Some people labor under the delusion that Halloween is the scariest day of the year, and perhaps for those under appropriate employment age, this is still true. For the rest of us, the single most frightening day of any given year is the dreaded tax day.
If you haven’t filed your income tax return by now, you are either frantically seeking an extension or generally in a whole heap of trouble. Either way, you’re probably in need of economically-inclined, cinematic spirit-raising. To counteract these financial woes, we’ve decided to celebrate a few of our favorite downtrodden movie characters who end up clawing their way up to prominence…or at least fiscal stasis.
Charlie Bucket, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
As we watch little Charlie Bucket and his sizable family, composed mostly of geriatrics, struggle to feed themselves, we inevitably find ourselves loudly joining in the chorus of “Cheer Up Charlie.” This poor kid has to sit through lectures by the worst possible teacher, works his fingers to the bone delivering papers, and can’t even buy a freaking candy bar for himself?
Yet through all of it, Charlie remains a kind, humble, grateful child and his goodness is ultimately rewarded with a trip through the eccentric Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory. As the far more privileged children on the tour are one-by-one undone by their own absent character, Charlie persists and ends up inheriting the entire Wonka operation, securing new lodging and financial stability for his entire family. That story is sweeter than a Wonka Scrumdiddlyumptious.
Billy Ray Valentine. Trading Places
Remember in the ‘80s when everything Eddie Murphy did was pure gold? In 1983’s Trading Places, he played a character so poor, not even his fillings were gold. As part of a bizarre wager between two unscrupulous sibling tycoons, penniless street hustler Billy Ray Valentine is thrust into a rather lofty executive position at a brokerage house. The man who previously held that job is cast out, stricken of his wealth, and spurned by everyone he once knew. Despite the fact that Billy Ray Valentine is far from an upstanding citizen, he manages to be impossibly likable and we can’t help but enjoy the hilarious economic role reversal; a sort of oddly prescient version of the clash between the 99% and the 1%...only funnier.
You can’t possibly talk about characters down on their luck without talking about the original victim of the hard knock life. Our favorite cinematic ginger, Annie spends most of her childhood in the most despicable orphanage imaginable. We watch her butt heads with the frequently imbibing Miss Hannigan and engaging in the kind of chores that would make Cinderella picket for fair wage rights. We can’t help but be taken by her unflappable optimism as she continues to assert that the sun will come out tomorrow. When the scales are finally tipped back in her favor, it damn near topples under the weight of righteous serendipity. She’s adopted by the affluent (read: money out the ears) Daddy Warbucks who, while a bit of an ogre at first, grows to love the auburn-locked chatterbox just as much as we do.
Chris Garnder, The Pursuit of Happyness
When a good-hearted, well-meaning character in film falls upon hard times, we root for him/her. When that character is also a single parent doing everything they can to support their child, it breaks our hearts. That is exactly the situation faced by Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness. Based on a true story, the movie tells the tale of a downtrodden dad forced into poverty by the failing economy. Refusing to accept the station with which he’s been saddled, he enrolls in an internship at a major brokerage firm, working odd jobs on the side and living with his son at a local church. Gardner impresses his superiors with his skills and incomparable work ethic to such a degree that he earns a job as a broker, obtaining a better future for himself and his son. If you aren’t in tears by the end of this film, you may be a cyborg. A rich cyborg.
Wart, The Sword in the Stone
Is there a greater rags-to-riches story than that of The Sword in the Stone? You have a poor, put-upon young boy, Wart, who is mistreated by his guardians and used as a servant. All he wants in the whole world is to be a knight, and prove himself valiant and noble. Meanwhile the kingdom is without a ruler and divine providence dictates that whosoever pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, in which it is encased, shall be king. With the help of his new friend, a wizard named Merlin, Wart (alias Arthur) realizes his worth and pulls the sword from the stone; becoming the king of all England. Maybe it doesn’t adhere strictly to Arthurian legend, but the rising-above-all-obstacles story makes The Sword and the Stone one of my favorite Disney animated films.