lives of those he himself has touched, such as Harry. Like George, our lives touch many people. Obviously, we touch the lives of our spouse, our children, our parents, our siblings. But there are also the people we work with, and the people we don't know but interact with during the course of our days. And then there are the people all these touch. It can explode exponentially! So, what kind of touch are we giving? What kind of legacy are we leaving? Is it positive, pointing to Jesus? Or is it negative, turning people away, even hurting them? Even more important perhaps, are we intentionally thinking about this, about how we can have a positive impact for Christ? We are called to be missional in our thinking and living, taking the gospel of Jesus to those around us, and being ready to give a defense for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15). Are we living in that state of readiness, expecting to be able to touch a soul in need, even today?

There is some bad theology in the film. Clarence, a dead human, has become an angel. Biblically, angels are distinct from humanity (Heb. 2:6-8). They are not a development of humankind at death. God created angels, and they don't marry or reproduce (Matt. 22:30). They have a set number. And they fell before mankind, under the rebellious leadership of Satan (Rev. 12:9). They don't earn their wings, either. Some angels have wings (Isa. 6:2). Those that do, have them as part of their make-up. And finally, though the idea of guardian angels is found in some biblical verses (Acts 12:7-11, Dan. 12:1), it is not clear how prevalent they are.

It's A Wonderful Life may have some bad theology, but it has some good and very relevant lessons for today, even 60 years after its first release. Indeed, we find ourselves in an economic recession that is leaving many people depressed and desperate just like George. We can learn from George, especially as he is contrasted with Potter. George was at heart a man of character. Like his father, he was a generous selfless man, giving to those in need. In contrast, Potter was a selfish, greedy, money-grabbing man with no heart. He cared for no one but himself. For him, life was simply a series of business transactions. Potter wanted to win, to have everything he could and more. But Bailey senior died a richer man than him. Biblically, our money and possessions are not really ours. They are God's and we are merely his stewards. We are called to be generous and cheerful givers (1 Tim. 6:18, 2 Cor. 9:7), like George, helping the poor. Too often, this world (and America in particular) feeds our consumerism and constrains us into the mold of Potter, wanting more and more, hoarding what have ever more tightly. We need to be transformed into the mold of George Bailey. It's A Wonderful Life deals with life, and how wonderful it is. George's "ordinary" life had touched so many. As the wise Clarence said to George, "no man is a failure who has friends." Life is not all about money, things, achievements. It is about relationships, friends, loved ones. George was a rich man indeed. He had a beautiful wife, four healthy and cute children, and many friends. Only in his time of trial, his moment of need, do these friends come out of the woodwork and show their true colors. But they do. They know George was in need and he never asked for anything for himself. Almost everybody in Bedford Falls prays for George; almost everybody in Bedford Falls gives to George. How much more can a man want than this: family and friends who will pray and give, love and care. As Clarence says to George at the end, "You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life." When we get down and depressed, it is worth remembering this advice from Clarence. Our lives, just like George's, are too precious to throw away.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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