Classic Film Guide

It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

Produced & directed by Frank Capra, based on Philip Van Doren Stern's story "The Greatest Gift" with a screenplay by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett (The Thin Man (1934)) and Capra plus additional scenes from Jo Swerling (The Pride of the Yankees (1942)), this essential family fantasy drama lost the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year to producer Samuel Goldwyn's The Best Years of our Lives (1946). In fact, that film's success led its director William Wyler to beat Capra in the Best Director category, that film's lead Fredric March won the Best Actor Oscar over this film's nominee James Stewart, and that film's Editor kept this film's William Hornbeck from winning on his first Oscar nomination; John Aalberg’s Sound Recording was also nominated (Capra’s two nominations represent his last from the Academy).

However, It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is a much more well known film today, in part because its copyright was (mistakenly) not renewed such that it fell into the public domain, and it was widely aired on television stations that didn't have to pay royalties. Its heartwarming, sentimental story helped place it #11 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies list and #8 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Love Stories list. The struggle between its two principal characters earned Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter the #7 position on AFI’s top 50 villains list and Stewart's George Bailey #9 on AFI’s top 50 heroes list. The cast also includes Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Samuel Hinds, and Mary Treen as Cousin Tilly, among many others. Additionally, noted prolific character actors Sheldon Leonard, Charles Lane as a rent collector, Al Bridge (uncredited), Ellen Corby (uncredited), Dick Elliott (uncredited), Charles Halton (uncredited), J. Farrell MacDonald (uncredited) plays a house owner, Moroni Olsen's voice (uncredited), and even Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer (uncredited) are among those who also appear. Added to the National Film Registry in 1990. #1 on AFI's 100 Most Inspiring Movies list.

The film's story spans many years, including prolonged flashback sequences which detail the importance of one man's life, George Bailey's, and he affected others in his community. A suicidal George (Stewart) is given the opportunity, by an angel named Clarence (Travers), to see what his town of Bedford Falls would have been like if he'd never been born. Reed plays Mary Hatch, Sam Wainwright's (Frank Albertson) "girl" in high school who falls in love and marries George instead (Elliot's character says, effectively, "Ain't ya gonna kiss her" and then, after George's dumbfounded response, "Ah, youth is wasted on the wrong people"). Sarah Edwards plays Mary's mother, upset that her daughter didn't choose handsome (& wealthy) Sam. Ernie Bishop (Faylen) and Officer Bert (Bond) serenade the two love birds on their wedding night.

But George is embroiled in a fight for the common folk, those who can't afford any kind of housing of their own outside of living in the cheap tenements financed by Mr. Potter (Barrymore). George had grandiose dreams of his own, a college education and his own industrial company leading to fortune one day. But when his Pa (Hinds) died, George was more or less thrust into running the family's building & loan by its board members, who would've otherwise sold out to Potter. Bondi plays Ma Bailey. So George agreed to run things, with his flaky Uncle Billy (Mitchell), while he sent his younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) off to college with the understanding that he'd return (and do the same for George). But Harry returns from college with a wife (Virginia Patton), so George is still stuck.

On George's wedding day, there's a run on the bank (e.g. during the Depression). But with Mary's help, their honeymoon travel money, and George's charisma (Corby plays one that he kisses after convincing her to withdraw only the money she's needs), the Baileys are able to save the building & loan for another day. After a confrontation with George (which began as the old man was trying to hire the young whippersnapper), slimy Mr. Potter continues to look for an opportunity to eliminate his only competition, and gets the chance one day with Uncle Billy loses the money he was to deposit in the old crank's bank, threatening the building & loan's solvency (Potter himself gets the money!). This leads to a visit from auditors (Halton) and George's suicide attempt. Angel Clarence (sent to Earth by Olsen's voice, among others) enables George to visit "Potterville", the town that would have been (e.g. had George never lived):

Pharmacist Gower (Warner) would've poisoned someone due to his own drunkenness. Harry would've slipped through the ice and drown as a child such that those on a transport he'd saved during the war would've perished as well. Violet Bick (Grahame) would've become a "loose" girl without George's kindness, etc., to say nothing of all those who wouldn't have been able to purchase homes of their own without the existence of the building & loan. Even bar owner Mr. Martini (William Edmunds) would've lost his business to his less friendly bartender Nick (Leonard) without George.

Naturally, the experience convinces George that he wants to live, and he's given a second chance. He's thrilled to see that his car is still wrecked (e.g. as it was before his surreal experience), though the Sheriff (Bridge) thinks he's nuts. He's excited that his pocket still contains his youngest daughter Zuzu’s (Karolyn Grimes) flower petals. He runs through Bedford Falls gleefully shouting "Merry Christmas" to everyone on Christmas Eve. When he gets home, one of the most memorable scenes in film history (the most tear-jerking as well) includes Uncle Billy arriving with a basket of money, nickels & dimes from all those that George and the building & loan has helped through the years, to make up the difference for the loss (of capital by Uncle Billy); even the auditor contributes to the fund as does Sam Wainwright, by telegram; Harry, who's returned home too, toasts his big brother George as "the richest man in town". A bell rings on the Christmas tree and Zuzu states that teacher says an angel's got "his" wings; George says "that's right, way to go Clarence" as the whole community crowds into the Bailey's humble home singing "Auld Lang Syne".

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