|It's A Wonderful Life|
Original movie poster
|Directed by:||Frank Capra|
|Produced by:||Frank Capra|
|Written by:|| Frances Goodrich,|
and Frank Capra.
Based on The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern
|Starring:|| James Stewart,|
|Color:||Black and White|
|Ratings:||US:Approved; UK:U; Australia:PG|
RKO Radio Pictures (distribution rights)
Paramount Pictures (general rights)
|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.
Story and plot analysisEdit
| Spoiler warning: The following contains plot details about|
the entire movie.
The movie begins on Christmas Eve as the multiple prayers of many people on Earth for a man named George Bailey are heard by people in Heaven. In there, Clarence Oddbody, an "apprentice" angel, is told that he must help him in order to get his wings (which distinguishes him as a lowly apprentice angel).
One of the higher-up angels, Joseph, begins to tell Clarence the story of George in order to prepare him for his mission to help him.
George the boyEdit
First, Joseph tells Clarence of how George saved his brother Harry when he fell through a hole at the age of nine, but George got a bad cold which cost him his hearing in his left ear. Two little girls, Mary Hatch and Violet Bick, come in, and George also saves a child from being poisoned by tainted capsules ordered from Mr. Gower, who is disoriented after learning, by telegram, of the recent influenza death of his son. He is eternally grateful to George, although, unaware of the poison at first, he was angry with him and slapped his bad ear.
George the young manEdit
Now, about twenty-one, George wants more than anything in the world to "leave this crummy little town" of Bedford Falls, and experience the world outside. On 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 having his eldest son leave without going into business with him at the Bailey Building & Loan. George reassures Peter that he has nothing to worry about, especially considering the aggressiveness of mill owner and banker Henry F. Potter, a greedy slumlord who already owns half the city. In a tender moment, George reveals his deep affection for his father, then leaves to attend the graduation party of his younger brother, Harry, at the Bedford Falls High School gymnasium.
At the party, George becomes reacquainted with Mary Hatch, now 18, who has been brought to the event by her brother, Marty. After getting rid of her annoying date, Freddie (Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer), she and George dance together in the big Charleston contest. Beneath the gym's retractable floor is concealed a swimming pool, and they are dancing on the edge along which the floor splits when opened. In a fit of pique, Freddie activates the mechanism that exposes the water-filled pool. After moving to one side of the growing opening, George and Mary dance closer and closer to the edge before plunging in. The rest of the partygoers (including the school principal) gleefully join them in the pool.
Afterwards, George and Mary are walking leisurely home, with him wearing a football uniform and her a bathrobe, both "borrowed" from the school locker room. They harmonize on Cool White's minstrel song "Buffalo Gals" ("Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight and dance by the light of the moon?") as they stroll. En route to Mary's, George puts down the couple's wet evening wear and, in accordance with local custom, throws a rock through the window of 320 Sycamore, the old Granville place, a large, empty, dilapidated house, and makes a wish as it breaks the window. Mary has asked him not to break the glass, explaining that she loves the romantic house. Then she asks George about what wish he made. His enthusiastic answer:
- I didn't make one wish, not two, but a whole hatful! I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world: Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then, I'm comin' back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields, I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm gonna build bridges a mile long—
At this, Mary impulsively picks up a stone and breaks a window as well. George asks her what she wished for, but she enigmatically turns and saunters on, accidentally losing her robe in the process. Left holding the garment, a mischievous George humorously teases the mortified Mary, who has hidden herself in nearby hydrangea bushes.
Just then, Uncle Billy, Peter's brother and the Building & Loan's vice president, drives up and informs George that his father has had a stroke. Tossing Mary her robe, he rides urgently away.
Despite the doctor's best efforts, Peter dies.
George, sacrificing the joys and rewards of vacation and an education in Europe, stays behind and helps settle the matters of the Bailey Building & Loan and his father's estate. He also pays for Harry to go to college first. Mr. Potter makes minor attempts to control the company, but the board puts down his attempts.
Harry Bailey comes home from college with a young woman in his arms and introduces her as his wife. Her father has offered Harry an excellent job—and, despite Harry's possible reassurance, George is sure that his dream of having Harry finally replace him at the Building & Loan so that he can take a bigger lot in life is dashed. Mrs. Bailey informs him that Mary Hatch is back in town, and that she "lights up like a firefly whenever she sees" him. He eventually makes his way to her house, where she girlishly plays games with him. He acts uncomfortable and as if he has been forced to come to her house, because, although he does love her, he knows that getting married to her means he will have to remain in Bedford Falls forever.
Frustrated by George's lack of response to her affectionate maneuvers, Mary smashes the record that she had put on just for him and demands that he leave. Then the phone rings. It's Sam Wainwright, the friend who introduced George to Mary, and he informs her that George's previous tip about plastics has turned out to be excellent advice, but that he's still looking for a place to produce his goods. George advises him 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 two choices, shouts
- Now, you listen to me! I don't want any plastics, and I don't want any ground floors, and I don't want to get married, ever, to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do. And you're—and you're—
At this moment, he realizes he must again make another sacrifice for love, and embraces Mary. At the same time, he also realizes that he must marry his love while at the same time denying himself the prosperous job. After all, the Bailey Building & Loan needs protection from Mr. Potter, and it needs to protect Bedford Falls from him, too.
George and Mary get married in a ceremony at his mother's home. They jump into Ernie's taxi and are about to go to the airport where they shall embark upon a grand honeymoon when, to their dismay, they see people running through the rain to the Bailey Building & Loan. Resisting the urges of Mary, George goes over to see what's up.
There has been a run on the bank, and everyone's financial future is in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Mr. Potter has seized control of the bank, and calls George at the Building and Loan and tells him that he doesn't think the Building & Loan has enough money to stay in business, and informs him that if all of his clients go to Mr. Potter, he'll refund their accounts 50 cents on the dollar. Without the Building and Loan, they would all be at the mercy of Mr. Potter, who cares little for them. George pleads with the people not to sell their shares to Mr. Potter at half their value: "Don't you see what's happening? Potter isn't selling; Potter's buying!"
Mary holds up the money that belongs to them, offering their $2,000 in honeymoon money to bolster the dwindling assets and satisfy the depositors, to tide them over until the bank reopens in a week. George sacrifices and throws away his last chance to leave Bedford Falls. The townspeople, although still fearful, trust in his honesty and agree to withdraw only what they need to last the week.
Exasperated and tired, George, Uncle Billy, and the rest of the Building & Loan staff celebrate the two remaining dollars leftover. Suddenly, the phone rings, and it's Mary, informing him to "come home" to 320 Sycamore—the old house whose windows they once broke.
When George arrives there, he is welcomed inside to a leaking roof, drafty house, and posters of the South Seas and Hawaii covering up holes in the walls. As Mary kisses him, police officer Bert and taxi driver Ernie serenade them from outside. Embracing George, Mary whispers "Remember the night we broke the windows in this old house? This is what I wished for."
Cutting years later, George opens a development called Bailey Park, opening with the ceremony of a poor Italian family, the Martinis, getting their first home in America. Sam Wainwright stops by and tells him that he and his wife are off to Florida. George, furious that everyone else gets their dreams fulfilled except for him, kicks the door to his car shut.
Meanwhile, Mr. Potter is aware that the Bailey Park development is infringing on his profits, and he comments: "The Bailey family's been a boil on my neck long enough." George is then summoned to his office, and is, strangely, congratulated for beating the old man. He offers him an insanely wealthy future: $20,000 a year salary, business trips to Europe and Asia...meaning the best things in the world for his new bride. However, George suddenly comes to his senses, realizing that he can't accept this temptation, because it would mean ruin for the good people of Bedford Falls. His voice rising with his increasing disgust, he tells Mr. Potter
- I don't need twenty-four hours. I don't have to talk to anybody. I know right now, and the answer's no. No! Doggone it! You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money! Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter! In the—in the whole vast configuration of things, I'd say, you were nothing but a scurvy little spider!
That very night, George comes home after dark while Mary is sleeping, and the words of his recent conference with Mr. Potter haunt him. The promises of wealth, happiness, and good clothing and home for Mary seem even more enticing, and he realizes just how much he has had to sacrifice during his life, and what meager material rewards he has gained from it.
His eyes drift from his sleeping young bride to the peeling paint on the walls, and to an old caricature of Mary drew of him as a cowboy throwing a rope around the moon. He remembers the night he and Mary walked home from Harry's graduation party, the high aspirations for the future that he expressed to her, how carefree and hopeful they were. Thus, he realizes precisely what he has missed out on by passing up Mr. Potter's offer.
Mary then sits up in bed. "George Bailey lassoes stork!" she tells him. She and George end up having four children in all.
The War; Christmas EveEdit
Afterwards, during a montage, angel Joseph explains to Clarence what happened to Bedford Falls during World War II. Harry Bailey went off to war, and his heroics saved a convoy of troops. Sam Wainwright made a fortune off of plastic hoods for airplanes. Mary and other women in the town worked for the USO. Ernie and Bert also went off to fight in the war in Normandy. Mr. Potter takes control of the draft board. Uncle Billy sells war bonds.
George is rejected from the draft board: after saving Harry from the ice as a young boy, he went deaf in one ear, and is therefore ineligible for the U.S. Armed Forces. He stays behind to fight "The Battle of Bedford Falls" against Mr. Potter.
The war ends; and Harry's heroics have landed him a Congressional Medal of Honor, announced in a banner headline across The Bedford Falls Sentinel. At the bank, with an envelope of $8,000 of Bailey Building & Loan cash to deposit, Uncle Billy is writing out the deposit slip when Mr. Potter is wheeled into there. 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
- Well, good morning, Mr. Potter! What's the news? Oh, well, well, well: Harry Bailey wins Congressional Medal. That couldn't be one of the Bailey boys. You just can't keep those Baileys down, now, can you, Mr. Potter?
However, in his joy, Uncle Billy inadverently wraps the envelope of cash in Mr. Potter's newspaper before returning it to him. Uncle Billy leaves; and Mr. Potter, having discovered the money, greedily and diabolically keeps it all for himself, aware that it means ruin for the Baileys.
At the Building & Loan, Violet Bick 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 was supposed 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 path in a vain attempt to find the cash. Enraged at Uncle Billy's forgetfulness, George, panicking, beats him, shouting "Where's that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison; that's what it means! One of us is going to jail. Well, it's not gonna be me!"
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 stupid pleas of his family make him even more disparaged. He cries as he hugs Tommy, knowing that he himself will be the one who goes to jail, and will be to blame 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. Under extreme duress now, he blames her teacher, Mrs. Welch, for not telling her to put on her coat, and he makes her cry.
Utterly desperate for a way out of prison and scandal and the suffering of his family, George asks Mr. Potter for help. He knows that Uncle Billy has misplaced $8,000 of the Building & Loan's money; he suggests that George has been gambling or having an extramarital affair, and taunts him:
- Look at you: you used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world! You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help.
Mr. Potter declines to lend George any money, because the only collateral that he offers is a $15,000 life-insurance in which his equity is $500. In a bit of sinister, chilling humor, he says "Why, George, you're worth more dead than alive" and says that he will swear out a warrant for George's arrest on charges of malfeasance and manipulation of funds.
Realizing this is indeed true, George departs while Mr. Potter is still speaking, and drives to Mr. Martini's bar, where he drinks. He prays to God for deliverance from his woes. Mr. Welch, Zuzu's teacher's husband, recognizes him and, irate that his wife cried for an hour after George yelled at her over the telephone, punches him in the face, cutting his lip in the process.
Feeling his life insurance policy in his coat pocket, George interprets this blow as God's answer to a man in need, and, sick with the way the world has been cruel to him for his entire life, is now on the verge of suicide. He has truly lost faith in the people of the world, and in God.
George drunkenly crashes his car into a tree near a bridge, and stumbles out into the middle of the span. He looks down into the churning, frigid river, knowing that if he jumped in right now, the temperature and the rapids would kill him in no time. Contemplating suicide, and about to do himself in, he suddenly sees a stranger in a white nightgown jump into the river. He jumps in to save him, and the bridgekeeper saves them from the water.
The stranger introduces himself to George as Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, his Guardian Angel from Heaven, a reader of a damp copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer who recommends "the new book Mark Twain's writing now" and claims to have died in his old-fashioned undergarments. George is very skeptical, and the bridgekeeper leaves, thinking both of them are insane. Clarence attempts to convince him that he jumped in order to save him, knowing that he would rather save a life than take his own.
George, despondent and ruined, explains his situation to Clarence, who already knows all too well the plight of him and Uncle Billy. He claims "Everyone'd be better off if I'd never been born at all."
Clarence takes this statement to heart, and having conferred with his superiors in Heaven, grants George's wish: the world has never known of a man named George Bailey, and he truly has never been born.
They walk in this new reality past the tree where George crashed his car—but it is gone. There is not even a mark in the tree where the car had hit the trunk. They then go to Martini's Bar (now "Nick's") for a drink. Clarence hears the cash register's bell, and tells George "Every time you hear a bell ring, an angel gets his wings", garnering unfriendly laughter.
In the bar, Clarence (with characteristic childlike naïveté) is unafraid to discuss angels in front of a bemused Nick and others in the bar: "Why? Don't they believe in angels?" Clarence asks. Embarrassed by his slightly daffy companion, George tells Nick "He never grew up." Nick is less than amused. When Clarence, hearing the bell of the cash register, says that an angel has just earned its wings, Nick orders the two "pixies" out for "giving the joint atmosphere". As they are manhandled toward the door, Mr. Gower comes stumbling in. Nick calls him a "rummy" and a "panhandler" and sprays him in the face with a seltzer bottle. George is shocked by Mr. Gower's condition and hopes that his former employer will recognize him: but the reply is a mystified "No." Nick tells him that the former druggist Mr. Gower "spent twenty years in jail for poisoning a kid" and suggests that, to know him, George, too, "must be a jailbird".
George and Clarence are thrown out into the snow for "giving the joint atmosphere". Dismayed by the experience, but incredulous of Clarence's explanation, George interrogates him, who assures him that he is his Guardian Angel. George asks what else he is: "A hypnotist?" Trying to assert his identity, he finds that, just as Clarence predicts, his wallet, all his identification, even Zuzu's flower petals, are gone from his pockets. Clarence remarks "You've been given a great gift, George: a chance to see what the world would be like without you."
In a horrific series of events, George shakes off Clarence and discovers the changed Bedford Falls—now called Pottersville. The main street has been transformed into a gaudy cavalcade of jitterbug dance halls, strip clubs, and taverns. George sees the Building & Loan has been replaced by a dance hall, while a pawn broker now serves the people of Pottersville. Violet Bick is now a prostitute facing arrest. Ernie and Bert are now callous and suspicious of everyone. The old house at 320 Sycamore is as dilapidated as ever, since George never lived there.
Mrs. Bailey still runs her boarding house. George insists that he is her son, but she claims she never had any children except for Harry. Peter had a stroke and died, she says, and Uncle Billy tried to control the company afterwards, but pressure from Mr. Potter forced him into madness and an insane asylum.
After running down the steps, George's horrified, confused, despondent face is viewed in a fantastic close-up. He seeks closure by trying to locate the Italian immigrant family, the Martinis, in Bailey Park, but is terrified to find a cemetery there instead. Clarence appears, and tells George he wasn't there to build a house for the Martinis.
In the first of three climactic scenes of the movie, George discovers Harry Bailey's name on a tombstone. It reads "HERE LIES HARRY BAILEY: 1911–1919". Clarence tells him that, because he never existed, Harry fell through the ice and drowned at the age of nine. George, thinking he's going mad, is convinced that he saved Harry, and that he went on to save the lives of an entire ship of men in the war.
- Every man on that transport died! Harry wasn't there to save them because you weren't there to save Harry! 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's mind is now battling between what he thinks he knows and what is being obviously presented to him, and he demands to know what has become of Mary. He feels that if he can just find her, things will be back to normal. But he finds that she is an old-maid librarian: a plain, bespectacled woman, sad, lonely, and frightened of the world. George approaches her as she closes up the public library, pleading and begging her to help him. But she doesn't recognize him, and screams before running away from him. Bert comes to her defense, and tries to pry him from her. George, finally realizing everything Clarence has told him, knocks Bert to the ground. His fears deepened, he flees from the center of town, with gunshots ringing in his ears.
Fleeing the horrors of Pottersville, George at last grasps the truth. As he once again arrives at the bridge, he finally realizes what Clarence has been trying to explain: that every man's life affects the world greatly. Forgetting himself and his problems, a humbled George pleads with Heaven to restore his existence and make the world as it was—problems and all:
- Clarence! Clarence! Help me, Clarence. Get me back. Get me back. I don't care what happens to me. Get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please. Please! I want to live again! I want to live again. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again.
His prayer is answered: at the precise instant he utters the word "God", the blowing gusts die down, and snow begins to fall once more.
At once, George's lip starts to bleed. Bert's police car turns onto the bridge. Restored to life, George at first rounds on him angrily, but when he says his name, he euphorically asks "Bert, do you know me?"
Bert replies "Yes", leading George to jump and yell with joy. Bert demands to know where he has been, since the whole town has been looking for him. He then points out that George's lip is bleeding. Feeling for the blood, George gleefully cackles
- My mouth's bleeding, Bert! My mouth's bleed—[He checks his pocket]—Zuzu's petals! Zuzu's—There they are! Bert! What do you know about that! I'm back! Merry Christmas!
George's eyes have been opened to the true wonder of living. All of the miseries of his Christmas Eve he now greets with humorous joy: he lauds the tree he'd crashed into, lovingly pats his dilapidated car with the door that won't stay closed, and, in the film's most memorable scene, runs ecstatically down Main Street, shouting hellos to the Bijou Movie House, Emporium, Bailey Building & Loan, and the entire city of Bedford Falls, the "crummy little town" he had come to hate. George's holiday greetings are even offered to Mr. Potter, who answers his "Merry Christmas!" with "And a happy new year to you, too—in jail!"
George returns home. The bank examiner, sheriff, and two newsmen are there to arrest him; but he enthusiastically shakes hands with the examiner, who says "Mr. Bailey, there's a deficit."
Responding happily both to the examiner and to the sheriff's arrest warrant, George exclaims "Isn't it wonderful? I'm going to jail!"
Spying his children on the upstairs landing, he rushes up to kiss them. When he asks where their mother is, they answer that she has gone looking for him.
The richest man in townEdit
Mary rushes in moments later, shouting "George, it's a miracle! It's—it's a miracle!" His years of selfless investment in his fellow men now pay off with interest. The people of Bedford Falls, for whom he has sacrificed his dreams, now appear in his hour of need. One by one, then in a crowd, his neighbors offer him their money—Mr. Martini, Violet Bick, Annie the housekeeper, Mr. Gower, the customers who had trusted him in the bank run. As each comes forward, he utters their names under his breath, lovingly. Even the bank examiner and sheriff offer money—and the sheriff tears up the arrest warrant. The money collected amounts to thousands of dollars, more than enough to save George from jail, the Bailey Building & Loan from ruin, and Bedford Falls from control by Mr. Potter.
Suddenly, Ernie shouts for silence so that he can read them a telegram: Sam Wainwright, aware of George's peril, has cabled from London that his office is authorized to advance George up to twenty-five thousand dollars. Everyone cheers, knowing that the money should maintain the Bailey Building & Loan, and the homes and neighborhoods it has created, for years to come. The crowd bursts into "Auld Lang Syne", while cousin Eustace, the Building & Loan clerk, begins gladly tallying the contributions.
Someone shouts "Harry Bailey" and, unexpectedly, Bert the cop brings him in, whom he has driven from the airport: "The fool flew all the way up here in a blizzard."
Still in uniform from his decoration in Washington and a subsequent event in New York City, Harry proposes "A toast: to my big brother, George—the richest man in town."
The crowd cheers again, and then resumes "Auld Lang Syne", this time accompanied by Bert on his accordion and Janie on the piano. Suddenly, a book appears atop the pile of money: Tom Sawyer. George reaches down and opens the cover; inside, he finds an inscription:
- Dear George:—
- Remember no man is a failure who has friends.
- Thanks for the wings!
A branch is shaken on the Christmas tree, and a bell on the branch starts to jingle. Zuzu cries out "Look, Daddy. Teacher says 'Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.'" George looks skyward and says "That's right. That's right." He winks because he knows who has received the wings.
As he stands in his beloved home, surrounded by his family and the neighbors he has come to love, George truly grasps how wonderful his life has been, and realizes that a human life—no matter how wretched—is always worth living, if lived for the sake of the people that one loves.
Spoilers end here.
Inspiration, production, and distributionEdit
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 U.M.& M. T.V. 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 U.M.&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.
- James Stewart as George Bailey
- Donna Reed as Mary Hatch
- Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter
- Ward Bond as Bert
- Beulah Bondi as Mrs. 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. 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.  
- "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." - James Stewart as George Bailey
- "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?" - Henry Travers as Clarence Oddbody
- "A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town." - Todd Karns as Harry Bailey
- Look, Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings." - Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu Bailey
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 rumorsEdit
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.
Another rumor is that 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 nominationsEdit
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:
- Best Actor: James Stewart
- Best Editing: William Hornbeck
- Best Director: Frank Capra
- Best Sound Recording: John Aalberg
- Best Picture: Frank Capra
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 cultureEdit
- 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 Bailey, he feels like a nobody, but realises 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. Unfortunately 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 hm 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 the 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 Oddbody's eagerness to earn his wings.
- "It's a Wonderful Life" is the name of a Bandits of the Acoustic Revolution song.
- The Tiny Toons 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.
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.
- 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."
- The Motion Picture Association of America's strict production code in 1946 censored such phrases and words as "nuts to you," "impotent," "dang," "lousy," and "jerk." But Capra managed to bypass the production cope stipulating that criminals be punished for their crime, as Potter never had justice done to him for his theft of the Building and Loan's $8,000. Capra noted several times that he had received more mail about this point than anything else in the film.
- After Uncle Billy chooses between his three wavering hats and leaves George's house drunk, it sounds as if he is falling over trash cans. This scene was unplanned. A technician accidentally dropped some equipment off-set, making a loud noise. Shouting "I'm all right, I'm all right," the actor saved the take and made comedic history. The stagehand made an extra $10.
- The Making of It's a Wonderful Life, a documentary hosted by Tom Bosley featured in the Fortyfifth Anniversary Edition on VHS, and also on LaserDisc and DVD
- It's a Wonderful Life at the Internet Movie Database
- Essay on the deeper meaning of It's a Wonderful Life
- In-depth defense of the film from its critics
- Excerpts from Ray Carney's analysis of the film.
- It's a Wonderful Life Ruining Your Holiday....Why the FBI Thought "It's A Wonderful Life" was a Subversive Film
- Filmsite.org's extended review
- "Some Kind of Wonderful" Frank Capra Examines Failure (from Failure Magazine, March 2001)
- "It's A Wonderful Movie" YoursDaily.com
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