Thursday, January 16, 2014

Counterparts: John Sims & George Bailey

Yesterday I made mention of the film the Crowd (1928) by King Vidor, the last feature film remaining from my 2010 wish list, which I finally watched this week. I first learned of it from Kevin Brownlow's documentary series Hollywood and found the clips of massive skyscrapers and sprawling office spaces quite arresting.

The Crowd is a latter-day silent film, first arriving during the ascendency of the talkie. Throughout, Vidor demonstrated his mastery of images and found interesting ways of depicting life in a great city.

I think it's interesting to note some points of comparison between this film and its protagonist John Sims against George Bailey, protagonist of the much better-known It's a Wonderful Life (1946) by Frank Capra. Please indulge me, won't you?

Both films tell the story of an ambitious young man, beginning with his formative years near the start of the century, depicting his career and focusing on his love life and family, eventually bringing the protagonist to the brink of suicide.

However, the Crowd narrates its story directly to those of us in the audience, rather than through the intermediary of Clarence Oddbody in It's a Wonderful Life.

Both films' ambitious young protagonists are interrupted from daydreaming about their future when word arrives of their father's death.

However, while this leads to George Bailey being forced to take the reins of his father's business, John Sims is simply entrenched in fantasies about the great future his father insisted would come his way.

Both films bring their protagonists into office-bound careers they don't particularly want and only stifle their dreams of grander things.

However, George Bailey remains in his small town amongst family, remaining an indelible part of the community. John Sims leaves his small town origins for New York, where he sets himself apart from "the crowd," believing himself better than others. Further, George seems to have real plans of what he would do with his life where he not forced to operate the Bailey Savings & Loans, while John seems to expect great things will simply be handed to him.

Both films have their protagonists fall in love with a woman named Mary, although it wasn't part of their own plans.

However, while George's Mary seems to be the perfect supporting partner and their marriage is happy, John's Mary is forced to become pragmatic and struggle against her mayfly-like husband.

Both films send their protagonists into homes which are less than ideal.

However, while George's great frustration is with the loose bannister knob, John has two major problems in he and Mary's apartment: the bathroom door doesn't stay closed and an elevated train runs past their window.

Both films gift their protagonists with children.

However, while the arrival of children increases George's anxiety about his ability to be a good provider, John only reconciles an attempted separation when he learns Mary is pregnant; later, John is shown to be as lackadaisical in his work as ever and leaves most of the responsibility for the children to Mary.

Both films lead their protagonist into career-ending crises through circumstances beyond their control.

However, while George's career is threatened because of Mr. Potter's theft of his money, John quits his job of his own volition because the death of his second child has rattled his faculties.

Both films take the protagonist to the brink of suicide on a bridge, then pull him back.

However, while George requires supernatural intervention to halt his suicide, John simply lacks the courage to kill himself.

Both films grant the tormented protagonist a new view on life.

However, while George's spirit is restored through realizing how many peoples' lives he's touched, John's spirit is restored after learning his son looks up to him, even as he looked up to his own father.

Both films leave their protagonists pleased with their lot in life.

However, while George's career is rescued, John winds up dressed as a clown and carrying a sandwich board, the same kind of career John openly disparaged near the start of the film, but this is seen as triumphant because he saves his marriage and seems to have set realistic goals for himself.

Ultimately, it's interesting to note how similar (yet different) Vidor & Capra's thoughts were about the plight of men "trapped" by their careers. Both protagonists learn to give up their dreams and appreciate the goodness in their lives - but it's certainly a harsher lesson for John Sims to learn, given how far he falls.

Finally, given how for quite a few years John believes he could win an advertising slogan contest (he only attempts this once and wins, but otherwise doesn't put effort into this), one is reminded of yet another working-class protagonist who dreams of winning an advertising contest: Jimmy MacDonald of Preston Sturges' Christmas in July (1940). So there you go - King Vidor is the missing link between Capra and Sturges. You're welcome!

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