Two Black-And-White Movies That Will Change The Way You Think About Life
Rosebud whispers the croaky old voice.
A snowball drops and shatters, and Charles Foster Kane, the media tycoon turned failed politician dies a lonely old man in his Xanadu Mansion.
This is the genesis point of the storyline in Orson Welles’ 1942 masterpiece Citizen Kane. A reporter is investigating the meaning of this ‘Rosebud’, trying to unpack what the dying word of this noteworthy media figure might have meant.
Through this journey he learns Charles’ story — a boy born into a poor family, who was sold to a rich businessman to be raised and given a fortune once he came of age.
He learns of Charles’ desperate attempts to control people and buy love, to find significance first in business, then in politics, before ultimately alienating everyone around him.
He lives out his last days rich, miserable and alone, surrounded by no one except the house staff — those paid to attend to him.
We’re forced to ask the question — can a man or woman be considered wealthy, if they do not possess love?
The film ends with an unsatisfactory conclusion — the reporter never unearths the meaning of Rosebud. The film’s final shot smooths over a blazing furnace, as Charles’ belongings and luxuries are tossed into the blaze — the only relics that remain.
But then, what’s that!
There it is at last — tossed callously into the fire is a sled with the word etched across it. ‘Rosebud’ it seems to scream at the audience, as the flames lick at it and devour it. The audience wants to scream out, to point, ‘look, there it is, there’s the answer!’
But they can’t. And that’s the tragedy.
Trying to point out the obvious truth that is hidden in plain sight.
The meaning of this sled is somewhat cryptic… but the viewers may remember seeing this sled earlier in the film — when the young Charles, then just a poor boy, was content to play in the snow. Before his millions, that’s who he was. Full of joy, none the wiser to lacking or being without anything.
It was the one time he was truly happy — when he had the least.
In this film, Charles seems to have everything, but he really has nothing.
It’s a Wonderful Life
The next classic comes around every year at Christmas time. Made a few years later in 1946 and starring James Stewart, it’s the story of the ambitious young man with an appetite for life bigger than the small town he’s born into, but one he never gets to leave.
George Bailey was set to see the world until the sudden death of his father. Being the eldest child, George steps in to look after the family’s Building and Loan business. He uses the business to pay for his brother Harry to go to college, expecting that Harry will take over after his graduation so George can finally travel.
But Harry returns married and with a job offer from his father-in-law. George marries a local girl and has a family — they’re also rebuffed from their honeymoon when they need to use their savings to support the Building and Loan business and save the town.
What are the rewards for George’s toil? A local domineering businessman by the name of Mr. Potter, who always opposes George’s business because it holds him back from having a full monopoly, finds George’s bank deposit by accident one day and holds onto it, knowing that this will be enough to bankrupt George, who by now has given up all his dreams.
The despair drives George to contemplate suicide. He leaves his beautiful young family, who vie for his attention, and heads out to the river to drown himself. At this point an angel called Clarence, who has been watching over him pretends to jump into the water. Instead of killing himself, George saves this mysterious figure who then reveals himself as an angel.
Clarence then goes on to show George what the world would be like if he’d never been born.
Never underestimate the impact of a single human life
George saved his brother Harry from drowning when they were children — but Harry dies in this alternate reality, given George wasn’t around to save him. And because Harry saved countless lives in the war years later, these people instead die too.
Mr. Gower, George’s employer at a drug store when he was a child, goes to prison for manslaughter because of an accidental prescription of the wrong medication. George had intervened to save him — but not in this version of events.
George’s mother does not recognise him, the town is overcome by the evil Mr. Potter, and his wife Mary never married. George’s kids do not exist.
Now overcome, George begs the angel Clarence for his old life back. Clarence obliges, and George now appreciates his children, his life, and everything around him. The village rally to his aid and fund-raise to bail him out of his financial situation — recalling how he helped them so often during difficult times.
Unlike Citizen Kane…
Unlike Charles Foster Kane, George is the man who looks, from the outside, to have nothing of note… but really, he has everything. The figures in these films could not have less in common.
You do not belong to you
It’s A Wonderful Life reminds us of a real life hero’s tale — that of Buckminster Fuller, the famous architect, author and thinker, who went to drown himself in Lake Michigan in 1927 after falling on hard times.
As the story goes, something strange happened at Lake Michigan. Fuller felt like he was suspended from the ground, and came face-to-face with a giant ball of light. He heard a voice say —
You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.
The idea is that — your life is not for you, it is for others. We are not here for ourselves alone. We focus on what we lack, but forget what we have and what we’ve already done.
Much of our impact is not obvious, but this is the nature of The Thousand Doors. We plant the seeds.
The Timeless Lesson
We repeat over and over again the mistakes of Charles Foster Kane and George Bailey. I forget these films and their lessons until something in my environment prompts them.
The lessons are simple, the takeaways are digestible and plain to digest. So why is this so hard to integrate into our lives and remember?
I suspect it’s because we do not live it.
When you chase a following, a financial success or breakthrough, status, validation or any of these other diversions we find in our lives, your mind adapts to that pursuit. It conserves resources and attention towards those goals, and inflates their significance in our eyes so we can double down on them.
What a fundamental mistake. What an error. What does changing this look like?
Louis The Barber
It was a Wednesday morning and I was catching up with my good friend Gilly. He gave me a strange spot to meet him at — a barber shop on Sydney’s famous George Street. I obliged and found the spot.
As I found the room I walked in to see Gilly propped up in the barber’s chair. I looked around — the place was understated but very neat — it had a trendy little bar, elegant leather chairs and simple white-painted walls.
Gilly introduced me to the owner — Louis, his barber. He was French, and had come to Australia some years ago hoping to absorb the local culture, but only to meet a French girl here!
Louis told me his story — he had worked his way up in a prominent local barber shop, just five minutes’ walk away from where we now stood. He became the manager there for eighteen staff, something he’d wanted for a long time. Though he soon realised, after about two months, that he didn’t like the role.
It had taken him away from his craft and the joy of interacting with clients directly. So, after two years he left and set up his own small barber shop — this was where we were having our conversation. He had simplified his life and brought excitement and joy into every single day.
He shared, ‘I wake up excited every morning, and my clients, talking to them each day I feel selfish — I’m learning so much by talking to them and hearing about their experiences’.
Louis is one of the most successful people you will ever meet. You cannot remember these lessons if you’re trying to become king of the startup world, the Academy Award Winner, an Olympic Medalist or the person in your neighborhood with the most impressive house, education or job title.
But you can live these ideas out doing anything at all — building businesses, acting, performing, racing — if you hold as your sole aim and focus that pursuit of inner peace, that pursuit of joy.
Always be a Constant Student.
And always remember that the best way to open a Thousand Doors for you, is to concentrate on opening Doors for others.
Your life does not belong to you alone.