Release Year: 1946
Genre: Drama, Family
Director: Frank Capra
George Bailey has hit rock bottom.
Nothing has worked out for the nicest guy in town. He gave up his childhood dreams of traveling the world to stay home and save the family business. His brother gets to go to college instead of him; his boyhood buddy is living large while George is scraping by; the local evil, rich guy is about to send George's business into bankruptcy and George to jail for bank fraud. He's standing on a bridge on a snowy Christmas Eve staring into the water below, thinking he's worth more to his family dead than alive.
Wait. Isn't this movie called It's a Wonderful Life? Were we mistakenly redirected from Million Dollar Baby or something?
Have no fear, folks; you're in the right place. Director Frank Capra is here, and in a Frank Capra movie, nice guys never finish last.
After unsuccessfully shopping around his short story "The Greatest Gift," Philip Van Doren Stern sent it to 200 friends as his Christmas card in 1939. The story was about a selfless, decent guy who's saved by his guardian angel at the lowest moment in his life. By some epically Capra-esque miracle, it came to the attention of studio bigwigs at RKO Pictures, who sold the rights to the story to director Frank Capra's production company, Liberty Films.
A world war later, the movie finally went into production. Capra, who specialized in the timelessly heart-warming (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night), helmed the project. Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed took the lead roles of George Bailey and Mary Hatch, and the legendary Lionel Barrymore (Drew's great-uncle) played the villainous Mr. Potter. Its uplifting message was classic Capra "victory for the little guy" stuff.
When it was released in 1946, the film, now titled It's a Wonderful Life, didn't even make back its production costs. But, a funny thing happened when its copyright ran out in 1974. Now free to anyone who wanted to air it as often as they wanted, the movie was picked up and packaged as Christmas programming by cash-strapped public television stations, who couldn't afford expensive, flashy Christmas specials.
Other networks followed suit—who doesn't love cheap programming?—and before you could say Kris Kringle, the movie was all over the small screens at Christmastime. By the time its copyright was restored in 1993, millions of families had already made it their holiday tradition to watch how George Bailey is saved from despair by the love of family, friends, and God.
Its reputation grew; now, everyone loves the film. Steven Spielberg has said that it's one of the three movies he watches before starting any new film. (Source) Even people in movies (Home Alone, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation) watch it. It's classic holiday fare that reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus.
The late, great film critic Roger Ebert wrote that, "What is remarkable about 'It's a Wonderful Life' is how well it holds up over the years; it's one of those ageless movies […] that improves with age." (Source) Unlike, say, Fire Maidens From Outer Space. The American Film Institute put it at the very top of its 100 Years … 100 Cheers. Rotten Tomatoes rates it as 96% fresh. It's a textbook lesson in how to tug at someone's heartstrings and provides all the necessary study material for anyone who's interested in tugging those very strings.
Capra-corn, as some cynics have called it? Bring it on.
We live in a cynical world. A cynical. World. Irony rules. We're surrounded by snark. And, it sure looks to anyone who turns on the news—uh, checks their news feed—that things everywhere look pretty, pretty bleak indeed.
But, Capra convinces us that life is actually wonderful. (Bet you didn't see that one coming.) What's worth studying about the film is how Capra presents this sentimental, angel-saves-the-day story without veering into gooey ridiculousness. Here's how we think he does it.
First, Capra absolutely believed in his message. He once admitted that the theme of all of his films was basically the Sermon on the Mount—the meek inheriting the earth and all that jazz. He believed in the goodness of people, who, when put in difficult positions, would do the right thing. He wrote in his autobiography that he wanted to send the message: "Heads up, fella. No man is poor who has one friend. Three friends and you're filthy rich."
Capra didn't have to fake it to tell George's story.
Second, the film asks a lot of the viewer. This is the ultimate feel-good movie, but in order to get there, you have to take an emotional dive. You have to stare with George on a bridge at the icy river below, wondering if life is just an empty, meaningless avenue of broken dreams. The film flirts with the abyss. It shows us a horrible world without compassion or humanity, and it brings us to the edge of despair before the warm, snuggly ending. The point is, it earns that ending. It's allowed to be sentimental.
Finally, despite George's idyllic little town and idyllic marriage, there's a realism about Capra's films. (In fact, Capra famously refused to allow his actors to wear makeup unless absolutely necessary.) George, for all his selfless heroism, has his rougher, transgressive side. He can be reckless and impulsive, and he struggles to control that. He insults his daughter's teacher. He screams at his kids and trashes the living room. Uncle Billy, despite being a lovable guy, is a mess. Even archvillain Potter just does what many business titans do to promote their financial interests.
Capra doesn't shy away from the tough stuff: poverty, greed, suicidal depression, and spiritual despair. With all of George's romantic ideas and grandiose plans, the film comes down on the side of reality. Home, friends, feeling rooted in your community—that's what's really meaningful.
Shmoop would've loved to conclude by saying that Capra "celebrated the noblest impulses of woman and man, showed all of us our dark side and then pointed a flashlight at the way out." But, Steven Spielberg said it first. (Source)
Sentimental? Sure. But, Capra sells it, and everybody's buying.
While filming, Donna Reed (who plays Mary Hatch) said that she came from a country background and that living in a small town like Bedford Falls would be second nature for her. Lionel Barrymore (who plays Mr. Potter) bet Reed $50 that she couldn't milk a cow. She won the bet with no problem. (Source)
The guy who played Mary's date at the dance was Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa in the original Little Rascals. That retractable dance floor with a swimming pool under it still exists at Beverly Hills High School. Take that up at your next student government meeting. (Source)
During the scene where Mary breaks a window in the abandoned house so she can make a wish, Frank Capra had a marksman on hand to shoot out the window. He wasn't needed: Donna Reed successfully smashed it on the first attempt. Is there anything that woman couldn't do? (Source)
During the phone call scene where George and Mary first kiss, Jimmy Stewart was pretty nervous. He hadn't kissed a woman since he came home from the Army. He apparently got in the mood, however. The Hays Code censors cut part of the scene because the embrace was considered a little too steamy. (Source)
It's a Wonderful Life on Rotten Tomatoes
Check out Rotten Tomatoes for reviews from all the feckless chumps who didn't like It's a Wonderful Life before getting disproved by history.
AMC's It's a Wonderful Life Filmsite
Think AMC is all about zombies, meth dealers, and ad men? They were originally all about classic movies. They still have a movie site that provides background info on masterpieces like It's a Wonderful Life.
It's a Wonderful Life Festival—The Real Bedford Falls
Seneca Falls, New York, claims that it's the basis for Bedford Falls and holds an annual celebration around Christmas every year. Occasionally actors from the movie show up, like the little girl (now an older woman) who played Zuzu.
The Seneca Falls It's a Wonderful Life Museum
Seneca Falls also has an It's a Wonderful Life museum.
"The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern
This short story started out as a Christmas card after the author couldn't get it published. A humble beginning for a story that morphed into one of the best-loved movies ever. Very Capra-esque.
The Last Temptation of Clarence Odbody by John Jughead Pierson
In this dark, unauthorized book sequel, we see what happens when George actually dies and Clarence fails to earn his wings. Harsh.
A Wonderful Life (Musical)
If it seems like It's a Wonderful Life would totally work as a musical, then you're in luck—there's a musical version, although it didn't become a major hit. One of the creators was Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof.
One Man, 32 Characters
Here's a stage version where all the roles are played by the same versatile guy.
It's a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play
Want to see someone screaming, "Hello, Bedford Falls!" into an old-time radio microphone? This theatrical adaptation takes the radio play version and performs it live.
Merry Christmas, George Bailey
People apparently love adapting the radio play version of It's a Wonderful Life for some reason. PBS even did a one-hour version that was shown on TV—reversing the concept behind the indie band TV On The Radio in the process. Bill Pullman plays George Bailey, Martin Landau is Mr. Potter, and Christian Slater is Harry. Christian Slater. Really?
Roger Ebert's "Great Movie" Article on It's a Wonderful Life
Roger Ebert obviously loved this movie—how could he not? The dude was always a total sucker for heartwarming masterpieces.
The Gray Lady Speaks
This review by Bosley Crowther whiffed in a big way in many people's estimations. Crowther criticizes the movie for being too sentimental, but wasn't that the point?
An Interview with Zuzu
Karolyn Grimes played Zuzu, and she reflects back on the magical experience of being a Bailey daughter.
Jimmy Stewart on It's a Wonderful Life
Jimmy Stewart remembers shooting It's a Wonderful Life and recounts a funny story about how Frank Capra had trouble pitching him the movie.
Six Things You Probably Didn't Know About It's a Wonderful Life
This article spills some of the secrets behind It's a Wonderful Life—like the fact that the movie's Bert and Ernie actually had, uh, nothing to do with the Sesame Street Bert and Ernie. Shmoop is choosing to ignore that.
25 Things You Might Not Know About It's a Wonderful Life
This even longer list of movie secrets (not secrets anymore, apparently) gives even more details about the production, from casting to technical stuff.
It's a Wonderful Life Trailer
The original trailer introduces all of the actors and has the movie's instrumental version of "Buffalo Gals" playing in the background. There's a big symbolic bell at the beginning, so you know somebody's racking up some serious wings.
It's a Wonderful Job
Stewart talks about how Capra pitched the movie to him, explaining how it sounded semi-ridiculous. Stewart got on board immediately. He also says his favorite scene is when Clarence and George are talking together in the watchman's house, and Clarence reveals he's an angel.
It's a Wonderful Spoof
Mr. Potter gets what's coming to him in SNL's discovery of the film's lost ending. Dana Carvey crushes it as Jimmy Stewart. And who's the perfect Potter? Jon Lovitz, of course.
It's a Wonderful Production
This short documentary takes us behind the scenes, showing us just how Capra and co. crafted an all time holiday classic fit to beat the tar out of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Jingle All the Way.
Bart at the Bank
In this Wonderful Life spoof (one of many The Simpsons nods to the film), the bank customers aren't so wonderful.
It's a Wonderful Documentary
This 1987 documentary, hosted by iconic talk-show host Johnny Carson, goes deep into Jimmy Stewart's life, exploring his career in movies.
Lux Radio Theater—It's a Wonderful Life Radio Version
You can check out the full radio play version—also starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed—here. If you sketch crayon pictures of all the scenes and hold them up as you listen, it'll be basically like watching the movie.
It's a Wonderful Life Score by Dimitri Tiomkin
Tiomkin's score hits all the emotional points of the movie, from sadness to joy to humor. He even puts in little pieces of pop music, like the melody to "Buffalo Gals."
Why Are These Men Smiling?
The director and his leading man on the set.
Promo shot of the iconic director.
George Hits Bottom
Jimmy Stewart goes from exuberant to hopeless.
Donna Reed Glam Shot
Reed draws on her country upbringing to give Mary some down-home sass, but she's still luminously beautiful.
Drew Barrymore's Great-Uncle
Lionel Barrymore was part of a legendary acting family. This proved to be one of his most famous roles, amping up the villainy as a kind of unrepentant Scrooge.
Is This Heartwarming or What?
It doesn't get any sweeter than this.
Original Poster for It's a Wonderful Life
In the original poster advertising the movie, George is whisking Mary into the air. It has a very lighthearted vibe—like, you can tell George isn't going to commit suicide in this movie.