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It's a Wonderful Life

How an Angel Gets His Wings

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life is a beloved Christmas movie, but it’s so much more. A moving examination of the worth of a single man’s life, it’s dark and bright, full of passion, despair and joy. It's a little too sweet sometimes - but it has moments that can surprise you even after you’ve seen it dozens of times, whether it's Christmas Eve or the Fourth of July.

See it, and then see it again.

The Plot

One Christmas Eve, the prayers of people all across the town of Bedford Falls rise on behalf of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), director of the only financial institution in town that hasn’t fallen under the control of evil Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the town’s richest man. A great deal of money has gone missing, and George is in a terrible predicament. He’s thinking of suicide, standing on a bridge in the chilling snow.

In answer to the prayers, heavenly forces send a novice guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), who hasn't yet earned his wings. When a desperate, disbelieving George tells Clarence he wishes he’d never been born, the angel lets him see what the world - and Bedford Falls - would be like if his wish came true.

In flashbacks, we see George’s life. He saves his brother when he falls through the ice on the skating pond. He prevents the town druggist from making a tragic error. He keeps his head during a run on the bank during the Depression. His friends go off and make millions, his brother becomes a war hero, and George marries the neighborhood girl who has loved him since he was 12 years old, scooping sundaes at the drugstore ice cream counter.

Throughout, George's childhood dreams of leaving his small town, seeing the world, and building great skyscrapers are dashed again and again. His fate binds him to Bedford Falls and the humdrum business of making loans so working people can afford to buy modest houses.

Now, as Potter’s machinations bring him to the brink of financial ruin, facing scandal and possibly prison, Clarence’s gift to George is the deeply disturbing vision of what idyllic Bedford Falls would have been without its George Bailey. The nightmarish journey to “Pottersville,” opens his eyes, not unlike the journeys Ebeneezer Scrooge takes with the visiting ghosts in A Christmas Carol. In the end, it’s not an angel or a ghost who saves George Bailey, but his well-earned friends.

The Cast of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Stewart is on screen almost every moment of the film in a bravura performance. He’s wry, funny and absolutely radiates decency without being a complete sap. He’s amazing in a wonderful scene where he and wife-to-be Mary (Donna Reed) are forced to share a phone receiver after a spat and find themselves unwillingly overcome by their helpless attraction to each other. They’re fiercely human.

Travers gives us Clarence as a slightly dim angel who’s sweet through and through, and Thomas Mitchell is heartbreaking as George‘s ditsy uncle who unwittingly imperils his nephew. Reed is lovely as George’s steadfast wife, Barrymore is bitter and crabbed as the wheelchair-bound Potter, and Gloria Grahame delights as the town‘s bad girl. H.B Warner stands out as the drugstore owner addled by grief, and the rest of the tremendous ensemble cast makes the most of even the smallest roles.

The Director

Frank Capra’s earnest, idealistic heroes, unabashed patriotism and sometimes preachy plot lines are often derided as “Capra-corn,” but I love them. Like Stewart’s other iconic Capra hero, Mr. Smith (the one who went to Washington), George Bailey is someone to look up to. He’s a role model who values integrity, public service, duty and loyalty. If your heart doesn’t rise when he turns away from that bridge railing, you may not have one.

The Backstory

The movie's complex plot and detailed sets made it expensive to film, and while not a bomb, it was a disappointment at the box office. During the '30s, Capra's movies were box office magic, from It Happened One Night to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but It's a Wonderful Life marked something of a post-war decline for the fabled director. It garnered five Oscar nominations, but won no awards, and was overshadowed by William Wyler's saga of veterans returning from WWII, The Best Years of Our Lives. It wasn't until the movie came into the public domain and public TV stations started airing it over and over that It's a Wonderful Life gained and built its huge holiday following.

There's plenty of fun facts classic movie lovers treasure about this film. It was Jimmy Stewart's favorite, and many movies since have referenced it. (For example, the nightmare scenes of the future in Back to the Future pay homage to George's trip to "Pottersville.") However, one persistent story that Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie are named for the town's cop and the cab driver was always denied by Muppet creator Jim Henson as a mere coincidence.

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ - the Bottom Line

A little sappy, a little silly, but nevertheless an inspirational movie to warm the coldest hearts, It’s a Wonderful Life is an American masterpiece, with its own American comeback story - coming back from box office failure to win a well-justified place among our greatest films.

If you liked ‘It’s a Wonderful Life...'

You may like other classic holiday films or other Frank Capra movies.

Just the Facts:

Year: 1946, Black and White
Director: Frank Capra
Running Time: 130 minutes
Studio: Liberty Films
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