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It's A Wonderful Life
IAWLposter.jpg
Original movie poster
Directed by: Frank Capra
Produced by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich,
Albert Hackett,
and Frank Capra.
Based on The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern
Starring: James Stewart,
Donna Reed,
Lionel Barrymore,
Gloria Grahame
Runtime: 130 mins.
Country: United States
Language: English
Color: Black and White
Ratings: US:Approved; UK:U; Australia:PG
Distributed by:

RKO Radio Pictures (theatrical)

Republic Pictures (VHS)

Paramount Pictures (DVD)

Released on: January 7, 1947
Box Office: $3,180,000 USD (estimated)
 

It's a Wonderful Life is a 1946 Frank Capra film, produced by his own studio Liberty Films and released originally by RKO Radio Pictures and currently by Paramount Pictures. Dubbed by the American Film Institute one of the best films ever made, it placed #1 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers, a list of the most inspirational American movies of all time. It ranks 11th on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies, a list of the greatest American films.

The movie is the story of the life of everyman George Bailey, as told to his guardian angel Clarence Odbody, who has been recruited to save him in his moment of need.

Plot Summary

Prologue

The story begins on Christmas Eve 1945 as numerous prayers for a man named George Bailey are heard by angels in Heaven, where "apprentice" angel Clarence Odbody has been summoned and is assigned to help George in order to get his wings, which he has been trying to do for 200 years. Joseph, one of the senior angels, begins to show George's story to Clarence in order to prepare him for his mission.

George as a boy

Joseph starts by showing Clarence an image of George at twelve years old with his younger brother Harry and their friends:

  • Ernie Bishop, who later becomes a taxicab driver
  • Bert, who later becomes a policeman (his surname is never mentioned)
  • Marty Hatch, whose younger sister Mary is already deeply in love with George, and
  • Sam Wainwright, who has a signature gesture of flapping one of both of his hands with his thumbs in his ears mimicking a braying donkey shouting "Hee-haw!", which his friends all imitate. (Sam keeps his unique calling card in his adult years.)

The group is shovel-sledding on a frozen pond when nine-year old Harry falls through a hole in the ice. George jumps in and rescues him, but catches a bad cold which leads to an ear infection that ultimately costs him his hearing in the left ear.

That May, George and Harry and the others are walking through town toward the drug store where George works, when they see the fancy horse-drawn carriage of one Henry F. Potter, dubbed by Joseph as "the richest and meanest man in the county". When George arrives at the drug store, Mary Hatch (Marty's sister) is there, but she is soon joined by a very flirtatious girl named Violet Bick, and they both compete for George's attention, but he is more preoccupied with his own future, which involves traveling all over the world. But after Violet leaves, Mary whispers in George's bad ear, "George Bailey, I'll love you 'til the day I die."

The store owner, Mr. Emil Gower, is very drunk and his eyes are swollen from crying; he yells at George for being late, and then again for whistling while working. George then sees near the cash register a telegram saying that Gower's son died suddenly of influenza while at college. Gower sends George to deliver some capsules to a sick child, but George noticed that Gower had unknowingly put poison in the capsules.

In an attempt to seek advice, George visits his father Peter who runs the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan with his brother (George's uncle) Billy, but Peter is in the middle of a heated argument with Potter and sends George away. Having to rely on his own conscience, George fails to deliver the capsules, and when he returns to the drug store Gower is on the phone with the customer who claims that the capsules never arrived. Gower hangs up and violently scolds George for not doing his job, repeatedly slapping the side of his head causing his still-sore ear to bleed (Mary, who is still there, winces with every slap). George is finally able to explain to Gower that he saw the telegram about his son, and then swears that he saw him put poison in the capsules he was sent to deliver. A skeptical Gower snatches the box from George to test one of the capsules, and then sobers up in horror when he finds that George was telling the truth. Now deeply ashamed, Gower gratefully embraces George, who promises never to tell anyone.

George the young man

Next, Joseph shows to Clarence images of a twenty-one year old George, who is about to realize his dream of leaving Bedford Falls to travel the world. The night before he is to leave for a European vacation and his architectural education, he sits down to dinner with his father Peter, who expresses his anxieties about George's leaving without going into business with him at the Building & Loan. George reassures Peter that he has nothing to worry about, especially considering Potter's aggressiveness. In a tender moment, George reveals his deep affection for his father, then leaves to attend Harry's graduation party at the Bedford Falls High School gymnasium. While there, George is reunited with the now-18 year-old Mary Hatch, who had been brought to the gymnasium by Marty, and whose eyes light up when she sees him again.

After ditching her annoying date Freddie, Mary and George dance together in the big Charleston contest in the high school gymnasium, which has a retractable floor with a large swimming pool hidden underneath. When one of Freddie's friends sees him sulking because Mary dumped him for George, he points out the retractable floor, and then gives Freddie the key to open the floor over the pool. The floor slowly divides, and George and Mary, unaware of the widening gap, dance ever closer to the edge before finally falling in. Seeing this, many of the rest of the partygoers (including Freddie himself, and even the high school principal) gleefully join them in the water.

Afterwards, George and Mary, wearing dry clothes "borrowed" from the school locker rooms, are strolling home, harmonizing to the minstrel song Buffalo Gals as they stroll to Mary's house, On the way, George stops and, in accordance with local custom, throws a rock through a window at 320 Sycamore, the old Granville place, a large, but empty house falling into disrepair, and makes a wish. Mary asked him not to break the glass, explaining that she loves the romantic house. Then she asks George about what wish he made; he reveals to her his desire to leave "this crummy little town" to travel the world, then come back and go to college to become an architect and learn to build majestic things-- airfields, skyscrapers and huge bridges. Hearing this, Mary impulsively picks up a stone and breaks a window as well. But when George asks she wished for, Mary enigmatically turns and saunters on, accidentally losing her bathrobe in the process (with the implication that she was wearing little to nothing underneath). While she modestly hides in a nearby hydrangea bush to avoid being seen, George, still holding her robe, mischievously teases her until Uncle Billy drives up and urgently informs him that Peter has had a stroke. Tossing Mary her robe, George quickly jumps in the car and rides away.

Peter never recovered from his stroke and died soon afterward. George sacrifices his vacation and gives Harry his money so he can attend college, and stays in Bedford Falls to settle his father's estate and to keep the Building & Loan running. Three months later during a board meeting, Potter, a minor shareholder, declares the B&L unnecessary and calls for a vote to dissolve it, going so far as to insult Peter, calling him a "starry-eyed dreamer", and also the citizens of Bedford Falls, calling them a "discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working-class". Hearing this, George speaks up and reminds Potter and the board that the people of the town do most of the work and deserve to have a decent place to live, and then repays Potter's insults in kind by calling him "a warped, frustrated old man". Before recusing himself, George implores the others on the board to keep the Building & Loan open so the residents will continue to have an alternative to Potter. Right before he leaves to go on his trip to Europe, George is quickly informed by Dr. Caminaw, one of the board members, that they voted down Potter's motion and want the Building & Loan to stay open, but with one stipulation: they want George to permanently take over. George is against the idea and is still intent on leaving, but when told that the board will side with Potter if he turns them down, George reconsiders and stays in Bedford Falls.

Four years later, Harry comes home from college with a young woman on his arm he introduces as his wife Ruth. George and Harry briefly discuss Harry's taking over for George at the Building & Loan, but when it it is revealed that Harry has been offered a much more lucrative job by his father-in-law, George reluctantly stays on at the B&L. Meanwhile, George's mother informs him that Mary Hatch is back in town. He eventually makes his way to her house, where she flirtingly plays games with him, but he acts uncomfortable and as if he his visit was forced; even though he does love her, he knows that getting married to her will mean he will have to remain in Bedford Falls for the rest of his life. Frustrated by George's lack of response, Mary smashes the record that she had put on just for him and begins demanding that he leave when the phone rings; Sam Wainwright has called to inform her that George's previous tip about plastics has turned out to be excellent advice, but he still needs a location to produce his goods. George advises Sam to consider Bedford Falls' recently closed factory, which, along with its former workforce, could suit his needs. George and Mary share the telephone earpiece as Sam tells him that his father wants to give him a job with generous pay and a prosperous future and that "It's the chance of a lifetime." George, utterly torn between his choices, realizes he must again make another sacrifice; he turns down Sam's job offer and declares his love for Mary, sealing his future in Bedford Falls.

George and Mary have their wedding at his mother's home. They jump into Ernie's taxi and are about to embark upon a grand honeymoon when, to their dismay, they see people running through the rain to the Building & Loan office. Resisting Mary's urges, George goes over and finds out that there is a run on the B&L, and all its customers' finances are now in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Potter has seized control of the bank, and calls George to tell him that he doesn't think they have enough money to stay in business, and informs him that he will refund all of his customers accounts at half their value (50 cents on the dollar) if they come to the bank; he also warns George that if the Building & Loan closes early, it will never reopen. Someone comes in and tells the customers about Potter's offer, and most of them are ready to jump ship, but George pleads with them to stand fast, telling them that Potter is the one who created the situation and is causing the panic, but the customers are still not convinced-- until Mary brings out their $2,000 honeymoon bankroll to bolster the B&L's diminished assets and tide the depositors over until they reopen in a week. The customers are still fearful, but trust in George's honesty and agree to withdraw only what they need to last the week.

The Building and Loan makes it to the end of the day with just two dollars left in its coffers. The tired and relieved staff begin to celebrate as the phone rings; Mary is on the other end, telling George to "come home" to 320 Sycamore-- the old house whose windows they once broke. Still raining hard outside, George arrives and is welcomed into a drafty house with a leaking roof and with travel posters temporarily covering up holes in the walls. Embracing George, Mary whispers to him, "Remember the night we broke the windows in this old house? This is what I wished for." As the newlyweds kiss, Bert and Ernie serenade them from outside singing I Love You Truly.

As the years wear on, Mary works hard to turn their house into a home, while the Building and Loan opens a new residential subdivision called Bailey Park on the outskirts of Bedford Falls; Mr. Martini and his family ceremoniously move in to their new home, which Martini proudly proclaims he owns. Sam Wainwright stops by and tells him that he and his wife are off to Florida. George, furious at the reality that he is the only one out of his friends not able to realize his dreams, kicks the door to his car shut.

Meanwhile, one of Potter's rent collectors informs him of what's going on with the Baileys: more and more people are moving out of Potter's costly and dilapidated rentals and buying their own homes in Bailey Park- moderate, but affordable homes built with inexpensive materiel. Potter is inwardly exasperated over his dwindling profits and, after muttering to himself, "the Bailey family's been a boil on my neck long enough", becomes determined to do whatever he must to drive the Baileys out of business once and for all.

Potter summons George to his office, and after ironically congratulating him on his success, offers George an insanely lucrative job: $20,000 a year salary, and business trips to Europe and Asia. But George suddenly comes to his senses and realizes that to accept Potter's offer would mean not only the end of the Building and Loan, but also the inevitable ruin of Bedford Falls. Disgusted by the thought, George turns Potter down and leaves, but his words come back to haunt George after he returns home, remembering the night he and Mary walked home from Harry's graduation party, the high aspirations for the future that he expressed to her, and how carefree and hopeful they both were; with this, he realizes what he is missing out on by passing up Potter's offer. But then Mary sits up in bed and, to George's surprise, announces, "George Bailey lassoes stork!" Mary is now pregnant with their first of what will become their four children: Pete, Janie, Zuzu and Tommy.

The War

Joseph explains in a montage to Clarence what has happened in Bedford Falls during the war (World War II).

  • Ernie, Bert and Marty all went off to fight; Bert was wounded in North Africa and won the Silver Star, Ernie parachuted into France, and Marty helped to capture the Ramagen Bridge.
  • Harry Bailey joined the Navy and became a fighter pilot, shooting down fifteen planes (probably in a day), two of which were about to deliberately crash into a troop transport; his actions have made him a bona fide hero
  • Sam Wainwright made a fortune off of plastic hoods for airplanes
  • Ma Bailey and Mrs. Hatch joined the Red Cross
  • Mary and other women in the town volunteered for the USO
  • Potter became head of the draft board
  • Uncle Billy and Mr. Gower sold war bonds
  • George, because of his deaf ear, was classified as '4-F'- unfit for the military. Consequently he stayed at home, became an air raid warden, organized paper, scrap and rubber drives, and continued to fight "The Battle of Bedford Falls" against Potter.

Christmas Eve

The war is over, and Harry's outstanding heroics have earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, announced in a banner headline in the Bedford Falls Sentinel. At the bank, with an envelope of $8,000 of Building & Loan cash to deposit, Uncle Billy is writing out the deposit slip when Potter is wheeled in. He is greeted enthusiastically by four bankers and then sarcastically by Uncle Billy, who, noticing a copy of the Sentinel in Mr. Potter's lap, boasts of Harry's heroics and accolades. However, in his joy, Uncle Billy inadvertently wraps the envelope of cash in Potter's newspaper before he snatches it back in exasperation. Uncle Billy goes to the teller window, while Potter is wheeled to his office where he discovers the money in the newspaper and wickedly keeps it for himself, knowing full well what could happen to George.

At the Building & Loan, Violet asks George for a loan to start a new life in New York City. He agrees to the loan, and consults Uncle Billy as a matter of protocol. He finds him in a state of distress over not being able to locate the eight thousand dollars he meant to deposit that morning. George searches in the obvious places in the office, and then races through the snow, hatless and coatless, retracing Uncle Billy's steps in a futile attempt to find the cash. Enraged at Uncle Billy's forgetfulness, George panics, knowing that the loss of that money means scandal, bankruptcy, ruin and even prison.

George is now depressed and distraught, and returns home to find his family joyous and anxious for the coming Christmas tomorrow. His daughter, Janie, practices piano, while his sons, Pete and Tommy, decorate the tree with Mary. The now seemingly insane and petty pleas of his family make him even more discouraged. He cries as he hugs Tommy, knowing that he himself will be the one who goes to jail, and will get blamed for all his clients' financial ruin. He is then told that his daughter, Zuzu, has a cold. She tells him that she didn't put on her coat because she didn't want to crush the flower she won at school. She asks him to paste the wilting petals back on it, but they fall off in his hand. He hides them in his pants pocket and returns the flower to her as if he'd mended it. Now under extreme stress, he brings Zuzu's teacher Mrs. Welch to tears over the phone when he vilifies her for not telling Zuzu to put on her coat. In a fit of total frustration, George lashes out at everyone in the house, especially Janie who stops practicing Hark, The Herald Angels Sing on the piano. But when George apologizes and tells Janie to go ahead and start playing again, she bursts into tears. After George goes out of the house, Mary calls Uncle Billy...

In utter desperation, George goes to Potter for help. But Potter, who still has the B&L's $8,000, duplicitously taunts George by implying that he has been gambling, and then insinuates that he's having an affair with Violet- Potter mentions that he knows George gave her a loan. Potter refuses to help George as the only collateral he can offer is a meager five hundred dollar equity on a $15,000 life insurance policy; he sarcastically tells George that he's "worth more dead than alive", and picks up the phone to swear out a warrant for George's arrest for malfeasance and misappropriation of funds. George departs while Mr. Potter is still speaking, and drives to Martini's Bar for a drink. While there he prays to God for deliverance from his woes, but at that moment, Mr. Welch, the husband of Zuzu's teacher, recognizes George and, angered that his wife cried for an hour after George yelled at her over the phone, punches him in the mouth splitting his lip, and Martini orders Welch thrown out and banned. George interprets this blow as God's answer to a man in need, and now, all but fed up with the cruelty he has faced from the world his entire life, George has lost his faith.

Clarence

In an unsuccessful attempt to sort things out, George is driving around on the snow-covered streets and crashes his car into a tree as he is about to turn on to a bridge; as he stumbles out of the car, the man whose yard the tree is in yells at George, but he ignores him and slowly walks out to the middle of the span. He looks down into the churning river and begins contemplating suicide, knowing that if he jumped in right now, the frigid temperature of the choppy waters would quickly do him in. But before he can jump, another man falls in, and George jumps in to rescue him.

The bridge keeper dredges them both from the water, and while drying out in his office (and while drying out his copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), the stranger remarks that his undergarment was given to him by his wife on his last birthday, and that he was wearing it when he died. The bridge keeper then asks the stranger how he fell in the water, but the stranger replies that he jumped in to save George, knowing that he would rather save a life than take his own. The stranger then introduces himself as 'Clarence Odbody, AS2', or 'Angel Second Class', at which point the bridge keeper, thinking he's crazy, freaks and runs out in disbelief leaving George and Clarence alone.

Though skeptical, the already-despondent George discusses his situation with Clarence, who to his surprise already knows a great deal about him. When Clarence confronts George with his notion that everyone would feel better if he had killed himself, George backpedals and then mutters, "I suppose it'd been better if I'd never been born at all". This statement resonates with Clarence, and, conferring with his heavenly superiors right then and there, grants George's wish: Effective immediately, George Bailey does not, and never did, exist. He now has no worries or cares, and can even hear in his deaf ear again. Just as his wish is granted, the snow outside stops, only to be replaced by a blustery, bitter cold wind that blows the door open.

Pottersville

With this parallel reality now in place, the two walk past the tree where George crashed his car, but the car is gone and the tree looks unscathed. George takes Clarence to what he thinks is Martini's for another drink, but the place is now a whiskey dive called "Nick's" which, according to Nick himself (who normally worked for Mr. Martini), serves "hard drinks for guys who wanna get drunk fast." In the bar, Clarence (with characteristic childlike naïveté) is unafraid to discuss angels in front of a bemused clientele, and while George is embarrassed by Clarence, Nick is none too amused. When Clarence, hearing the bell of the cash register, mentions that another angel has just earned their wings, Nick orders the two "pixies" thrown out of his bar for "givin' the joint atmosphere". As they are being hustled toward the door, a disheveled Mr. Gower stumbles in. Nick calls him a "panhandler" and sprays seltzer in his face. George is shocked by Mr. Gower's condition and futilely tries to get his one-time boss to recognize him. Nick says that Gower served twenty years in prison for poisoning a kid, and surmises that if George knows him, he must be an ex-con himself, and again orders George and Clarence be given the bum's rush. George is dismayed, but still skeptical of Clarence's assurance that he is indeed his Guardian Angel. Trying to assert his identity, he checks his pockets only to find that they are all empty, just as Clarence predicted- no insurance policy, no wallet or identification, and no petals from Zuzu's flower. Clarence remarks, "You've been given a great gift, George: a chance to see what the world would be like without you."

In an increasingly macabre sequence of events , George shakes off Clarence and runs downtown only to find that Bedford Falls is now called 'Pottersville'. The main thoroughfare has become a sordid cavalcade of neon signs advertising a slew of dance halls, taverns and burlesque houses. The Building & Loan went under years ago and has been replaced with a dance hall while a pawn broker now serves the town. Violet Bick, now a taxi dancer and a bitter floozy, is being arrested, Ernie and Bert are now callous and suspicious of everyone, and the old house at 320 Sycamore is as broken-down as ever.

George goes to see his mother at her boarding house, but she doesn't recognize him either. When he insists he is her son, she claims the only child she had was Harry. Peter still died from a stroke, but Billy had been committed to an insane asylum soon after the B&L shut down. George then attempts to seek closure by going to Bailey Park, but is mortified to instead find a desolate graveyard, and then Harry's grave therein. Clarence reminds George that he wasn't there to save Harry; consequently, he drowned at age nine when he broke through the ice, and since Harry wasn't there to save the men on the transport, they were all killed. Clarence then says:

"You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to... throw it away?"

George now demands to know what has become of Mary. He feels that things will return to normal if he can just find her, but Clarence reluctantly tells him that she is now an old maid working at the library. George approaches her as she closes up, pleading and begging her to help him. But like all the others, Mary does not recognize him, and screams before running away from him into a nearby bar, inside of which are many other people that George recognizes, but none of whom now know him. They all restrain him to keep him from Mary, and when Bert arrives, George, now realizing everything Clarence has told him, breaks loose and punches Bert knocking him to the ground, and then flees on foot from the center of town just as Bert gets back up and fires his gun after him (shooting out the 'SVI' in the neon "Pottersville" sign).

Faith renewed

Finally understanding what Clarence was trying to explain to him- that every man's life affects the world and the people around him, George runs back to the bridge and humbly begs Clarence to restore his existence and make the world just as it was before, problems and all, tearfully praying, "Please, God, let me live again". His prayer is soon answered; at the precise instant he utters the word "God", the winds calm, and the snow again starts to fall. At that moment, Bert's police car pulls up onto the span and he gets out and goes up to George. At first, George angrily rounds on him and threatens to hit him again, but softens up when Bert says his name and remarks that he saw George's car plowed into the tree, and then informs him that he has been out looking for him. Then, when he sees that George's mouth is bleeding and asks if he's all right, George feels for the blood and begins to laugh, and then frantically goes to his watch pocket for Zuzu's petals, and to his delight finds that they are once again there.

His eyes now opened to the true wonder of his own life, George now welcomes all of the miseries of his Christmas Eve with euphoric and humorous joy, starting with his car still crashed into the tree, seeing the welcome sign that again says, "You are now in Bedford Falls", and then in the film's most iconic scene, running ecstatically down Main Street, shouting "Merry Christmas!" to the Movie House, the Emporium, the "wonderful old" Building & Loan, and to everyone within earshot, some of whom shout their greetings back to him. George even runs up and shouts through his office window a holiday greeting to Potter, who answers with, "Happy new year to you— in jail!", and then implores George to "Go on home! They're waiting for you!" with a chuckle of satisfaction in believing that he is finally rid of the Baileys for good.

The bank examiner and the sheriff, with the D.A. and a newsman, are waiting at the house to arrest George, who upon his return enthusiastically shakes hands with the examiner, and responds happily to the sheriff's arrest warrant exclaiming, "Isn't it wonderful? I'm going to jail!" His children call out to him from the upstairs landing, and he rushes up to embrace them; to his delight they announce that Zuzu is feeling better, with "not a smidge of temperature". When he asks where their mother is, Tommy answers that she went out looking for him.

"The richest man in town"

Moments later, Mary returns home. After reuniting with George, she brings him and the kids next to the Christmas tree and then, after clearing off a nearby table, joyously but ambiguously says, "George, it's a miracle! It's—it's a miracle!!" before she runs back to the door and invites everyone inside. The first one in is Billy carrying a large basket filled with money (followed by others carrying smaller baskets also stuffed with cash); Billy reveals to George that Mary had told some people he was in trouble, and they immediately scattered all over town to collect money, no questions asked. The people of Bedford Falls, for whom he had repeatedly sacrificed his own dreams, are now rallying to George in his hour of need. One by one, a quickly-swelling crowd of neighbors, friends and customers all bring what funds they can spare to help George. Among the many who showed up were:

  • Tom, a customer from the Building & Loan (and the first in line during the bank run on the B&L), who humorously asks, "What is this? Another run on the bank?"
  • Mr. Martini, the first to buy a house in Bailey Park, adds his own donation remarking, "I busted the jukebox, too!"
  • Violet, who returned the money George loaned her, having changed her mind about going to New York City.
  • Mr. Gower, who made the rounds of his charge accounts at the drug store.
  • Annie, Ma Bailey's housekeeper, who donates her savings that she had been "saving for a divorce if ever I get a husband!"

As each person comes forward, George lovingly utters their names under his breath. Another of George's customers comes up and, after leaving his donation, gives Zuzu a watch fob and chain. Suddenly, Ernie shouts for quiet to read a telegram from London: Mr. Gower sent word to Sam Wainwright about George's crisis, and Sam has instructed his office to advance George up to $25,000, which elicits a loud cheer from everyone; they all start singing when Janie starts playing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing on the piano while cousin Eustace, the B&L clerk, gladly begins tallying the contributions, one cash note at a time. During the singing, the bank examiner sheepishly leaves some money, and the sheriff, with a smile growing on his face, tears up the arrest warrant; they both join in the spirited singing. The donations amount to far more than enough to not only keep George out of jail, but also to save the Building & Loan from ruin, and most important, to protect Bedford Falls from Potter.

The biggest surprise of all comes through the door in the person of Commander Harry Bailey, who flew back home in the middle of a blizzard, and who was brought to the house by Bert. Still in full dress uniform from his CMOH ceremony in Washington and a subsequent award banquet in New York, which he says he left right in the middle of when he got Mary's telegram, Harry, after being handed a drink by Ernie, proposes, "A toast, to my big brother, George: the richest man in town." The crowd cheers again, and then launches into Auld Lang Syne, this time accompanied by Bert on his accordion with Janie again on the piano. Suddenly, a book appears atop the pile of money: a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. With Mary watching, George reaches to pick it up as Zuzu opens the cover; inside, they find a handwritten inscription:

Dear George:—
Remember no man is a failure who has friends.
Thanks for the wings!
Love
Clarence.

When Mary asks about it, George quietly replies, "It's a Christmas present from a very dear friend of mine". A branch is shaken on the Bailey's Christmas tree, causing a tiny bell to jingle, and Zuzu cries out, "Look, Daddy! Teacher says 'Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.'" George confirms Zuzu's words, and then looks skyward with a wink and says "Attaboy, Clarence." Surrounded by his loving family and his neighbors and friends, George Bailey, his years of selfless investment in his fellow man now paying dividends, finally grasps how truly wonderful his life has been, and realizes that any human life, no matter how downtrodden, is worth living, if lived for the sake of the people that one loves. He, Mary and Zuzu join the rest of the crowd in singing the final line of Auld Lang Syne.

Inspiration, production, and distribution

In 1943, writer Philip Van Doren Stern made a Christmas card titled The Greatest Gift, of which he printed 200 copies that he mailed to family and friends. RKO Pictures bought the rights to the story for $10,000 in 1946. The studios intended to star Cary Grant, but he found his Christmas story in The Bishop's Wife, and made three unsatisfactory scripts before shelving the planned movie. Frank Capra read The Greatest Gift and immediately saw its potential. RKO, anxious to unload the project, sold the rights to Capra for the same $10,000, throwing in the three scripts for free.

Capra, with his "one man, one show" motto (what some called "the Capra touch") and writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, took what he liked from the scripts and added some elements of his own, including the character Mr. Potter and making the town of Bedford Falls a believable place.

Although Jimmy Stewart's previous roles had been less dramatic and complex, he was Capra's only choice to play George Bailey, around which time Capra changed the name of the film from The Greatest Gift to It's a Wonderful Life. Among the alternative actors Capra considered to cast were Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Brennan, Adolphe Menjou, and W.C. Fields for Uncle Billy, Edgar Buchanan, Claude Rains, Charles Coburn, and Vincent Price for Mr. Potter, Jean Arthur (a Capra personal favorite who had starred under Capra and alongside Jimmy Stewart in the classic movies You Can’t Take it With You and Mr. Smith goes to Washington but had committed to a Broadway show), Olivia de Havilland, Ann Dvorak, and Ginger Rogers for Mary Hatch. Capra also considered Henry Travers for the roles of Uncle Billy, Mr. Gower, and Peter Bailey (Pa).

It's a Wondeful Life was shot at the RKO ranch in Encino, California, where Bedford Falls was a set covering four acres assembled from three separate parts with a main street stretching 300 yards, three city blocks, a tree-lined center parkway, and 75 stores and buildings, and 20 full grown oak trees. Filming started on April 15, 1946, and ended on July 27, 1946. The film premiered on December 20, 1946 in the New Globe Theater on Governors Island.

The film was panned by some critics and was not a box-office hit upon initial release (placing 26th for the year, one place ahead of another Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street), although it did receive five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

Liberty Films was purchased by Paramount Pictures, and remained a subsidiary until 1951. Paramount owned the film until 1955, when they sold a few of their features and most of their cartoons and shorts to television distributor UM&M TV Corp.. This included key rights to It's a Wonderful Life, including the original television syndication rights, the original nitrate film elements, the music score, and the story on which the film is based, "The Greatest Gift".

National Telefilm Associates took over the rights to the UM&M. library soon afterward. However, a clerical error at NTA prevented the copyright from being renewed properly in 1974. Around this time, people began to take a second look at this film. A popular fallacy began that it entered the public domain and many television stations began airing the film without paying royalties. The film was still protected by virtue of it being a derivative work of all the other copyrighted material used to produce the film such as the script, music, etc. whose copyrights were renewed. In the 1980s (the beginning of the home video era) the film finally received the acclaim it didn't receive in 1946, thus becoming a perennial holiday favorite. For several years, it became expected that the movie would be shown multiple times on at least one station and on multiple stations in the same day, often at the same or overlapping times. It was a common practice for American viewers to jump in and out of viewing the movie at random points, confident they could easily pick it up again at a later time. The film's warm and familiar ambiance gave even isolated scenes the feel of holiday "comfort food" for the eyes and ears. The film's accidental public domain success is often cited as a reason to limit copyright terms, which have been frequently extended by Congress in the United States.

Two colorized versions have since been produced; they are widely considered inferior to the black-and-white original and are often held up by opponents of colorization as an example of the flaws associated with the process: in the scene of the dinner-table chat between George and Peter Bailey, for example, James Stewart's shirt is conspicuously pink. For many years, some television stations paid substantial royalties to show a colorized version, figuring that color would attract more viewers.

In 1993, Republic Pictures, which was the successor to NTA, relied on the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Stewart v. Abend (which involved the movie Rear Window) to enforce its claim of copyright; while the film's copyright had not been renewed, it was a derivative work of various works that were still copyrighted. As a result, the film is no longer shown as much on television (NBC is currently licensed to show the film on U.S. network television, and only shows it traditionally twice during the holidays, with one showing primarily on Christmas Eve from 8-11 Eastern time), the colorized versions have been withdrawn, and Republic now has exclusive ancillary rights to the film. Artisan Entertainment (under license from Republic) took over home video rights in the mid-1990s, Artisan was later sold to Lions Gate Entertainment, which continued to hold home video rights until late 2005 when they reverted to Republic's sister studio Paramount Pictures, whose parent is Viacom.

The film has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Cast

  • James Stewart as George Bailey
  • Donna Reed as Mary Hatch
  • Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter
  • Ward Bond as Bert
  • Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Irene "Ma" Bailey
  • Todd Karns as Harry Bailey
  • Gloria Grahame as Violet Bick
  • H.B. Warner as Mr. Gower
  • Frank Faylen as Ernie Bishop
  • Charles Lane as the rent collector
  • Henry Travers as Clarence Oddbody, AS2
  • Sheldon Leonard as Nick the bartender
  • William Edmunds as Mr. (Giuseppe) Martini
  • Frank Albertson as Sam Wainwright
  • Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy
  • Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu Bailey
  • Joseph Kearns as Angel (voice, uncredited)
  • Jimmy the Raven as Uncle Billy's pet raven. Jimmy appeared in You Can't Take it With You and each subsequent Capra film. [1] [2]
  • Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer as Freddie (uncredited)

Selected quotations

  • George: "What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Mary."
  • George: "Just remember this, Mr. Potter: this rabble that you talk about ,they do more of the working and paying and living and dying in this town. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms with a bath?? Anyway, my father didn't think so; people were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book, he died a much richer man than you'll ever be!"
  • Clarence: "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
  • George (running back home): "Merry Christmas, movie house!! Merry Christmas, Emporium!! Merry Christmas, you wonderful ol' Building and Loan!!" -
  • Harry: "Good idea, Ernie. A toast! To my big brother George, the richest man in town!"
  • Zuzu: "Look, Daddy! Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!"

Critique

Although generally acclaimed for its affirmation of positive values, the film has attracted some negative critique.

In 1947, a memo to the Director of the FBI reported that some sources viewed the film as subversive and pro-Communist on grounds of its negative depiction of the capitalist Potter and the triumph of the common man Bailey. The identity of these sources is unknown because the public version of the memo has been redacted.

NBC's annual showing of the film during the Christmas season is widely regarded as tacky and detractive of the film's spirit. Many national critics, including Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert, say that adding commercials to such a "atmosphere of drama" forces "breaks" in the emotions evoked by the movie's excellence. To grasp the true greatness of the movie, they suggest either simply to rent the film, or to see it in revival theatrical screenings, as it was meant to be experienced in 1946.

Myths and rumors

A popular belief is that Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie were named after secondary characters in the film; this belief is strengthened by the fact that Uncle Billy ties strings around his fingers to remember things just as Ernie does in Sesame Street. In fact, portions of the film are shown throughout the Christmas special, Elmo Saves Christmas. However, the producers of Sesame Street claim there is no connection.

Pink Floyd allusions

Another rumor is that the Pink Floyd album Wish You Were Here can be played alongside the film with key events in the movie tying in with song lyrics. The similarities are said to be more noticeable than in the other claimed Pink Floyd movie sync with The Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon.

It is interesting to note that many of the film's themes seem to be represented symbolically in the album cover art for Wish You Were Here as well. For example, the back cover of the album shows a faceless man standing alone in the middle of the desert with his foot upon a suitcase that is plastered with travel stickers. This has been seen to represent George Bailey, as the man who never existed, visiting all those exotic places he never got to see.

Likewise, the front cover shows two men shaking hands, on a movie studio backlot no less. One man is engaged in a perfectly polite formality, seeming unaware or disinterested that the other man is engulfed in flames. This might be interpreted as George, exchanging pleasantries with his brother or his friend, who have both gone off to see the world, while he remains in Bedford Falls, quietly enduring his burning desire to leave.

The parallels seems to continue on the inside sleeve, which depicts a splashless diver half submerged in a lake, possibly alluding to George's selfless childhood plunge into the icy pond water to save his brother, as well as his attempted suicide and subsequent rescue of Clarence off the bridge. The opposite side of the inner sleeve displays a sheer red fabric, perhaps silk, suspended in the wind, floating in the center of the frame before a beautiful pastoral landscape. Tiny, and in the distance, is the figure of a woman, naked and walking away. This could be taken as a reference to a pivotal scene in the film, where Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) loses her robe on the way home from the dance with George, and hurriedly ducks into the bushes.

It is also often quoted that psychiatrists would recommend It's a Wonderful Life to patients suffering from depression. This was because it was such a well known feel-good movie, and it generated positive results. However, contemporary psychiatrists would likely scoff at this idea; in the Special Edition video, this theory is quoted.

Awards and nominations

Contrary to its widespread acclaim in recent years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snubbed It's a Wonderful Life on all Oscar nominations. Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Director, and Best Picture were lost all to The Best Years of Our Lives.

The nominees were:

Capra won Best Motion Picture Director from the Golden Globes, and a CEC Award from the Cinema Writers Circle in Spain, for Mejor Película Extranjera (Best Foreign Film). Jimmy Hawkins won a "Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Young Artist Awards in 1994; the awards centred out his role as Tommy Bailey for igniting his career which lasted until the mid-1960s.

Appearances and references in pop culture

  • George's Daughter Zuzu has a rose whose petals are an important plot point. The name has been used several times in other mediums.
    • Rock band ZuZu's Petals
    • A character in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane is named ZuZu Petals.
    • One strip of "The Far Side" finds a botanical enthusiast boasting about how long it took him to find "the rare... Zuzu's Petals!"
  • It's a Wonderful Life is the title of an album by Fishbone, as well as one by Sparklehorse.
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds recorded a song titled "Wonderful Life": it appears on the album Nocturama.
  • Stephen Jay Gould based the title of his Wonderful Life, a book about evolution and the Burgess Shale, on this movie.
  • The movie has inspired other alternate reality sections of movies, such as the alternate 1985 in Back to the Future II and the "glimpse" given to Jack Campbell in The Family Man.
  • Don Rosa wrote a Donald Duck comic story for the character's 60th birthday titled "The Duck Who Never Was", in which Donald sees what Duckburg would be like if he never was born. Like George, Donald feels like a nobody, but realizes that he has made an enormous difference.
  • A Christmas episode of Married...with Children had comedian Sam Kinison play the role of Clarence as he showed Al Bundy what his world would've been like had he never been born. Ironically it turns out the world would've been much better without him. However he opts to remain out of sheer spite so Clarence got his wings.
  • The second half of the Beavis and Butt-Head Christmas special is entitled "It's a Miserable Life", and directly parodies the movie; instead of the townspeople praying for the pair's safety, they pray for their demise. At this point Charlie, Butt-Head's guardian angel, shows him how much better the town of Highland would be without him before trying to get him to kill himself by jumping off a bridge. The episode ends with Charlie himself falling off the bridge and Beavis and Butt-Head surviving.
  • "It's a Wishful Life" is an episode of The Fairly OddParents that parodies this film. Like the Married...with Children episode, Timmy Turner also gets a glimpse of how different and wonderful things would be for everyone if his parents had a girl instead of him.
  • Shredderville is an episode of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1987 cartoon that parodies the film. The TMNT wish they had never been born, and have a dream about an alternative history where they never existed, and where Shredder rules New York City and the city is renamed "Shredderville".
  • Pottersville sounds like "potter's field", a term for a burial place for unknown or indigent people.
  • Two games in the Harvest Moon video game series have the titles of Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life and Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life
  • The TV show Saturday Night Live once presented a sketch in which the residents of Bedford Falls, after the closing scenes of the film, discover that Potter is the real villain and proceed to deal with him summarily.
  • The Simpsons episode "Natural Born Kissers" showed Bart and Lisa watching a version of Casablanca at school. Afterwards, they are ordered to bury it where they found it, and then are asked to bury another old movie reel along with it. On this second reel is affixed the label: "It's a Wonderful Life -- Killing Spree Ending". Also, in "Beyond Blunderdome", when Homer is watching a test screening for Mel Gibson's remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he badmouths it, saying "At least the Jimmy Stewart version had the giant rabbit who ran the savings and loan!"
  • The British sketch comedy series A Bit of Fry and Laurie once presented a sketch entitled, "It a Soaraway Life". In the sketch, the angel Clarence saves the life of Rupert, who had decided that the world would have been better off without him. When it is revealed that without Rupert the world is now a paradise, Rupert decides that he wants to live and make a huge profit by economically taking over paradise. Upon hearing Rupert's plans, Clarence promptly knocks him off a bridge.
  • The story was done as an episode of Rugrats titled "Chuckie's Wonderful Life". After Angelica steals one of his father's CDs, Chuckie believes it's his fault and decides to run away. He is shown by his guardian angel how, without him, no one would have been told that some things "weren't such a good idea".
  • In an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, Bruce Wayne tells Dick Grayson that he's never seen It's A Wonderful Life because he "could never get past the title."
  • A Johnny Bravo episode contains an angel Maurice who must earn his halo, a reference to Clarence Odbody's eagerness to earn his wings.
  • "It's a Wonderful Life" is the name of a Bandits of the Acoustic Revolution song.
  • The Tiny Toon Adventures Christmas special spoofs the film with Buster Bunny acting as the George Bailey of the story and shown by a guardian Toon angel named Harvey (actually Bugs Bunny in disguise) what Acme Acres (or Montyville in the alternate reality) would be like if he was never on Tiny Toons.
  • In the Family Guy Christmas episode, an irate Lois Griffin, on her way to ruin the Christmas cheer, passes George * Bailey just as he exclaims "I want to live again!" and shoves him off the bridge.
  • An episode of Donkey Kong Country used the film's plot and even its title. Here, Donkey Kong is in the George Bailey role, and Eddie the Mean Old Yeti is the guardian angel who shows DK a world where Diddy is an evil emperor, Candy is married to Bluster, and King K. Rool is trying to defend a papier-mâché lilypad.
  • Garfield and Friends spoofed the idea in a U.S. Acres segment titled "It's a Wonderful Wade", in which Wade, upset after letting the farm's vegetable crop seemingly vanish, is shown an alternate reality where he doesn't exist ("like that movie they show 7 million times every Christmas!"). Surprisingly, it isn't much different from the normal reality, but he does find out how Orson's brothers were stealing the vegetables to begin with.
  • The webcomic Melonpool parodied the concept in a two-week storyline in December 1999. In dramatic irony, the Bailey character, Ralph, wishes that Mayberry had never been born rather than himself. DeForest Kelley then appears to show Ralph what life would be like without Mayberry. Ralph prefers this alternate reality, though, but eventually caves in because he's broke and needs the crew for the added income.

Bank run

In one scene, during a run on the bank, George must persuade Bailey Building & Loan depositors not to demand the return of their deposits. This scene takes place about 1932 or 1933, just before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation were created to prevent such financial catastrophes.

Trivia

  • Of It's a Wonderful Life, director and producer Frank Capra, whose movies' idealistically optimistic approach to weighty topics earned the name "Capricorn," said, "That’s a great film; I love that film. It’s my favorite film, and in a sense it epitomizes everything I’ve been trying to do and trying to say with the other films, only it does it very dramatically with a very unique story."
  • In 1946, the Hays Code, the system of ethics which had been set forth by the MPAA at the time, strictly censored such phrases and words as "nuts to you," "impotent," "dang," "lousy," and "jerk." Capra managed to bypass the code which stipulated that criminals must be shown facing justice for their crimes; Potter's legal comeuppance for stealing the $8,000 was never seen. Capra noted several times that he had received more mail about this point than anything else in the film.
  • After Uncle Billy drunkenly chooses between his three wavering hats and leaves George's house, we hear an off-camera sound effect as if he is falling over trash cans. This scene was actually unplanned; a technician accidentally dropped some equipment off-set, making a loud noise, and Thomas Mitchell (Billy) decided to ad lib the moment shouting (off-camera) "I'm all right! I'm all-l-l right!" Delighted with the way the scene played out, Capra decided to keep this take in the final cut, and also paid the technician an extra ten dollars.
  • Ironically, Potter does not appear on screen during the "Pottersville" sequence.
  • It is mentioned that Harry shot down fifteen planes, making him a "Triple Ace", but whether or not he shot them all down in one day remains ambiguous; if he did, which is likely considering his being awarded the CMOH, he would have earned the far more prestigious title of "Triple Ace in a Day", a feat that no actual American pilot accomplished during WWII.
  • The town of Bedford Falls is believed to be based on the actual town of Seneca Falls, New York, which is situated between Rochester (approximately 50 miles to the west) and Syracuse (approximately 30 miles to the east). Today, Seneca Falls is only a few miles south of the New York State Thruway (I-90). A museum dedicated to the film opened in Seneca Falls in December 2010.[3]

Reference

External links

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