Early in the movie, boy George (no, not that Boy George) walks into the drugstore where he works and says, "I wish I had a million dollars." As he says it, he clicks a cigarette lighter. When it lights, he exclaims, "Hot dog!" Later, when he's grown up, he does the same thing. Clearly, he's playing a little game—if the lighter comes on, his wish for prosperity will be granted.
Wishing on the lighter represents the romantic, escapist side of George's personality. One of George's life lessons is that there's no magic lighter. Real riches are found in living your ordinary life and striking ordinary matches with the people you love.
What's more romantic than the moon in June? When George falls hard for Mary, he asks her:
GEORGE: What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word, and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Mary.
MARY: I'll take it. Then what?
GEORGE: Well, then you could swallow it, and it'd all dissolve, see? And the moonbeams'd shoot out of your fingers and your toes, and the ends of your hair ... Am I talking too much?
Like the cigarette lighter, this image is a romantic reverie of how things will magically be wonderful. The moon symbolizes those impossible but marvelous aspirations for the future. Later, when Mary shows George the old, dilapidated house where they'll begin their life together, she's made a sign that says, "George Lassos the Moon." Mary is telling him that anywhere can be the moon if you're with people who love you. Aww.
This old vaudeville song was recorded by lots of artists through the years, with the title changing depending on the locale. (Buffalo refers to the city in New York, not that hairy beast of the American plains.)
The song appears many times during the film and comes to represent George and Mary's relationship. (Source) We first hear some strains of it during the opening credits. It's played when they dance at the high school, and Mary sings it later that night as she and George are romancing it up. She puts it on her record player the night George comes over years later in hopes of rekindling some memories. When George storms out, Mary smashes the record—the relationship seems done for, too.
But, the gal gets her guy after all, and the next time we hear the song, Mary is singing it just before she tells George she's pregnant. Finally, an upbeat version plays during the final credits; it has followed the couple along throughout the movie. We're not sure why Capra or the composer chose this song, except that it was popular with kids at the time and has all of that moon imagery that plays a big role in the romantic storyline.
When George is barreling down his tunnel of despair, he arrives at home and accidentally pulls the loose top piece off one of the stair posts. This is evidently something that happens all of the time in his old house, but it especially irritates him this time. In the middle of an epic financial crisis, the beat-up staircase with its broken post reminds him of everything he doesn't have.
But, after George gets his life back again, his attitude changes. Now, he's able to appreciate his life, flaws included. So, when he comes home, and the top piece of the stair post comes off again, he kisses it before putting it back into place. Moral of the story? It's all how you look at things that make the difference. Embrace life with all its messiness. Home, even one with a beat-up staircase, is where the heart is.
Clarence and George are sitting in Nick's bar when the cash register bell rings. Clarence remarks, "Oh-oh. Somebody's just made it." He explains the connection between bells and angels getting their wings. George looks up at Nick and realizes that people might not take too kindly to all of this angel-related banter. He's right. Nick wants to kick them out of the bar. After the bouncers chuck them out the door, Nick starts ringing the cash register bell and says, "Hey! Get me! I'm giving out wings!"
At first, this is just another superstitious notion like the cigarette lighter granting wishes. But, for the purposes of this movie, it turns out to be real. When George arrives safely back at home and a bell rings on the Christmas tree, his daughter Zuzu exclaims, "Look, Daddy! Teacher says, 'Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.'" George excitedly responds in his best Jimmy Stewart voice with, "That's right! That's right!"
We know that bell is ringing for Clarence. There's no deep, metaphorical connection we can figure between bells and angel wings except that most bells are beautiful and joyous, pealing out happy times like holidays and weddings.
When George is at his low point, his daughter Zuzu shows him a flower she won at school. He's too distraught to appreciate it. A few petals fall off, and Zuzu sweetly asks him to fix it. George pretends to put them back on the flower, secretly putting them in his pocket.
Later, when he sees what the world would be like if he'd never existed, the petals disappear. When he comes back to reality, they're there again. He excitedly shouts, "Zuzu's petals!!! Zuzu's petals!!!" as he holds them. For George, they've become a token touchingly symbolizing all the love and life that wouldn't have existed if he'd never been born. The flowers represent life and reality.
The entire film has an allegorical flavor, in which the characters are all symbols in a universal drama aimed at teaching us some universal life lessons. Potter, of course, represents greed, power, and isolation, all ultimately joyless; George is the little guy beaten down by the powerful but who prevails because he's a righteous dude. Mary represents the joys of family. Bedford Falls is every small town where a sense of neighborliness and connectedness shows everyone the real meaning of life.
Frank Capra has admitted that most of his movies have the same message, which he described as "Sermon on the Mount" values. Here are some of the high points of that sermon by Jesus as described in the biblical Book of Matthew:
You can see what Capra means.
The film isn't really overtly religious. People pray, God hears, and angels appear. But, there's little discussion of beliefs or church or salvation. People only pray when there's a crisis; otherwise, they go about their daily business in a pretty secular way. God is around, though, and he does protect George via his 911 call to the angels. It's religion-lite, but with an underlying belief that God loves people and that goodness and mercy are rewarded.
Another way of looking at the whole enchilada is that it's an allegory about filmmaking. Here's what Film Spectrum has to say about it:
Here, Capra takes us through the entire process, as God (the filmmaker) enlists the help of Joseph (the cinematographer) to slowly bring George's flashback (the movie) into focus for Clarence (the audience). He speaks to us as if we're eager film students wanting to learn how to see movies in a new way, through the cinematic eye, through the film theory perspective: "Now look, I'll help you out. … If you ever get your wings, you'll see all by yourself." (Source)
How cool is that?
Thank Shmoop for introducing you to this fancy French term that literally means "placing on stage." It refers to the director's arrangement of people, objects, space, and lighting to convey the meaning and emotion of a shot. Frank Capra was a master of scene composition; everything was there for a reason. Film Spectrum has got an in-depth look at how Capra did it, so we'll borrow a few examples from them to show what we mean.
First, take a look at the beautifully composed scene where young George and Mr. Gower are in the drugstore. We're looking at them through shelves of medicine bottles. Gower is turned away from the bottles, sadly staring at a photo of his son, who just died from influenza. George is worriedly looking toward the bottle of medicine Gower has just prepared, noticing his mistake with the prescription. There's a ton of information just in that shot.
Even the wallpaper speaks. Mary papers the house in a pretty traditional 1940s pattern of people and flowers. But, on that dark night, a troubled George goes up the stairs to see Zuzu, and there's something different. The wallpaper now has a pattern of nautical anchors. George always loved the sound of anchors being lifted because they signaled the beginning of an exciting journey. What do those anchors mean now? That he never got away? That his home is weighing down on him? It could be many things, but it's not a coincidence that this pattern is there.
Capra also uses signs everywhere in the film to augment a scene's meaning. Contrast the homey Bedford Falls sign (with another sign behind it—welcoming Harry home from the war) to the garish neon sign of Pottersville. Behind the Pottersville sign are more signs: no dogs allowed; no parking. No dogs? What an oppressive place to live.
The lighting Capra uses during the alternate-universe scenes is dark and shadowy, with chiaroscuro (sharp light/dark contrast) effects that give the scene a terrifying, otherworldly feel. George's abandoned house is all shadows; the police chasing him are silhouetted and backlit; Pottersville is alternately dark and lit up with glaring neon signs.
Thank goodness for that happy ending, with the brightly lit, cozy house and a Christmas tree glittering in the background. We were gonna have nightmares.
Modern audiences aren't impressed with freeze-frames, but Capra used them in this film before any other filmmakers. (Source) He freezes the frame when Joseph wants to make a point to Clarence, then unfreezes it and goes right on with the story.
Here's a great example of the care that Capra took with each frame. There's a pivotal scene where George, totally overcome with despair, sits at the bar and prays to God to save him. By this time, Jimmy Stewart, a man of faith, was a basket case; he broke down and began to cry.
But, Capra hadn't expected it, and he had set the camera across the room from Stewart. He was so impressed with Stewart's emotion that he asked him to do it again so he could film it again in close-up. Stewart said no dice, that was the real deal and he couldn't fake it again. So, Capra took the film back to the lab and cropped and enlarged it, and cropped and enlarged it, until he got the "close-up." If you look at the scene closely, you'll see it's grainier than the rest of the scenes. That's because of the enlargement. As usual, Capra got what he wanted.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
George Bailey lives in the small town of Bedford Falls (probably in upstate New York). It's a pleasant locale, but to him, it seems to lack the excitement and adventure he craves; it's not the right place for him to satisfy his ambitions. Of course, the big irony here is that the ordinary world—the world in which, traditionally, the hero feels like something is missing—is actually the place where the hero belongs, and where his quest will actually take place.
George's father unexpectedly dies of a stroke, so, instead of seeing the world and going to college, George is voted by the board to take over his father's Building and Loan business and keep it safe from a local plutocrat.
George can't bear the thought of being stuck in Bedford Falls and giving up his dreams of college and travel. He begs the board to reconsider, but it's him or nobody. George very reluctantly agrees, but it'll just be temporary; he'll let Harry go to college, and upon graduation, Harry will take over the business. Instead, Harry has a better job opportunity, and George lets him go. He's still refusing to accept the idea of living his whole life in Bedford Falls.
George doesn't really meet his mentor—Clarence the angel—at this point in the movie. But, he's met Mary, who helps him settle down in town and shows him a beautiful family life. When George meets Clarence, Clarence hammers this lesson home by showing him what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born. But, more on that later.
George settles into his position at the Building and Loan. Yet, even this little town has its heroes and villains, and Mr. Potter is a particularly bad dude. He wants to dominate the town and prevent people from owning their own homes, forcing them to live in his slums and pay rent to him. George's Building and Loan is willing to give people who aren't necessarily financially secure a chance to borrow money to buy or build their own houses. This makes a huge difference in the life of Bedford Falls, although George doesn't realize it until Clarence shows him the alternate, world-without-George timeline.
As George continues to battle Potter, he gets support from the townspeople. Their trust in him saves the Building and Loan during a threatened run on the bank engineered by Potter. He befriends Ernie the cab driver and Bert the cop, and he allows a guy named Mr. Martini to borrow enough money to get a house for his family. These alliances prove helpful later in the story.
Potter is the enemy here, trying to thwart George's consumer-friendly efforts and bankrupt his business.
When Uncle Billy accidentally misplaces $8,000 of the Building and Loan's money, the cash winds up in the hands of Mr. Potter, who steals it. This risks bankrupting the Building and Loan and getting George and Uncle Billy arrested for misplacing funds.
Believing himself to be worth more dead than alive (helpfully pointed out by Potter), George contemplates suicide. Fortunately, Clarence the angel comes down to Earth and jumps off the bridge himself before George can. As they talk afterward, George tells Clarence he wishes he'd never been born. This inspires Clarence to let George see what the world would be like if he'd never been born. Turns out, it's terrible. George witnesses a town renamed Pottersville and turned into a den of iniquity. His brother is dead, Mary is a spinster, and his mother is a grieving woman running a boarding house.
After George sees Mary, now an unmarried librarian, he runs back to the bridge, praying that he's changed his mind—he wants to live again. George's wish is granted. Now that he's rediscovered how important his life really is, he's ready to go back into town and face his fate.
Overjoyed, George runs back through Bedford Falls, loudly wishing everything and everyone a merry Christmas—Mr. Potter included. When he arrives home, the bank examiner and sheriff are waiting for him, with a warrant for his arrest. He doesn't care. He rushes into the arms of Mary and the kids.
The arrest warrant proves useless, and Potter is foiled again. George can't be arrested for losing anyone's funds because all of his friends and family members bail him out with a giant basket of money. When his rich friend Sam Wainwright chips in $25,000, the Building and Loan's future is secure. All of George's friends and family members express their affection for him and pay him tribute for helping them out when they were down.
Thanks to his successful George project, Clarence earns his wings. George returns with a new appreciation for his life; that's his elixir. We know he'll never have that kind of despair again.
Frank Capra loved small-town America. George Bailey isn't so sure.
On George's first date with Mary, he tells her about his ambitions and dreams, saying, "I'm shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I'm going to see the world." This, of course, never happens; he remains firmly planted right in Bedford Falls, where all of the film's action takes place. It's the kind of town where people live for generations. When George crashes his car on Christmas Eve, the owner of the house yells at him, "My grandfather planted that tree!"
While fictional, Bedford Falls is located in upstate New York. (The screenplay explicitly states this, though no one in the movie ever directly says, "We're in upstate New York!") Buffalo and Rochester are referenced as nearby locations, and Sam Wainwright runs his business from New York City.
The little town of Seneca Falls, New York, claims to be the real model for Bedford Falls. They hold an annual It's a Wonderful Life festival. Sometimes people from the movie, like the actress who played Zuzu, make appearances there.
But, setting isn't just about place. It's about time. In this case, we see George Bailey's life from roughly after the end of World War I—Mr. Gower's son dies of influenza, which may be a reference to the deadly Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918—through to the period just after the end of World War II. Two world wars, an epidemic, and a devastating economic depression—it wasn't the easiest of times. George's breakdown happens on Christmas Eve of 1945.
We see how the Great Depression of 1929 causes a run on the bank and threatens the Building and Loan. During World War II, George acts as an air-raid warden and keeps serving the community, while Harry becomes a Navy flier. An uplifting story like It's a Wonderful Life was just the thing for the hearts of people who'd just been through a difficult and trying time during World War II.
The story also uses the setting to show what life would've been like if George hadn't been born: Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, full of sleaze and greed and glitz, a Vegas-lite. Potter controls the city, having driven the Bailey brothers out of business years ago. The renovated house George and Mary live in is still abandoned, and Ma Bailey runs a dingy and depressing boarding house.
After being restored to reality, George runs through the town in one of the movie's most famous and oft-parodied scenes: "Hello, Bedford Falls! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan! Hey! Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!" George is able to see Bedford Falls with new eyes. Instead of seeming like the hick town he thought it was, it's now a precious place.
It's a Wonderful Life tells its story partly through an extended flashback and partly in real time. It starts at the point when George is contemplating suicide and then goes back to his early life, as the senior angel Joseph tells Clarence the story of George's life. We see George saving Harry, preventing Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning that kid, defusing the run on the Building and Loan, and so on. Joseph also shows us moments in the life of the townspeople, explaining what many of the characters did during World War II.
When we get to the point when George is thinking of killing himself, Joseph's narration stops, and we see the movie unfolding in present time when Clarence arrives. We then enter an alternate timeline with George—the world in which he was never born—but one that's still taking place on Christmas Eve of 1945. Finally, we're back to the world-with-George timeline and roll straight through chronologically until the end. Throughout, the movie retains a focus on George, though you wouldn't exactly call it "first person" since we're not seeing things from George's perspective, but rather from the angels'.
For a movie about suicidal despair, It's a Wonderful Life has to be the greatest feel-good movie of all time. It has a positive and redeeming message about the importance of individuals, the joys and benefits of friendship, and the family ties that sustain us.
But, in order to get there, it has to deal with some pretty dark moments. As one critic wrote, "It's a Wonderful Life proves we need the darkness to see the light; the lows to feel the highs; the despair to feel the inspiration. Capra needs to beat up George Bailey for two hours before he can save him." (Source)
The movie is also a comedy because … it's funny. And, it has a happy ending, which is all that's required in the original meaning of "comedy." Part of the brilliance of this movie is that it's a film about hopelessness and desperation that maintains a comic tone. George and Mary's initial courtship has lots of jokes—like when Mary ducks into a bush and accidentally loses her bathrobe, prompting George to hesitate before giving her bathrobe back. He muses, "I could sell tickets. …"
Finally, it's quite obviously a Christmas movie, though Capra claims that wasn't his intent. The plot sure reminds everyone of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, with those ghosts of Christmas past and future. The critical events of the film take place on Christmas Eve, and what better Christmas present is there than discovering that your life has meaning? It's become an all-time Christmas classic. Even characters in other films watch it: check out Home Alone and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
As our story opens, George's life is the opposite of wonderful. In fact, it's so un-wonderful that he's thinking of throwing it away. It reminds Shmoop of Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni's film about a father and son trying to survive in a brutal concentration camp. We're all thinking: beautiful—yeah, right.
Frank Capra begs to differ. He would definitely see the beauty in Benigni's story of fatherly devotion. When George sees what the world would be like without him, he discovers, among other things, that his life really has been pretty wonderful. It's been full of friends and family who love him and depend on him. He's made a huge difference to them. The movie's message is that even if the life you're living seems average, or even a failure, in the grand scheme of things, it's important and meaningful.
Nothing like a near-death experience to make you see things differently. After Clarence finishes up his life review and George decides to live again, George runs home to find the bank examiner and sheriff waiting to arrest him for mishandling his customers' funds. Even though he's not worried anymore after his epically perspective-altering experience, all of the townspeople chip in their dollars to bail him out.
When this happens, George realizes what's really important—the love of his family and community. Suddenly, his modest little life in ordinary old Bedford Falls is more precious than anything. This last scene sells the essential message of the film.
A parallel plotline resolved at the end is that Clarence, the relative newbie angel who's modest and a little insecure about himself, gets those wings he's been hoping for. It goes to show that even in heaven, you don't have to do flashy stuff like create the universe in seven days flat to get your reward. Helping one guy to appreciate life is all it takes. George smiles when his daughter hears that bell ring.
Didn't we promise that nice guys never finish last in a Capra film?
It's a Wonderful Life is family fare. The Hays Code made sure of that. It does contain Mary's line, "He's making violent love to me, Mother!" But, the meaning of that line isn't the same as in modern usage. And sure, there are some adult themes like suicide, but none of that really quite crosses over into PG territory. If Bambi's mom can get her brains blown out (albeit offscreen) and still keep a kid-friendly rating, we figure that George Bailey's self-destructive crisis can, too. Plus, there are angels on the job, something that's probably very reassuring for children from the outset. They're not gonna let anything happen to George.