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A story captures the imagination, and perhaps that is why there are so many. There are millions upon millions of stories in the world; they make up the backbone of society. Stories are the life-blood of children, the reason behind decisions made, the tales without which mankind would not exist in any way close to what he now does. All stories, however different, have similarities. There is always a hero, always a conflict, and, in some way, that conflict is always overcome. Because of the fact that every story holds true to that basic outline, it's both possible and logical to compare different stories to one another.
In Cinderella Man, a biographical movie about a boxer during the Great Depression, it's easy to foresee the outcome from the beginning. Perhaps that element is what makes Cinderella Man such a marvelous and gripping story: knowing what will occur and following along with James Braddock as he gets there. Boxing movies are about that: an underdog defeating the odds as well as stronger opponents. Cinderella Man, however, works hard to develop the character of both James Braddock and his wife, showing the depth of emotion and hardship they go through as they struggle against cold, hunger, boxing matches, and the worst economy of the century. With each new problem, the audience is shown the extent of the love Braddock harbors for his family, and his willingness to sacrifice his own hunger, health, and livelihood for the ones he cherishes the most. Plot-wise, Cinderella Man most closely resembles the basic plot of "Rags to Riches," although Braddock definitely deals with "Overcoming the Monster" as well (Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, ). James Braddock begins with a promising future, sees his hopes dashed by injuries, boxing losses, and financial crisis, and reemerges as an aging boxer to shock the world with his longshot win against a huge favorite. The plot is not something utterly fantastic or far-fetched, but it does its job well in communicating a strong message of hope and the importance of familial commitment.
Cinderella Man deals with the plot of "Rags to Riches," but It's A Wonderful Life operates on a more complex story-line, with its main character seeming to be on a quest for righteousness and at the same time seeing his ideals, hopes, and root values experience a rebirth of sorts. While growing up, George Bailey has big dreams to travel and see the world, but gives them up to marry his sweetheart and stand up to a money-clenching tyrant, Mr. Potter, who works to monopolize the small town of Bedford Falls. As tragedy after tragedy mounts and Bailey waves farewell to dream after dream, the viewers can sense the tension mounting as he runs out of ways to cope. Fortunately for the now middle-aged Bailey and the worried viewers, the movie relieves the pressure by showing how George's life would have been had he not been faithful in his crusade for goodness. The out-of-body experience gives Bailey the encouragement he needs to continue in the hard life that he lives. Because of his new perspective, a new, happier, more reflective George Bailey is born. When he dies (emotionally) to his first quest, he begins to become cognizant of the more important and fulfilling quest that he has been given to complete in the small, mundane tasks of small-town life and family.
While both of these stories are very different, there are also many characteristics that the main protagonists share. Both of the heroes are willing to do whatever they need to do to make sure their families can enjoy life in a stable and healthy environment. For James Braddock, that means taking on men much younger, stronger, and agile than he, and working with a broken hand lifting heavy bags of grain. In one of the first scenes portraying the abrupt change from affluent lifestyle to extreme poverty, Braddock gives up his solitary slice of salami to his wakeful daughter, who has already had her piece. He then heads out on an unfruitful search for work on the docks. Such a scene is typical of Braddock, a quiet man who leads his family through love, humility, and example rather than harsh words or angry behavior. Even when purposefully taunted and insulted by his final opponent, Braddock keeps his composure and comes back with a simple quip that leaves Max Bauer looking like the ugly-spirited man he is.
While James Braddock leads his life and family through quiet charm and lets his actions speak for him, George Bailey is a much more talkative hero. He shares Braddock's sacrificing attitude in that he surrenders his dreams, his idea of a comfortable living, and is willing to give up his life. When hard times come, Bailey faces them in a variety of different ways. Early on in the story, he quietly forfeits his will to whatever ultimately benefits his family, community, and town. As it progresses, however, and his nature is increasingly challenged, angry outbursts flow out of his mouth toward virtually everyone he meets, including his dearly loved family. Even in his anger, though, his love and deep care for their well-being is readily apparent. It is not people he is angry at as much as the situation that got him there, and that brings him to the point of drunken suicidal thoughts. Bailey's mood-swings are a part of who he is, just as Braddock's seemingly emotionless temperament is fundamental to his psyche.
The movies are different in their subject matter: one movie is about boxing, and the other about life in a small town. One man's vocation is fighting, and the other's is business. George's dreams are crushed, and James' (Jimmy) dream is realized. It's a Wonderful Life encompasses Bailey's whole life up to the point of conflict, and Cinderella Man focuses on only a few years of Braddock's. One movie is mainly about the importance and strength of close companions, as one article put it, "This is what the picture is about--the subtle and casual surprise of friendship." (Rosenblatt, Roger. "Sometimes it's a Wonderful Life: The movie at the center of the season is about not being alone." Time 11 Dec. 2000: 126. Academic OneFile. Web. 14 Sept. 2010.) The other, Cinderella Man, while focusing somewhat on the friendships and comradeship that brought Braddock to his big fight, is more about the work necessary to succeed in life, and the determination it takes to get there. Josh Larsen, in an article about the movie, phrases that well: "â€¦the movie's point â€¦Hard work, not handouts, is the way to pull yourself up by your bootstraps." (Larsen, Josh. "A dutiful man." The American Enterprise 16.5 (2005): 50. Academic OneFile. Web. 14 Sept. 2010.) Even though their subjects are somewhat different, they are also linked: both strongly represent the need for healthy human relationship and support, and both endorse hard work as the way to make it in the world. Ultimately, both films feature men struggling to support their families amidst hard economic times and seemingly overwhelming odds, and both see them triumph.
The two films are also dissimilar in their target audience: It's a Wonderful Life has become a Christmas-time classic, and Cinderella Man is more suited for an older audience, not particularly directed at any precise time of year. Cinderella Man is a biographical movie that shares much in common with other favorite boxing movies like Rocky and Million Dollar Baby. James Stewart's starring vehicle is revered for its touching portrayal of true friendship and the meaning of life.
The antagonists in both movies also largely differ: Mr. Potter is a money-clenching control freak, who cares for no one except himself. Potter hoards his money and seeks only to gain power over the town of Bedford Falls. The various boxers Braddock faces and especially Max Bauer are out to get him physically. Bauer revels in the fame his winning brings, a trail of pretty girls in continual pursuit. He does not care to put on any façade about what he thinks or feels, unlike Potter. Potter is willing to put on any attitude or face to accomplish his goals, and his treacherous smile is one of the most memorable human characteristics in the film.
When the movies were made also plays a big difference in what is in them and what perspective the movie-makers see things from. It's A Wonderful Life was made in 1938, and Cinderella Man in 2005. Ron Howard, the director of Russell Crowe (who plays James Braddock) and Cinderella Man, does not shy away from language and a realistic portrayal of boxing violence. Frank Capra, on the other hand, focuses on the happier details and is less realistic. Simply put, movies made in the 1930s do not feature anywhere near (if any) the amount of violence and language that is regarded as "the norm" in today's movie-making culture and common society, and It's A Wonderful Life stays true to that blanket statement. The directing style has changed dramatically over the years, and both directors thought about and shot their films in radically dissimilar manners. Of course, that should be expected in any comparison of a good set of movies: stories would not be successful if they all shared the same plot. The reason both of these films are great is because they are not copies of other ideas, but collections of them.
In the end, both movies are emotion-invoking, well-written masterpieces. Both have their flaws, and both celebrate good triumphing over hardship and the power of family. The endings contain healthy doses of redemption, something all humans, consciously or not, crave.