Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Problem at the End of A Wonderful Life

THIS DISCUSSION/REVIEW of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It's a Wonderful Life CONTAINS SPOILERS

I just finished watching the Frank Capra classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the first time. Somewhere in my youngest days I may have seen snatches of it when it played on Saturday Night at the Movies, but the time I took it out from the library years ago I'm fairly certain I watched only part of it and left the rest. You pretty much know the end from the beginning, because... well it's Frank Capra and that happy ending sells hope, soap and movie tickets.

It's the classic formula, with the hero fighting for the right. Setback after setback leaves the viewer biting nails, and just when things seem darkest of all and hope is lost, hurrah! The good guy wins.

My DVD player (or rather, my Mac) has a small control panel that tells how much of the movie has played and how much remains. I was surprised, therefore when the little green numbers indicated that there were less than two minutes left in the film, after 127 minutes played, and the end is still not beginning. It's the famous filibuster scene. Not only has congress become weary, I imagine audiences were, too. "How long is this going to last?" Just before rigor mortis sets in, suddenly, with a flourish finish, it's over.

So there you have it, the Capra formula with his good-hearted star Jimmy Stewart walking the plank and sinking, down down down and then whoosh… Victory.

The structure so paralleled It's A Wonderful Life, which stars the same lovable hero, that my mind fixated on the problem I had with A Wonderful Life's tidy ending. That's a perennial favorite for many Americans at Christmas time, almost more important than going to church for some.

The most recent time I watched that film, about a month ago, I noticed that even though it feels good at the end when Clarence gets his wings, there is a problem, a complication that the film never addresses. As you recall George Bailey has just experienced the ultimate nightmare, what life would have been like had he never existed. Then, he is gratefully wakened and returns to the realities that he'd failed to recognize while in his puddle of despair. Fortunately, his lifetime of generosity comes back to him as friends line up to give their all in order to keep George from going to jail for fraud. Yes, George was in serious trouble, but all those people he helped when they'd been in trouble returned, like good karma, to help him when he was down.

So, what's my problem with that? Well, he needed $7,000 and all these people made sacrifices of all kinds, laying their money on the table so that it was a big pile of cash that the accountant tallied as it happened. Then, there's a phone call from an old friend saying he was wiring $25,000 for old Georgie boy because he heard George was in trouble.

Everybody there was cheerful and happy and the movie goers were happy... but don't you think one of the people who just gave so cheerfully might have gone to bed stewing over this thought, "How do you like that? I really didn't have to raid my piggy bank since that fellow from New York just wired more than three times what George needed."

Maybe I shouldn't think too deeply about that one.

Old movies loved keeping things tidy, which is O.K. probably. Real life is a bit more complex. But even though life is messy sometimes, it really is still wonderful. And better than the alternative.


LEWagner said...

"Old movies loved keeping things tidy, which is O.K. probably. Real life is a bit more complex."

I think you're right, there. Life on this earth IS a bit complex.
Thankfully, the afterlife can be known, however, by going to church on Sundays, and by reading and believing the Holy Bible.
The Holy Bible tells us that the only requirement for eternal salvation is to have accepted Jesus as personal savior.
What could be more simple!!

ENNYMAN said...

Thanks for the comment.
And yes, the Holy Bible is a bit more complex than that.