George Bailey (James Stewart), Mary Bailey (Donna Reed), and their youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes)
Directed by Frank Capra
Produced by Frank Capra
Based on “The Greatest Gift”
by Philip Van Doren Stern
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Edited by William Hornbeck
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures1
December 20, 1946 (USA)
Country United States
Budget $3.18 million[N 1]
Box office $3.3 million (US rentals)
It’s a Wonderful Life is a 1946 American Christmas fantasy drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra, based on the short story “The Greatest Gift”, which Philip Van Doren Stern wrote in 1939 and published privately in 1945. The film is now among the most popular in American cinema and because of numerous television showings in the 1980s has become traditional viewing during the Christmas season.
The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be had he never been born.
Despite initially performing poorly financially because of high production costs and stiff competition at the time of its release, the film has come to be regarded as a classic. Theatrically, the film’s break-even point was $6.3 million, approximately twice the production cost, a figure it never came close to achieving in its initial release. An appraisal in 2006 reported: “Although it was not the complete box office failure that today everyone believes … it was initially a major disappointment and confirmed, at least to the studios, that Capra was no longer capable of turning out the populist features that made his films the must-see, money-making events they once were.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the most acclaimed films ever made, praised particularly for its writing. It was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, placing number 11 on its initial 1998 greatest movie list, and number one on AFI’s list of the most inspirational American films of all time. Capra revealed that the film was his personal favorite among those he directed, adding that he screened it for his family every Christmas season.
Donna Reed as Mary Bailey and James Stewart as George Bailey
On Christmas Eve 1945, in Bedford Falls, George Bailey is suicidal. Prayers for him reach Heaven, where Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to save George in order to earn his angel wings. To prepare, Clarence is shown shows flashbacks of George’s life. The first is in 1919, when 12-year-old George saves his younger brother Harry, who falls through the ice on a frozen pond, from drowning; George losing his hearing in one ear as a result. While working after school at the local drug store, he noticed that his boss Mr. Gower had accidentally poisoned a prescription after becoming drunk following the news of his son’s death.
On Harry’s graduation night in 1928, George talks to Mary Hatch, who has had a crush on him from an early age. They are interrupted by news of his father’s death. George postpones his travel plans in order to sort out the family business, Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan, a longtime adversary to Henry F. Potter, the local banker and the richest man in town. Potter wishes to dissolve the Building and Loan to take over its business. George convinces the board of directors to vote against Potter. They agree, on condition that George succeeds his father and runs the business, along with his absent-minded uncle Billy. George and Mary get married. On their way to their honeymoon, they witness a run on the bank and use their holiday savings to lend financial support at the Building and Loan until the bank reopens.
Over time George builds Bailey Park, an estate which offers affordable housing to people who would otherwise have to live in Potter’s overpriced slums. Potter, frustrated at losing control of the housing market, attempts to lure George into becoming his assistant; George is momentarily tempted, but rejects the offer.
During World War II, George is ineligible for service because of his bad ear. Harry becomes a Navy pilot and shoots down a kamikaze plane that would have bombed an amphibious transport; he is awarded the Medal of Honor. On Christmas Eve morning 1945, the town prepares a hero’s welcome for Harry. Uncle Billy goes to Potter’s bank to deposit $8,000 for the Building and Loan. He brags to Potter about Harry; the banker angrily grabs the newspaper, inside of which is the $8,000 – unbeknown to Uncle Billy. Realizing the potential scandal would lead to the Building and Loan’s downfall, Potter secretly hides the money. When Uncle Billy cannot find the money, he and George frantically search for it. When the bank examiner arrives to review their records, Uncle Billy panics. George berates his uncle for endangering the Building and Loan, goes home and takes out his frustration on his family. He apologizes to his frightened wife and children, then leaves.
George with his guardian angel Clarence
When the bank examiner arrives to review their records, George desperately appeals to Potter for a loan. When George claims a life insurance policy as collateral, Potter says George is worth more dead than alive and orders a warrant for his arrest. George gets drunk at a local bar and is involved in a fight; he leaves and goes to a nearby bridge to commit suicide. Before he can jump, Clarence leaps in the river in order for George to rescue him. George does not believe Clarence’s subsequent claim to be his guardian angel.
When George says he wishes he had never been born, Clarence grants his unintentional request, creating an alternate timeline in which George never existed: Bedford Falls is now named Pottersville and is a less homely place. Mr. Gower has recently been released from prison for manslaughter, because George was not there to stop him putting poison in the pills. The Building and Loan has closed down, as George never took over after Mr. Bailey’s passing; George’s friends still exist in this reality.
George’s mother does not recognize him; she reveals that Uncle Billy was institutionalized after the collapse of the Building and Loan. In the cemetery where Bailey Park would have been, George discovers the grave of his brother. Clarence tells him the soldiers on the transport all died, as Harry was never there to save them, as George had never saved Harry from drowning. Mary never married; when George says he is her husband, she screams for the police, causing George to flee and the local policeman to give chase.
George runs back to the bridge and begs for his life back; the alternate timeline changes back to the original reality. George runs home to await his arrest. Mary and Uncle Billy arrive, having rallied the townspeople, who donate more than enough to cover the missing $8,000 and for Potter’s warrant to be torn up. Harry arrives and toasts George. A bell on the Christmas tree rings, and his daughter recalls the story that it means an angel has just earned his wings, signifying Clarence’s promotion.