Study Guide

It's a Wonderful Life Quotes

  • Dissatisfaction

    FRANKLIN: Yes, Clarence. A man down on Earth needs our help.

    CLARENCE: Splendid! Is he sick?

    FRANKLIN: No, worse. He's discouraged. At exactly 10:45 p.m. tonight, Earth time, that man will be thinking seriously of throwing away God's greatest gift.

    CLARENCE: Oh, dear, dear! His life! Then I've only got an hour to dress. What are they wearing now?

    This is our first inkling of how bad things are going for George. This goes way beyond dissatisfaction.

    GEORGE: I couldn't face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office. Oh, I'm sorry, Pop, I didn't mean that, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save 3 cents on a length of pipe ... I'd go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.

    PA BAILEY: You know, George, I feel that in a small way, we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It's deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we're helping him get those things in our shabby little office.

    There's some foreshadowing in the language here: George "couldn't face" staying in Bedford Falls; he'd "go crazy." This exchange also sets up the film's conflict between George's dreams and how his life actually turns out.

    MARY: What'd you wish, George?

    GEORGE: Well, not just one wish. A whole hatful, Mary. I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that. I'm shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I'm going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm coming back here and go to college and see what they know. And then, I'm going to build things. I'm gonna build airfields. I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I'm gonna build bridges a mile long.

    Those are some pretty high aspirations; George wants to have it all. He's oblivious to the fact that Mary is standing next to him, wanting something totally different—a life with George in Bedford Falls. We bet his big dreams are what make her love him, though.

    POTTER: Forty-five. Forty-five. Out of which, after supporting your mother and paying your bills, you're able to keep, say, 10, if you skimp. A child or two comes along, and you won't even be able to save the 10. Now, if this young man of 28 was a common, ordinary yokel, I'd say he was doing fine. But George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He's an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man—who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. A young man who's been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man ... the smartest one of the crowd, mind you, a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places because he's trapped. Yes, sir, trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters. Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?

    Mr. Potter has insight into George Bailey's deepest anxieties, and he hits him where it hurts most. He feeds George's doubts about himself and his disappointment in being stuck in Bedford Falls. Coming from someone else, this might be a sympathetic, supportive comment. But, this is Henry Potter, who really doesn't care about George at all. He just wants to take over his business.

    GEORGE: It's this old house. I don't know why we don't all have pneumonia. Drafty old barn of a place. It's like growing up living in a refrigerator. Why do we have to live here in the first place and stay around this measly, crummy old town?

    MARY: George, what's wrong?

    GEORGE: Wrong? Everything. Why, you call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?

    What's really bothering George is that Uncle Billy lost $8,000 of the Building and Loan's money, which could end up landing George in prison. But, his anxiety about this morphs into a kind of generalized dissatisfaction and anxiety about his life. All of his worries come bubbling to the surface. He even resents his children. George is just not himself.

    POTTER: Look at you. You used to be so cocky! You were going to go out and conquer the world! You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help.

    Potter twists the knife as George reaches his lowest point. Kicking a man when he's down is what he does best. He throws all of George's "failures" in his face.

    CLARENCE (to himself): Hmm, this isn't going to be so easy. (to George) So, you still think killing yourself would make everyone feel happier, eh?

    GEORGE (dejectedly): Oh, I don't know. I guess you're right. I suppose it would have been better if I'd never been born at all.

    What George seems to be thinking here is that the world is dissatisfied with him, that everyone would have been happier without him around to muck things up. Clarence has his work cut out for him.

    CLARENCE: What'd you say?

    GEORGE: I said I wish I'd never been born.

    CLARENCE: Oh, you mustn't say things like that. You … wait a minute. Wait a minute. That's an idea. (glances up toward heaven) What do you think? Yeah, that'll do it. All right. You've got your wish. You've never been born.

    This is the turning point toward George realizing how unnecessary his discontent has been.

  • Family

    JOSEPH: George saved his brother's life that day. But, he caught a bad cold, which infected his left ear. Cost him his hearing in that ear. It was weeks before he could return to his after-school job at old man Gower's drugstore.

    This incident sets up George's devotion to his family right from the start of the film. It foreshadows later events that show us the interconnectedness of people's lives.

    GEORGE: Why do you call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?

    Is this George Bailey speaking here? What's happening? In the depth of his despair, George rails against the people he loves most. He's displacing his anger at himself for not providing financial stability for them. They feel like a burden to him right now.

    PETE: Is Daddy in trouble?

    JANIE: Shall I pray for him?

    MARY: Yes, Janie, pray very hard.

    This explains the prayers we heard at the very beginning of the movie. The love his family and friends have for George moves the heavens, literally. Who would pray for Mr. Potter? Hint: nobody.

    CLARENCE: They're not there, either.

    GEORGE: What?

    CLARENCE: Zuzu's petals.

    Since George has never been born, the petals from his daughter's flower vanish from his pocket. It's a symbol of all of the family love that would never have existed without George being around to create it.

    MA BAILEY: When'd you see him last?

    GEORGE: Today, over at the house.

    MA BAILEY: That's a lie. He's been in the insane asylum ever since he lost his business. And, if you ask me, that's where you belong.

    Without George around to keep Uncle Billy on track, he falls apart. Billy is one of those eccentric uncles who makes his way in life because he has a strong family to support him.

    CLARENCE: Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of 9.

    GEORGE: That's a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport.

    CLARENCE: Every man on that transport died! Harry wasn't there to save them because you weren't there to save Harry. You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?

    Here's the callback to that first incident in the film. Clarence is moving in for the big finish. Since George loves his family more than anything, Clarence knows how to convince him.

  • Friendship

    GOWER'S VOICE: I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father.

    MARTINI'S VOICE: Joseph, Jesus, and Mary. Help my friend Mr. Bailey.

    MA BAILEY'S VOICE: Help my son George tonight.

    BERT'S VOICE: He never thinks about himself, God; that's why he's in trouble.

    ERNIE'S VOICE: George is a good guy. Give him a break, God.

    MARY'S VOICE: I love him, dear Lord. Watch over him tonight.

    JANIE'S VOICE: Please, God. Something's the matter with Daddy.

    ZUZU'S VOICE: Please bring Daddy back.

    We hear these prayers from family and friends at the very beginning of the movie. These very first lines tell us what kind of good friend George is. Heaven is practically flooded with appeals to help him.

    GEORGE (exasperated): Seen your wife? I've been to your house a hundred times.

    ERNIE: Look, bud, what's the idea? I live in a shack in Potter's Field, and my wife ran away three years ago and took the kid ... and I ain't never seen you before in my life.

    George is shocked that Ernie doesn't recognize him in the alternate universe. His emotional reaction to Ernie's rejection gives him a taste of what life would be like without friends.

    CLARENCE: Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?

    George doesn't think of himself as important, but he does have tons of friends. That's why Clarence can use the strategy that he does; George cares about the people he'd leave behind.

    HARRY: Good idea, Ernie. A toast ... to my big brother, George. The richest man in town!

    Jimmy Stewart remembers Frank Capra saying after the film wrapped, "No man is poor who has one friend. Three friends, and you're filthy rich!" (Source)

    CLARENCE: Dear George, remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence.

    In case we didn't get it before, Clarence drives home the movie's theme.

  • Greed

    POTTER: Have you put any real pressure on those people of yours to pay those mortgages?

    BAILEY: Times are bad, Mr. Potter. A lot of these people are out of work.

    POTTER: Then, foreclose!

    Potter always puts his own self-interest above the interests of other people. By contrast, the Baileys are willing to temper their business interests with the interests of humanity. They add a personal, compassionate touch to their work, whereas Potter is totally impersonal and unfeeling.

    PA BAILEY: Mr. Potter, what makes you such a hard-skulled character? You have no family—no children. You can't begin to spend all the money you've got.

    POTTER: So, I suppose I should give it to miserable failures like you and that idiot brother of yours to spend for me.

    GEORGE: He's not a failure! You can't say that about my father!

    Potter is demonstrating more than greed here. He's showing his contempt for anyone who doesn't behave like he does.

    POTTER: Peter Bailey was not a businessman. That's what killed him. Oh, I don't mean any disrespect to him, God rest his soul. He was a man of high ideals, so called, but ideals without common sense can ruin this town. Now, you take this loan here to Ernie Bishop. You know, that fellow that sits around all day on his brains in his taxi. You know ... I happen to know the bank turned down this loan, but he comes here, and we're building him a house worth $5,000. Why?

    More evidence that Potter always places money above human interests. Greed blinds him to any concern about the little guy. They're not even worth thinking about.

    GEORGE: This town needs this crummy one-horse institution if for no other reason than to keep people from crawling to Potter.

    Potter's greed is what motivates George to keep the Building and Loan going.

    GEORGE: If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan, there'll never be another decent house built in this town. He's already got charge of the bank. He's got the bus line. He got the department stores. And now, he's after us. Why? Well, it's very simple. Because we're cutting in on his business, that's why. And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides.

    When there's a run on the bank, George has to lay out Potter's motives so his customers won't withdraw all of their money. He's able to convince them because they already know that Potter is a heartless, greedy guy. All George has to do is remind them of it.

    POTTER: Take during the Depression, for instance. You and I were the only ones that kept our heads. You saved the Building and Loan, and I saved all the rest.

    GEORGE: Yes. Well, most people say you stole all the rest.

    POTTER: The envious ones say that, George, the suckers. Now, I have stated my side very frankly. Now, let's look at your side. Young man, 27, 28 ... married, making, say, 40 a week.

    GEORGE: Forty-five!

    Did Potter have a change of heart? Could he be complimenting George on his business acumen? Dream on. He's trying to flatter him so he can buy him off. If George works for Potter, kiss the Building and Loan goodbye.

  • Love

    MARY: Is this the ear you can't hear on? George Bailey, I'll love you till the day I die.

    Mary's childhood infatuation with George morphs into something with real staying power. Mary is the one who senses that they're meant to be together, and she has to take the lead. George eventually gets the idea.

    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?

    This is purely a lyrical romantic reverie. George wants to give her "the moon," something special and amazing. Mary doesn't really need that; she's happy with her dreams of an ordinary home and family.

    GEORGE: Yes. Sam's crazy about Mary.

    MA BAILEY: Well, she's not crazy about him.

    GEORGE: Well, how do you know? Did she discuss it with you?

    MA BAILEY: No.

    GEORGE: Well, then, how do you know?

    MA BAILEY: Well, I've got eyes, haven't I? Why, she lights up like a firefly whenever you're around.

    GEORGE: Oh ...

    George is so preoccupied with his own ambitions and dreams that he needs his mom to clue him into the love that's waiting right in front of him. Mary has never been distracted from her dream of loving George.

    GEORGE: Now, you listen to me! I don't want any plastics, and I don't want any ground floors, and I don't want to get married, ever, to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do. And you're ... and you're ... [he suddenly starts kissing Mary] Oh, Mary, Mary.

    Love trumps George's ambitions. He's willing to give up everything for Mary. Mary has had to watch him slowly come around to realizing what she's known all along. Up until this point in the film, the romantic story has had some screwball comedy elements. From here on, though, it's a story about steady, deep love and commitment.

    MARY: Remember the night we broke the windows in this old house? This is what I wished for.

    Mary was playing the long game; George was worth waiting for.

    GEORGE: Mary, it's George! Don't you know me? What's happened to us?

    MARY: I don't know you! Let me go!

    GEORGE: Mary, please! Oh, don't do this to me. Please, Mary, help me. Where's our kids? I need you, Mary! Help me, Mary!

    George lost sight of his love when he was lost in all of the anxieties about the Building and Loan. But, being momentarily deprived of it makes him see how precious it is.

  • Loyalty and Devotion

    PA BAILEY: You know, George, I feel that in a small way, we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It's deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we're helping him get those things in our shabby little office.

    Pa Bailey isn't just loyal to the people of Bedford Falls. He recognizes that it would be wrong to abandon the townspeople to Mr. Potter's greed purely for selfish reasons. But, he's also helping George see the bigger picture; Pa is totally committed to meeting people's basic needs of wanting a place to call their own.

    GEORGE: Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But, neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character because his whole life was ... Why, in the 25 years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But, hedid help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what's wrong with that?

    George understands why his father's commitment was important, but he doesn't yet fully appreciate the consequences. Not until Clarence shows him Pottersville does he really get it. There was a reason his father hung in there for so long.

    GEORGE: Can't you understand what's happening here? Don't you see what's happening? Potter isn't selling. Potter's buying! And why? Because we're panicking, and he's not. That's why. He's picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We've got to stick together, though. We've got to have faith in each other.

    This might be George's finest hour. He helps the townspeople understand that Potter is trying to exploit the financial crisis and take away their homes. George appeals to their loyalty because he knows he can. He's been there for them, and now he can ask the same of them. In the process, the bank survives and so do the townspeople.

    GEORGE: No … no ... no … no, now, wait a minute here! I don't have to talk to anybody! I know right now, and the answer is no! NO! Doggone it! You sit around here, and you spin your little webs, and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter! In the ... in the whole vast configuration of things, I'd say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider. You …

    Potter almost gets George to sell out, but when George shakes his hand, it feels totally wrong. Potter knows that George's loyalty makes him a tough nut to crack, so he tries to buy him out. It almost works.

    GEORGE: 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!

    POTTER: Happy New Year to you—in jail. Go on home—they're waiting for you!

    After his angel-inspired vision of a world without him, George's enthusiasm for and loyalty toward Bedford Falls are completely renewed. He even sends a little goodwill Potter's way. Now that he's confident in his own value, he doesn't have to be afraid of Potter anymore.

    ERNIE: Just a minute. Quiet, everybody. Quiet—quiet. Now, this is from London. Mr. Gower cables you need cash. Stop. My office instructed to advance you up to $25,000. Stop. Hee-haw and Merry Christmas. Sam Wainwright.

    It would have been easy for Frank Capra to make wealthy Sam Wainwright into another callous, materialistic jerk. But, Sam is a lifelong friend, and his loyalty to George inspires his generosity. And, this is despite the fact that George stole his girl years before. That's hardcore. And btw, $25,000 in 1945 dollars would be over $325,000 today.