It’s a Wonderful Life
Directed and Produced by Frank Capra
Philip Van Doren Stern
Starring James Stewart
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date(s) December 20, 1946
Running time 130 min
Country United States
All Movie Guide profile
It’s a Wonderful Life is a 1946 American film produced and directed by Frank Capra and based on the short story, “The Greatest Gift” written by Philip Van Doren Stern.
The film takes place in the fictional town of Bedford Falls shortly after World War II and stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man whose attempted suicide on Christmas Eve gains the attention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) who is sent to help him in his hour of need.
Most of the film is told through flashbacks spanning George’s entire life and narrated by Franklin and Joseph, unseen Angels who are preparing Clarence for his mission to save George. Through these flashbacks we see all the people whose lives have been touched by George and the difference he has made to the community in which he lives.
The film is regarded as a classic and is a staple of Christmas television around the world, although, due to its high production costs and stiff competition at the box office, financially, it was considered a “flop.” The film’s break-even point was actually $6.3 million, approximately twice the production cost, a figure it never came close to achieving in its initial release. Mark Eliot writes, “Although it was not the complete box-office failure that today everyone believes… it was 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.”  Although not an Oscar winner at the time, it has been since named by the American Film Institute one of the best films ever made and was placed number one on the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Cheers list of the most inspirational American films of all time.
The story begins on Christmas Eve, 1946, and George Bailey is in a dark place. The prayers of his family and friends alert Heaven to George’s state of mind, and Clarence Odbody, an Angel Second Class, is sent to Earth to save George — and thereby perhaps, after 200 years of trying, to earn his wings. To prepare for his mission, Clarence is brought before Joseph, the head angel, to see a review of George’s life to date, highlighting all the good he has done for others:
As a boy in 1919, George saved his brother Harry’s life in an ice sledding accident, a heroic act that cost him the hearing in his left ear.
About six months later, George was working for the local pharmacist, Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner), when he prevented Gower, grief-stricken from his son’s death, from accidentally poisoning a child.
George’s most compelling ambition is to see the whole world; he plans to become an architect and design magnificent bridges and skyscrapers everywhere.
However, as George matures, he continues to extend help to whoever needs it at the sacrifice of his dreams: He puts off going to college until Harry graduates from high school to take over the family business, the Bailey Building & Loan Association, essential to many of the disadvantaged in Bedford Falls.
On Harry’s graduation night, as George fantasizes about his future to childhood sweetheart Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) in front of a dilapidated old mansion, their father suddenly dies.
An avaricious and opportunistic board member of the Building & Loan (and owner of most of the town), Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) seizes the opportunity to gain control of the Board of Directors and end the “nonsense” of home loans for the working poor; George makes a reluctant but impassioned plea to keep the company independent, moving the board members to agree, but only if George remains to run the business.
Harry goes on to college, but George’s hopes of being able to leave Bedford Falls on Harry’s return are dashed once again when Harry unexpectedly brings home his new wife Ruth, whose father has offered Harry a well-paying job in his company.
Depressed, George is persuaded by his mother to call on Mary, also back from college. Their mutual school friend Sam Wainwright telephones her; he has gone on to wealth and success in the plastics industry, and is doing much of the traveling George always wanted to do.
George and Mary are forced to share a telephone handset during the call, and in an emotional cartharsis, George finally expresses his love for her. On their wedding day, as the Great Depression looms, George and Mary see a run on the bank that leaves the Building & Loan in serious danger of going under.
Potter, sensing another opportunity, offers all its customers “50 cents on the dollar”; George argues vehemently for his customers to remain with the institution, and Mary offers money from their honeymoon fund to lend the townspeople enough to sustain them.
The plan is barely a success: At closing, the Building & Loan holds exactly $2.00. Later Mary, with Ernie and Bert’s aid, sets up an elaborate mock tropical honeymoon in the old mansion, which is eventually rebuilt as their new home.
As time passes, George and Mary have four children, and he starts Bailey Park, an affordable-housing project, with the family of the local bar owner Martini as its first tenants.
When World War II erupts, George is unable to enlist due to his bad ear; he stays at home to assist in the war effort while his brother Harry becomes a Navy pilot, awarded the Medal of Honor for shooting down 15 enemy aircraft, including two kamikaze planes that were about to crash into a Navy troop transport.
On Christmas Eve, entering the bank lobby to make an $8,000.00 deposit for the Building & Loan, Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) encounters Mr. Potter and, bursting with pride, shows him the newspaper article about his nephew Harry, about to be honored by the President.
Absent-mindedly, he leaves the deposit money in the newspaper that he drops in Potter’s lap. Potter finds the money moments later but does not tell anyone. This is also the day the bank examiner has come to inspect the Building & Loan’s records, and arrives to find the money missing and George and Billy ransacking the place looking for it.
In desperation, George goes to appeal to Mr. Potter, telling him he (not Billy) lost the money; Potter implicates George’s “generosity” — specifically his charity to troubled childhood friend Violet. When George offers his $15,000 life insurance policy, Potter laughs mockingly, “You’re worth more dead than alive!”
Returning home in anguish, George perceives his entire life as a massive failure. His children, exuberantly preparing for the evening’s festivities, send him into a rage.
George talks to Zuzu’s teacher on the phone, unfairly chastising her for getting Zuzu sick; he then tends to Zuzu and, in an emotional shift, tenderly places her flower’s petals into his pocket. He leaves the house and goes to Martini’s bar where he prays for guidance, admitting he is not a praying man. The school teacher’s husband, upon discovering George in the bar, punches him in the face, cutting George’s lip.
George leaves the bar and, in a snow storm, crashes his car into a tree. He runs to the nearby bridge over the river, intending to commit suicide.
Henry Travers as Clarence after “saving” GeorgeBefore George can jump into the river, however, Clarence the angel jumps in first. After a shocked George saves him, Clarence reveals himself to be George’s guardian angel and that he saved George from committing suicide.
Clarence pleads with a reluctant George to let him help, so he can finally earn his wings. George concedes that killing himself wasn’t going to better things and instead wishes he had never been born.
At that instant it stops snowing outside, and Clarence allows George to see life as it would have been if George Bailey was never born: Bedford Falls is called Pottersville and is mostly a slum; Main Street is dominated by pawn shops and sleazy bars; Bailey Park was never built and remains a desolate cemetery; George’s home remains a run-down, abandoned mansion.
George sees the people he knows and loves, but in this alternative world, none of them recognize him and their lives are hard and grim. His mother, now a widow eking out an existence from running her house as a room-and-board, and Mary, a spinster librarian, are both lonely, embittered women. Uncle Billy has been in an insane asylum for years; Harry has been dead since he fell through the ice in childhood since George wasn’t there to save him (and consequently the men on the transport ship were all killed). Violet has become a dancer whom George sees when she is arrested for pickpocketing, Mr. Gower was convicted of poisoning the child that George had saved and is now a panhandler and Martini no longer owns the bar. Ernie and Bert, although still friends, are much darker characters, and are suspicious of George, thinking he is insane when he claims to know them.
After finally realizing Mary and the others do not remember him at all, George returns to the bridge and calls upon Clarence, and then to God, to let him live again.
It begins to snow again; Bert spots George and tells him the whole town is looking for him. Ready to fight, George realizes Bert now recognizes him, then notices his mouth bleeding and his pockets containing Zuzu’s petals:
George has returned to present-day Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve, at the instant he witnessed Clarence. Screaming his ecstasy to buildings and people alike — including even Potter — George runs home and basks in his family’s recognition, even welcoming the bank examiners. Mary urges him to prepare for what is coming: Caroling “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” his friends and family (even the bank examiners) have rallied to collect huge amounts of money to save George and the Building & Loan from scandal and ruin.
As a final coup, Mr. Gower has telegraphed Sam Wainwright in London, who wires an immediate $25,000 advance. In the midst of the festivities, Harry returns and toasts, “To my big brother George: the richest man in town”; with that, everyone spontaneously cheers and breaks into “Auld Lang Syne.”
Seeing how many lives he has touched, and the difference he has made to the town, is enough for George Bailey to realize that despite his problems he really has a wonderful life.
The film ends with George finding Clarence’s Tom Sawyer book, inside which is inscribed: “Remember that no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings.” George and Mary then hear a bell ring on their Christmas tree; Zuzu exclaims, “Look, daddy! Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an Angel gets his wings.” George quietly agrees as “Auld Lang Syne” rings out.
The original story “The Greatest Gift” was written by Philip Van Doren Stern in November 1939. After being unsuccessful in getting the story published, he decided to make it into a Christmas card, and mailed 200 copies to family and friends in December 1943.
The story came to the attention of RKO producer David Hempstead, who showed it to Cary Grant’s Hollywood agent and, in April 1944, RKO Pictures bought the rights to the story for $10,000 hoping to turn the story into a vehicle for Grant.
RKO created three unsatisfactory scripts before shelving the planned movie with Grant going on to make another Christmas picture in The Bishop’s Wife.
At the suggestion of RKO studio chief Charles Koerner, Frank Capra read “The Greatest Gift” and immediately saw its potential. RKO, anxious to unload the project, sold the rights in 1945 to Capra’s production company, Liberty Films, which had a nine-film distribution agreement with RKO, for $10,000 and threw in the three scripts for free.
Capra along with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (with Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson and Dorothy Parker brought in to “polish” the script) turned the story and what was worth using from the three scripts into a screenplay that Capra would rename “It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a Wonderful Life was shot at the RKO studio in Culver City, California and the RKO Ranch in Encino, where “Bedford Falls” was a set covering four acres, assembled from three separate parts with a main street stretching 300 yards (three city blocks), with 75 stores and buildings, a tree-lined center parkway and 20 full grown oak trees.
Due to the requirement to film in an “alternate universe” setting as well as during different seasons, the set was extremely adaptable.
Filming started on April 15, 1946 and ended on July 27, 1946 (exactly on deadline for the 90-day principal photography schedule).
The RKO ranch in Encino, the filming location of Bedford Falls, was razed in the mid-1950s. Because of this there are only two filming locations still remaining from the film. The first is the swimming pool that was unveiled during the famous dance scene. The pool is located in the gymnasium at Beverly Hills High School, 241 Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills, California.
The second location is the Martinis’ new home and neighborhood in the fictional Bailey Park. The Martini house is located at 4587 Viro Road in La Canada Flintridge, California. The roofline, window layout (including the front bay window), front path and chimney are all the same as they appear in the film.
During filming, in the scene where Uncle Billy gets drunk at Harry and Ruth’s engagement party, George points him in the right direction home. As the camera focuses on George, smiling at his uncle staggering away, a crash is heard in the distance and Uncle Billy yells, “I’m all right! I’m all right!” Equipment on the set had been actually knocked over accidentally; Capra left in Thomas Mitchell’s appropriate ad lib.
The full extent of Mr. Potter’s deviousness is never revealed to the other characters in the film, and he is never brought to account for sequestering the $8,000, although Capra filmed an alternate ending that was subsequently cut wherein Potter receives a “comeuppance.”
Later a Saturday Night Live skit reprised the scene, this time with Potter comedically brought to account.
A lapse in film editing is obvious in the scene in which Uncle Billy loses the money. George comes into the Building & Loan office with a wreath on his arm, and sets it on a desk. Moments later, when he picks up the telephone, the wreath re-appears on his arm.
While George sees what life would be like without him, Harry’s would-be grave displays the dates 1911–1919, contradicting Clarence’s statement that Harry died at the age of nine.
Hope you students realised the worth of the MOVIE.