Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

     Funny how this movie is almost the iconic Christmas movie, even though only a portion of it takes place at Christmastime. But I always like to watch this movie around this time of the year if I get the chance, and even in different parts of the year, because it’s a message that people can take away at any time. Even though, in 1946 when “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released, audiences didn’t really like it. They thought it was too dark, especially after World War Two, so it made little money at the box office and received no Academy Awards. (They all went to “The Best Years of Our Lives” instead, which I look forward to sharing with you sometime in 2013.)

     But the story of George Bailey has stood the test of time and is now more loved than ever. James Stewart plays the role of George, a man growing up in the small suburban Bedford Falls with a very eventful life. As a child, he saved his brother from drowning and his drug-store boss from going to jail. As a young man, he contributed to his high school, supported his brother as he went through high school as a talented athlete, and stayed friends with his childhood buddies. Eventually, he even rediscovers the girl of his dreams: Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who always had a thing for George as a girl even though he never saw it.

     However, the night before George is to leave to go traveling around the world, one of the things he’s always wanted to do, his life starts to get out of control. His father has a stroke and passes away, and his business, the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan company, is left almost without a future, forcing George to reluctantly step in to control and let brother Harry (Todd Karns) go to college instead of him. Throughout his business, George and his uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) are pestered by the rich, mean Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who wants to control their business and thus everything in Bedford Falls.

     Slowly but surely, George starts to gain control again. He falls in love with Mary and they are wed. He saves the Building and Loan from bankruptcy by helping pay debt out of his own pocket. He builds houses for people under foreclosure. He has four wonderful children. And when World War Two comes, he is one of the few who stay in Bedford Falls to keep the home front, as it were, running as usual.

     But Christmas Eve, Uncle Billy misplaces—or Mr. Potter steals—a large sum of money to be given to the bank examiner. No one can find it, and George realizes this will probably mean jail time for him. He goes home that night, is irritated by little things at home, and after a fit of rage, he sadly leaves home while Mary and the kids pray and try to find out what’s wrong. George comes to a place on a bridge in Bedford Falls, on this cold and snowy Christmas Eve, where he feels jumping off to his death would be beneficial to everyone around him.

     If you’ve seen the movie, you know that George Bailey’s biography is told to us through angels. And one of them is sent down to help George: Clarence (Henry Travers) jumps into the bridge, sending George to snap out of it and go get him. Clarence claims that by doing this, he saved George, even though it seems the other way around. And Clarence, after hearing George’s lament, grants him a wish: to see the world if he had never been before.

     And boy, does it get dark here. Bedford Falls, in this alternate reality, is now Pottersville, with the wholesomeness that was once George Bailey’s hometown has been replaced by the consumerism of Mr. Potter, with many of George’s friends—or all of them—worse off than they are in terms of their attitude and outlook on life. And long story short, George realizes what he’s done and goes back to the bridge and prays earnestly: “I want to live again! Please, God, let me live again.”

     George then comes back to Bedford Falls, where the townspeople have all gotten together and donated some of their money to replace the sum that was lost, and helping George realize that his relationships with the people of Bedford Falls were worthwhile after all. Yes, this is an inspirational story, one of the most moving films ever made, in my opinion. But I have to be honest, I thought for a while about what Scripture there might be to connect to the film. But I remembered a few verses that have been on my heart and mind for a while, in Philippians 2, where Paul writes about the humility Christ showed:

     In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (2:5-8)

     In a way, George Bailey represented Christ in Bedford Falls for much of his life. Even though at times he had no other choice, he chose nonetheless to make himself less than the people around him, and providing for others’ needs rather than just his own. And when George forgets the fruits of his labor, Clarence is able to remind him:

CLARENCE: 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? …You see, George? You really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?

     And praise God that he didn’t throw his life away. And my prayer for you this Christmas is that whatever hardships you may be facing, you remember to lessen yourself for the good of people around you, no matter how much it may hurt. I hope you have a blessed Christmas.

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