03 January 2009

The Secret of "A Wonderful Life"

George Bailey never would have jumped off that bridge if left to his own devices.

Oh, I know it looked like he would at one point...but it also looked at one point that he'd head for South America and build bridges and railroads. It also looked at one point that he'd spend his honeymoon in fine hotels quaffing fine wine and making mindless love with his new wife. It also was very nearly his fate to get into the plastics biz with his "hee-haw" buddy. And wasn't George an inch from accepting a princely salary from Potter by simply allowing the shaky "good ol' Building & Loan" to sink into oblivion?

But each time George teetered on the brink of happiness, something intervened to spoil it for him. Time and time again. Where was Clarence when all this was going on, is what I want to know. Strings were being pulled, that much is obvious. SOMEBODY was monkeying around with George's life. Setting him up???

Is it coincidence that, when all this monkeying has brought George to the juncture of despair, no place to turn except the dark waters of the raging river, the angel Clarence, admittedly motivated by a two-hundred-year-old desire to earn a set of wings, got in the way?

Then, by subterfuge, play-acting, and "what-ifing" Clarence convinced George that all was indeed lost unless George embraced his second-guessing loser life as flawed but livable.

If you remember, at several points George says something to the effect that this "Pottersville" was an illusion that Clarence was causing him to hallucinate.

George was soooooooo right!

Clarence wasn't really dotty... he was crafty, and declared innocently that this invented alternate history was no dream. This was a bald-faced angelic lie! One wonders about heavenly expediency. If ones wings hang in the balance, just how far are you authorized to go? Periodically Clarence glances skyward and asks how he's doing. Supposedly. And each time somebody eggs him on with encouragement. Supposedly. We don't hear this encouragement in the soundtrack. Hmmmmmmmmmm.

Think about THIS.... George already had experience in winter water rescue... he saved his brother Harry when the ice gave way under Harry's coal shovel sled. In the first place, why and how did Harry slide so much further onto dangerous thin ice when all the other participants did not? A little not-yet-angelic shove? The question could be asked. But most glaringly, if George could survive cold water and drag his brother to safety as a mere child, what's the likelihood of him choosing a river to commit suicide? None at all. When it came to water, George was in his element. Don't forget the High School Hidden Pool Affair. Jimmy Stewart as George was the first one in, and was enjoying the experience so much, splashing around with Donna Reed, that EVERYBODY went into the pool after him!

Doesn't the evidence point directly to would-be-winged Clarence as the author of all this from the beginning? Clarence knew perfectly well that George was preconditioned by his previous rescue of his brother to do exactly the same thing again! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury......!!!!?

Other evidence abounds, and some of it is extremely sinister.

Not content to deprive George of any existence he ever had, all the money in his pockets, and even Zu-Zu's petals, Clarence incited Nick to have them both thrown out of that tavern by making outrageous requests for antiquated drinks he knew they weren't intending to pay for. Even in Martini's bar back in Bedford Falls you'd be shown the door for trying THAT.

As in all mysterious treachery, unresolved questions abound. Uncle Billy was distracted. Why? Was it that raven hanging around him all the time? Donna Reed smashed that record of "Buffalo Girls" and yet she kept the drawing she'd made of George lassoing the moon... why? To taunt him later, a sign of dreams left unfulfilled? How did Bert the cop get to the airport and back so damn fast with Harry the hero.....and yet find time to pick up an accordion? an accordion we never knew he could play? and learn Auld Lang Syne by ear?

It all seems pretty suspicious to me.

How deep and for how long had this deception of George gone on? At the end of the movie, the whole TOWN shows up to put the gag over the top... all conspirators from day one? Ah, that would seem incredible. But is the notion of a SECOND, parallel illusion, brought on by Clarence in his quest for wings, so far-fetched? Perhaps George never HAD been born in the FIRST place! But speculation about illusions gets us nowhere.

I won't spin out all the possible alternatives a delusional angel might spawn, that would merely confuse the issue. Instead I'll stick with the final scenario: the aftermath.:

1) The real George, one Hedman P. Lakewurst, was born, grew up, failed to prosper, and died miserably, in good ol' Bedford Falls---NOT fictional, as so many claim, but located too far east of Lake Woebegon to be of any notice to anybody but Frank Capra. Capra was stranded there one Christmas Eve in a blizzard. Frank got drunk in Martini's Bar, and was run out of town by Bert the cop, but all the rest he improvised.

(Capra, before he died, blurted out a mumbled explanation and apology for his screenplay, which came down to us as his but which was actually directed by Elia Kazan, who swore everyone associated with the picture to secrecy about his participation.)

2) Donna Reed was not a virgin when she seduced Jimmy Stewart. In the script, when she tells her mother Jimmy's there "making passionate love" to her, the reason her mother doesn't take the comment as a sarcasm is because it wasn't.

3) We know the ensuing years were not pretty. Bert the cop made it all the way to Chief of Police until he made the mistake of threatening to expose Potter's theft of that $8,000, a fact he'd known all along but had been happy to accept smallish bribes to overlook. Potter, reacting logically enough, ordered Bert's assassination. Nick the bartender took the contract, slipping cyanide into Chief Bert's beer stein. Ernie, still a cabbie, thought he might finally get out of town with some ready cash, so he agreed to help Nick cart off the body to that highway bridge and drop it into the raging waters of no return. Unfortunately Potter had his "chair lackey" wire a time bomb to the cab's ignition. Of course, their names live on today, Bert and Ernie as hand puppets and Nick as a rerun television network. Potter himself was too evil to ever die. Instead he wound up a hedge fund manager...a dark shadow in the festering back alleys of Wall Street. .

4) In every movie, names are changed to avoid lawsuits, but in this strange case we have a twist: one of the first instances of reverse product placement. Getting wind of the movie, a small town in mid-Michigan decided being known as a city of sin was preferable to never having any reputation at all, and paid the studio handsomely to change "Onondaga" to "Potterville." Somehow this was garbled to add an "s", which made "Pottersville", which was not in Michigan but in Missouri. But so what. Nobody cared one way or the other.

It was a nice try, but the Indian Casinos all located elsewhere.

5) Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed passed on to greater glory after the movie was made. Stewart moved into gosh darn tootin' westerns and Reed evolved into the quintessential sixties housewife. Their torrid backstage romance was never exposed because to do so would contaminate American youth. ,

6) Clarence was an angel, though as you might surmise, a fallen one. The "mission" he was sent to earth to accomplish was NOT to save George Bailey but to demonstrate the futility of economic parity. He failed in this task so miserably that his wings were revoked six months later and he was permanently assigned to the redemption of Joseph Stalin.


---Michael--- said...

Thanks to "Kitty" (aka Gail Slaughter of California) for instigating this little piece, which she did by emailing me a link to a NYTimes article about the movie and all its conundrumic logic. Rather than simply pass the link on I wrote my own version, which of course is the only truth available in this world of illusion.

Tumblewords: said...

Interesting! I like that this is the 'only truth' - in this world of illusion.

---Michael--- said...

Some slight of hand is involved in all art forms, and I guess that defines illusion. When you write, you share a "truth"... a personal perspective which is truly yours.