Saturday, April 25, 2009

What’s Mine Is Yours

Mr. Deeds Comes to Town
A Christmas Carol
It Could Happen to You

These days, you hear a lot of negative talk about an economic system called socialism and anger about the idea of a redistribution of wealth. To my ears, such complaints contain a double irony. First, the majority of people who are making these complaints are likely to benefit from them. Second, most of these people consider themselves Christians – a religion whose founder taught that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and it is our duty to take care of those less fortunate than ourselves. These teachings are at the core of the three movies I will discuss in this posting.

I begin with the Great Depression-era film Mr. Deeds Comes to Town (released in 1936 in black and white), the story of Mandrake Falls, Vermont, resident Longfellow Deeds who comes into a $20 million fortune when his uncle, Martin Semple, dies and makes the tuba playing, greeting-card poet his sole beneficiary. The uncle’s lawyer, John Cedar, takes the nephew to New York City, where Longfellow becomes embroiled in a lot of high-society shenanigans and meets an award-winning reporter named Babe Bennett.

Unfortunately for Longfellow, these two characters do not have his best interests at heart. Cedar has been embezzling money from the Semple estate and plans to trick Longfellow into letting him handle the money from the inheritance. Meanwhile, Babe pretends to be a poor woman who wants to be his friend so that she can gather information for a series of newspaper articles. As can be expected, Longfellow is willing to trust Cedar, up to a point, and falls in love with Babe. And adding to the plot, Mr. and Mrs. Semple, Longfellow’s cousin and his wife, show up with the intention of contesting the will.

But the stories of Longfellow’s misadventures reach a farmer friend of his from Vermont. The farmer comes to New York to chastise Longfellow for allowing the foolishness to get the better of him. The farmer then convinces Longfellow that there are better ways to use his money than on frivolity. So Longfellow comes up with the idea to take $18 million of his inheritance and use it to buy farms and give them to needy families. When Cedar finds out, he begins legal proceedings to have Longfellow committed to a mental institution. The reason? Anyone willing to give away $18 million must be crazy.

At the trial, Cedar’s main witnesses are two sisters who live together in Mandrake Falls and testify that they consider Longfellow “pixilated.” Babe, who by now has revealed her charade, is also called on to attest to Longfellow’s eccentricities – and although her testimony is damaging, she confesses on the stand that she is in love with him.

This admission stirs Longfellow, who has remained completely silent during the proceedings, to finally defend himself. He does this by pointing out the idiosyncrasies of many of the people in the courtroom – including Cedar, Mr. Semple and the judge – and then questioning the sisters from Mandrake Falls. Longfellow asks the sisters if they still think that he is pixilated, to which they reply, “Yes.” He then asks them who else in Mandrake Falls is pixilated. They answer, “Why everyone, of course, except us.” Longfellow then explains why he wants to make the generous gesture that Cedar and the Semples oppose. He uses a metaphor involving a man in a row boat who sees another man in a row boat and a man who is drowning in the water. He asks the judge who deserves his help more, the drowning man or the man in the row boat who is too lazy to use his oars. After due deliberation, the judge tells Longfellow that he is the sanest man who has ever been in his courtroom.

In the film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1938, b&w), miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge – a man who has nothing but disdain for his soon-to-be-married nephew; his underpaid employee and his family, which includes a young crippled son; and mankind in general, which he proves by saying that the poor should be relegated to jails and poor houses and don’t deserve any monetary assistance from him – learns to change his stingy ways with the help of a ghost and three spirits who visit him on Christmas Eve.

After being guided by the spirits on visits to his past, the present and the future, Scrooge rediscovers the merry feelings of Christmas that he enjoyed while he was young and before he became jaded by the disappointments he had experienced. He is especially moved by the forewarned death of his employee’s son. Then on Christmas morning, a cheerful Scrooge promises to donate a large sum of money to help the poor and amasses an armful of presents that he gives to the nephew and his fiancée and his employee’s family. He also gives his employee a raise and promises to help with the lame child's medical expenses.

This story has been cinematically produced many times with both human and cartoon characterizations. I’ve watched this particular version every Christmas season since I was a child. Back then in New York, this version and a 1951 version of the story were played back-to-back all night long on Christmas Eve – and I would be glued to the television set the entire night, not worried that Santa might find me awake. The other movie that I watch every Christmas season is It’s a Wonderful Life, which I could have included in this posting. However, I’m saving that for another time because I consider the next film It’s a Wonderful Life’s cinematic progeny.

It Could Happen to You (1994, color) is the story of an exceptionally kind-hearted, married, New York City policeman named Charley Lang who tips a waitress $2 million dollars. Perhaps I should explain how this happened.

Charlie’s wife Muriel, who works in a beauty salon and is obsessed with acquiring as much money as she can, had a dream that she took as a sign that she would win the lottery. Muriel sent Charlie to purchase the lottery ticket, which he did while on duty. Charlie and his partner, Bo Williams, then stopped in a diner to get lunch. Their waitress, Yvonne Biasi – who is separated from her no-good husband and earlier that day had been officially declared bankrupt – served them coffee and then went to fill their order. But they were interrupted by a call on their police radio and had to leave before they got served. When Charlie went to pay the bill for his coffee, he discovered that he didn’t have enough money for a tip, so he promised Yvonne that he would return the next day to either share his lottery winnings or give Yvonne double the tip. Of course, Charlie never expected to win the lottery and Yvonne never expected to see him again.

That night, Muriel and Charlie find out that they have, indeed, hit the jackpot. Naturally, Muriel is upset when she learns that her husband had promised to share their winnings with a waitress. But Charlie eventually manages to calm Muriel down by telling her that she will become known as “the woman with the heart of gold” and her fame will earn her commercial endorsements that will increase her newfound wealth. The next day, Charlie returns to the diner to and gives the good news to Yvonne.

After receiving their money, Muriel goes on a spending spree, buying furs, jewelry and knocking out walls to expand the size of their apartment. Yvonne, on the other hand, goes to the grocery store and treats herself with a jar of Macadamia nuts. She also buys the diner where she worked and sets up a table that is reserved for free meals for homeless people.

You might think that Charlie would retire from the police force after his windfall – but not this guy. He believes that being a cop is the noblest profession there is. But he gets slightly wounded while preventing a robbery and, unfortunately from his point of view, is given time off. Then, he and Muriel attend a party cruise for lottery winners. Muriel, now in her element, leaves Charlie and goes off to mingle with the others partygoers – and meets a man who seemed to me to be way too interested in the flashy beautician. Charlie, who is obviously uncomfortable at the event, goes up on deck to be alone. While there, he sees Yvonne arrive in a taxi and goes to meet her on the dock. But by the time they head to the gangplank, the party is pulling away from the pier and Charlie and Yvonne have missed the boat.

Charlie and Yvonne then go out to dinner, do a little dancing and – since Charlie has so much time off because of his recovery – agree to get together again just to hang out. Their hanging out involves things like buying bags of tokens to pay for subway rides for working people and renting out a professional baseball park so they can give groups of kids the opportunity to actually play the game in the kind of place where many of their sports idols would play.

But Muriel is unhappy with the way Charlie is spending their money and jealous of his relationship with Yvonne. So, she kicks him out. Meanwhile, Yvonne’s husband has returned and wants some of her windfall. Yvonne packs a bag and walks out. And as fate (the plot, actually) would have it, Charlie and Yvonne – unaware of what is going on in each other’s personal life – check into the Plaza Hotel at just about the same time. And of course, the love that has been simmering beneath the surface fully blossoms. The next day, Yvonne returns to her apartment and finds her husband has gone, and Charlie goes to stay with Bo and his family.

Then, Muriel sues for divorce and not only wants Charlie’s share of the lottery winnings, which he gladly is willing to fork over, but also the money that was given to Yvonne. Calling it unfair, Charlie decides to fight the demand and they all end up in court. During the proceedings, Yvonne is made to look like a gold digger and Charlie a philanderer who is having an affair with another man’s wife. When Muriel wins the case, Yvonne runs out of the courthouse in tears before Charlie can catch up with her.

Charlie eventually finds Yvonne at the diner, which is no longer hers, on a rainy night. She tells Charlie to leave her alone because she feels responsible for ruining his life. But Charlie refuses to go and gets her to admit that she does love him.

Now we come to the part that ties this movie to It’s a Wonderful Life. This film has been narrated by a person named Angel, who is actually more than just the narrator. Angel, disguised as a homeless person seeking a meal, shows up at the diner while Charlie and Yvonne are licking their wounds inflicted by the trial. After setting up their visitor with a plate of food, Charlie and Yvonne go back to consoling each other while Angel, who is actually a newspaper reporter, stealthily takes pictures of two people dealing with their grief. The next day, the paper runs a romantic story about the tribulations that has left these two wonderfully generous people emotionally scarred and financially bankrupt. And, Angel suggests that his readers do something to help alleviate their misery.

When Charlie and Yvonne go to clean out the diner, they find a stack of mail just inside the door. Inside the mail, Angel’s readers, touched by their story, are sending them money – five dollars here, a ten-dollar check there. The mail keeps coming and it takes several days to open and read all of it – and count up the $600,000 that the letters contained.

In the end, Charlie and Yvonne get married and presumably live happily ever after. As for Muriel, she loses all the money after she marries the sleazebag from the party cruise, who then empties their bank account disappears. Muriel ends up going to live at her mother’s apartment in the Bronx.

Granted, these stories are fairytales. But they do teach us valuable lessons – the most important being that generosity is its own reward. Sharing their fortunes brought satisfaction and joy to Longfellow Deeds, Ebenezer Scrooge and Charlie and Yvonne – who said while paying for people’s subway rides that she was having the best day of her life.

But if you need concrete proof that generosity can improve the fabric of your life, just ask the students in Florida’s Broward County public school system. These kids collectively raised $93,450.14 – enough money to build eleven schools for children living in Kenya. The words of these Florida schoolchildren eloquently echo the message of these movies.

Thirteen-year-old seventh-grader Santiago Vazquez, III, told The Miami Herald: “We have a lot, and I guess you could say they have nothing.”

Said 18-year-old FaraAnn Gonzalez: The children in Kenya are “saying how much they appreciate us. We appreciate them so much more. I’ll be able to tell my kids and my grandkids about that.”

These are things this country would do well in considering when the subject of redistributing wealth arises.

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