Study Guide

It's a Wonderful Life Summary

It's a Wonderful Life Summary

Just a Small-Town Boy

George Bailey is going to kill himself.

Or, at least, he's toying with the idea. Fortunately, the prayers of his friends and family inspire some divine intervention: two senior angels commission one of their apprentices, Clarence, to save the despondent George. To bring him up to speed, they show Clarence (and us) some of the highlights of George's life, with some freeze-frames for angelic editorial comments. Clarence is pumped. If he can help George, maybe he can finally get his wings. He's been a little insecure about it.

The George Bailey Reality Tour

Angel Joseph starts at the beginning, showing Clarence a young, gregarious, energetic George who's already got big plans to explore the world and do great things. We watch him save his younger brother Harry's life after he falls into an icy pond, in the process losing the hearing in one ear from pneumonia. We watch him avert disaster when he prevents the drugstore owner he works for from accidentally giving poison to a sick child. He grows up to be a selfless, popular young man … who looks exactly like Jimmy Stewart.

After four years helping his father run his Building and Loan business after graduation, George is ready to leave for Europe and pursue those dreams of travel and college. His dad's death dashes those dreams. (Like that alliteration? Thanks.) Like the good guy he is, he stays in Bedford Falls to keep the family business out of the hands of the town's rich and nasty tycoon, Henry Potter—not to be mistaken for Harry. He uses his college savings to send Harry to school instead.

When Harry graduates, George can finally turn over the business to him and set out on his travels and education. But, Harry has been offered a great job with his new father-in-law, and it's out of town. George doesn't have it in his heart to make him stay. Dream postponed again.

One upside to being stuck in Bedford Falls is that he falls head over heels for local beauty Mary Hatch and makes her Mrs. George Bailey. He's saved up $2,000 for a honeymoon in Bermuda. Finally, he'll get to—

Not so fast.

  

On the way to the train after their wedding, he and Mary notice people clamoring to get into the bank. The evil Mr. Potter has called back their loans, and the people are panicked—they want to withdraw their money. But, the Building and Loan doesn't have much cash on hand. Where could it possibly come from? You guessed it: George and Mary's honeymoon stash.

Clarence's angel bosses show him how George keeps on keepin' on. Despite his happy life with Mary and their kids, George still feels like he hasn't realized his potential. He's never seen the world; his best buddy strikes it rich in plastics, while George is scraping by; his brother's a Navy war hero who saves a ship full of serviceman, while George can't enlist because of his hearing loss.

One day, Uncle Billy accidentally misplaces $8,000 of their customers' money—a ton of money in the 1940s, over $100,000 today. Mr. Potter finds it, keeps it, and frames George for stealing his borrowers' money. Totally distraught, thinking he's facing scandal and prison, George snaps at his wife and kids, trashes the house, crashes his car into a tree, and stares into an icy river, contemplating suicide. But, someone else falls in the river at that very moment, and George jumps in to rescue him.

Alternate Universe

Turns out, the guy who fell in the river was Clarence, George's guardian angel-in-training. He knew George would jump in after him. A skeptical George tells Clarence it would be better if he'd never been born. Inspired, Clarence decides to perform a miracle and show George what the world really would be like if he'd never lived. It's a life retrospective, minus George's life.

We see that without George around, Harry drowned in the icy pond as a kid, and all the men he saved in the war are dead, too. The drugstore owner accidentally poisoned a child. And, without George to stop him, Mr. Potter has transformed the town into a hedonistic den of iniquity devoid of the small-town values that formerly sustained it.

George meets his mother, who's grieving for Harry, her only son. She's running a boarding house now and doesn't even recognize George. He encounters Mary, now an unmarried librarian (horrors), who screams when he pleads with her to recognize him. Violet has become a prostitute.

Realizing that his life was pretty meaningful and wonderful after all, George wants to live again. He clicks his ruby slippers three times and says, "There's no place like home." (Well, he could have.) He joyfully runs home, where everyone recognizes him again and the grateful townspeople have raised more than enough money to bail out the Building and Loan. As George holds his daughter Zuzu, a bell on the Christmas tree rings. Zuzu says her teacher told her that "every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings." George smiles.

Way to go, Clarence.

  • Scene 1

    Scene 1

    Watched by an Angel (or Three)

    • Snow falls on the little town of Bedford Falls. We hear the voices of George Bailey's friends and family praying.
    • They're asking God to help George, who's going through a tough time.
    • In the distant reaches of the night sky, two illuminated clusters of stars in galaxies far, far away are shining. They're actually two senior angels.
    • They discuss George's troubling situation before dispatching a novice angel, Clarence, to go down to Earth and keep George from taking his own life. Clarence hasn't yet earned his wings, but if he can save George, he just might.
    • The two senior angels tell Clarence George's life story, starting at the very beginning, a very good place to start. When you read, you begin with ABC, when you sing, you—oops, sorry, wrong movie.
    • First stop: George, age 12, sledding down a snowy hill with his friends.
    • George's kid brother, Harry, rides too far on the sled and falls into icy water. George jumps in and rescues him. He loses hearing in one ear from getting sick in the process of saving his bro.
    • Young George walks into the drugstore where he works. The owner, Mr. Gower, is angry at him for being late. Before entering, he sees Mr. Potter, a wealthy and mean big shot in town, drive by in a carriage.
    • His friends tease him for working when they run off to play.
    • George chats with two girls his age, Mary Hatch and Violet, who are at the drugstore counter buying sodas. (Drugstores used to have soda fountains, and if you worked there, you were actually pretty cool.)
    • George tells Mary about his plans to explore the world. Mary whispers in his bad ear that she'll love him until the day he dies. He doesn't hear her, of course, but we do—foreshadowing alert.
    • George sees a telegram about how Mr. Gower's son has died from influenza, and he now realizes why Gower is in such a bad mood.
    • He also notices that, in his grief, Mr. Gower is filling the wrong prescription for a family with diphtheria. He has accidentally mixed cyanide in with the medicine. George runs down the street to ask his dad what to do about it.
    • He finds his father arguing with Mr. Potter, who's acting like a total jerk.
    • George doesn't get a chance to tell his dad about the prescription, so he runs back to the drugstore.
    • Mr. Gower angrily hits him in his bad ear and yells at him for not delivering the medicine right away—George's ear bleeds.
    • George explains, crying, that Mr. Gower made a mistake in the prescription.
    • A grateful Gower apologizes, crying and hugging George.
  • Scene 2

    Scene 2

    Would-Be Ramblin' Man

    • The angels show Clarence a grown-up George Bailey buying a suitcase, which he plans to use when he finally gets to travel the world. The salesman gives it to him for free; Mr. Gower has already paid for it as a gift.
    • He stops by the drugstore to thank Gower and takes a cab home.
    • He sees Violet on the street and compliments her on her looks.
    • At the Bailey household, George and Harry horse around before dinner. They seem happy. George is about to move out and travel to Europe.
    • His father complains about Mr. Potter's interference with the Building and Loan, and Harry invites George to a dance.
    • Mr. Bailey asks George whether he wants to take over the Building and Loan, but George isn't interested. He says he wants to do something big and important. No offense.
    • His father thinks that helping families buy homes of their own is pretty important, but he understands George's wish to see the world. What a good dad.
    • At the dance, George chats with some other guys. He runs into Violet, but Mary Hatch's brother comes up and asks George to dance with Mary.
    • Mary ditches her boring date to go dance with George, and they hit it off big time.
    • Mary's date isn't happy; he pushes a button that makes the dance floor slide back, causing George and Mary to fall into the swimming pool below. Other partygoers start diving in, too.
    • As George and Mary walk home, they sing the song "Buffalo Gals" together. Now out of their wet clothes, George is wearing someone's football uniform, while Mary is wearing a bathrobe.
    • George say he's going to throw a rock at an abandoned house across the street and make a wish.
    • Mary tells him not to since it's a romantic old ruin. He does it anyway, making a wish to leave Bedford Falls and see the world.
    • Mary throws a rock and breaks a window, but she won't tell George what she wished for.
    • George asks her about her wish and says if she wants the moon, he'll lasso it and drag it down for her. A neighbor on a porch yells at him to "just kiss her" already.
    • George yells at the neighbor. Mary darts away, but her robe falls off, and she hides in a bush. George picks up the robe and pretends he won't give it back.
    • In the middle of this playful scene, George's Uncle Billy drives up and tells him his father has just had a stroke.
    • George tosses the robe back to Mary, apologizes, and drives off with Billy.
  • Scene 3

    Scene 3

    Welcome Back, Potter

    • George's father has died, and he ends up temporarily taking over at the Building and Loan with Uncle Billy. So much for traveling the world that summer.
    • The evil Mr. Potter tries to dissolve the Building and Loan, but George and Billy object.
    • Mr. Potter thinks they're foolish to give loans to people who he thinks won't be able to pay them back.
    • George vigorously defends his father's policies; they helped people get out of Mr. Potter's slums.
    • Afterward, Billy and George get the news that the board has agreed to keep the Building and Loan together—but only if George runs it.
    • It's a very sad scene as he pleads with them to let him pursue his dreams. But, good guy that he is, he reluctantly agrees, giving up his dreams of college and world travel. He gives his college money to Harry, who goes instead.
    • The deal is that Harry will come back and run the business after he finishes college. Then, it will finally be George's turn.
    • It's not to be. At a train station after Harry finishes college, Harry introduces George and Billy to Ruth, his new wife.
    • Harry's wife says he was offered a great job at Ruth's father's glass company in Buffalo.
    • Shocker. That means George would be stuck in Bedford Falls, running the business.
    • Harry insists it isn't a done deal, but George knows it would be a great opportunity for him. You can see how deflated he is by the news.
    • At the Bailey house, a tipsy Billy and George are celebrating Harry's marriage with their guests.
    • George's mother keeps saying nice things about Mary, even though she's going with George's friend, Sam Wainwright. She's trying her best to be a matchmaker.
    • George wanders into town, where he runs into Violet.
    • George invites her to take off their shoes and run through a field, and hike around a bunch of mountains at night. Such a romantic.
    • She doesn't like the idea at all, and George walks away.
    • He strolls by Mary's house, and she invites him in.
  • Scene 4

    Scene 4

    You Used to Call Me on Your Rotary Phone

    • Mary puts "Buffalo Gals" on the record player for old times' sake. George finally comes in and asks her why she isn't in New York with Sam and other friends. She explains that she actually likes it in Bedford Falls.
    • George is in a miserable mood, depressed about Harry moving away. Mary is dropping romantic hints all over the place, but they go right over his head.
    • Mary's mother asks what George is doing there; she's suspicious about his intentions. George and Mary argue, and George walks out just as Sam Wainwright phones Mary.
    • Mary smashes the "Buffalo Gals" record and answers the phone.
    • George comes back in to get his hat, which he forgot.
    • Sam is calling from an office and says he wants to talk to Mary and George. They both get on the same phone.
    • Sam is thinking about building a plastics factory, and George suggests doing it in Bedford Falls.
    • Sam offers George a job and wants him to invest in the company. No dice. George is getting pretty agitated.
    • As Sam talks to them, George and Mary look at each other longingly over the phone they're sharing, until George finally breaks down and they kiss, dropping the phone.
  • Scene 5

    Scene 5

    Don't Bank on It

    • We jump ahead to the day of George and Mary's wedding. The guests celebrate wildly and throw rice as they get into a cab and drive off.
    • George and Mary kiss in the back of the cab, and they happily tell Ernie the driver about their honeymoon plans.
    • Suddenly, Ernie points out all of the people rushing into the bank.
    • Turns out, there's a run on the bank; people are panicked, desperately trying to withdraw their money fearing the bank will fail.
    • George jumps out and lets everyone inside. Mary begs him to come back, but he's a man on a mission.
    • Uncle Billy tells them they're in crisis mode. People want their money, but the bank can't cover it.
    • The dastardly Mr. Potter calls and says he's buying out the bank and helping it with the money it needs. Of course, that means he's taking it over.
    • George explains to the customers that they can't take out their money right now. Everyone threatens to go over to Potter's bank, but George explains that Potter just wants their business to enrich himself and will just rip them off.
    • Mary offers their honeymoon and travel money to help hold people over until they can pay them back, keeping their accounts at the Building and Loan.
    • It works. Because his customers trust George, they agree to take just enough to tide them over.
    • The business is saved for now.
    • Mary calls George and gives him directions to a house—the old, abandoned place they'd thrown rocks at on that romantic evening a while back. Mary arranged for them to buy it and make it their home.
    • Instead of a honeymoon, she had Bert and Ernie put travel posters on the walls, and she made a fancy dinner with champagne and caviar for her new husband.
    • Mary has already started moving in their things and fixing up the old, dilapidated house. George is impressed. Their friends serenade them from outside.
    • Mary tells George that when she broke a window in the house with the rock, this is what she wished for: a home there, together.
    • We think this gal's a keeper.
  • Scene 6

    Scene 6

    Mr. Potter Wears Prada

    • An Italian immigrant, Martini, thanks George for helping him buy his very own house. He's bursting with pride.
    • Martini and his family are moving out of their slumlord Potter's apartment into Bailey Park—a small neighborhood of modest, affordable homes—thanks to the Building and Loan.
    • As Mary and George present the family with some moving-in gifts, the look on Martini's face tells us everything we need to know about how important the Building and Loan is to the people in town.
    • Sam Wainwright shows up at the moving celebration and greets George, who notices Sam's new car and fancy clothes. Plastics.
    • Next stop: Mr. Potter's office, where an adviser tells Potter about how George is cutting into his business by giving home loans to people who then move out of Potter's apartments.
    • Back with George, Sam teases him about turning down his plastics offer. We guess plastics ended up making Sam a pretty rich guy.
    • We return to Potter's office, where George meets with him and smokes one of Potter's expensive cigars.
    • Mr. Potter says that he's been able to get control of everything in town except the Building and Loan; he compliments George on keeping it afloat.
    • But, Potter says he knows George doesn't like working at the Building and Loan; he's just trapped.
    • He offers to have George manage his affairs, offering him a salary beyond his wildest dreams.
    • George is astonished, but he wonders what will happen to the Building and Loan.
    • He asks for a day to think it over. But, when George shakes Potter's hand, he changes his mind.
    • He chews out Potter about exploiting the townspeople and storms off.
  • Scene 7

    Scene 7

    Show Me the Money

    • Mary is pregnant. Great news, right?
    • The senior angel explains that George and Mary had more kids and that George never left Bedford Falls. Potter kept putting pressure on him, though.
    • Oh, yeah, now we remember that this story is being told to Clarence to catch him up on George's life before the present time.
    • When World War II broke out, everyone supported the effort.
    • The angel explains everything that the townspeople did: joining the Red Cross, fighting in the war, etc.
    • Harry became a decorated war hero, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving a transport ship full of soldiers. George served as an air warden and did various service at home.
    • After the war ends, at Christmas, they get news about Harry's Medal of Honor at the Building and Loan. George is really happy for him.
    • A bank examiner comes to see George, and George admits that they're basically broke.
    • Billy runs into Potter at his bank as he's about to deposit $8,000 to cover their customers' deposits. He tells Potter about the Medal of Honor and says George would have been a hero, too, but he couldn't go to war because of his bad ear.
    • Billy absentmindedly leaves the money on a desk, and Potter finds it. And keeps it.
    • Billy is frantic; he can't find the money anywhere.
    • At the office, George is giving Violet a loan for her to go start a new life in New York. He wishes her luck. She kisses him on the cheek, and the other people in the bank look at him weirdly before Violet wipes the lipstick stain off with a tissue.
    • Billy tracks down George and tells him about losing the money.
    • This is an epic disaster. It means bankruptcy and scandal; George could go to prison.
  • Scene 8

    Scene 8

    Where's the Christmas Cheer?

    • At home, a depressed George greets his happy family, who are all in the Christmas spirit. George hugs his son and starts crying. Mary notices but doesn't say anything.
    • George gets mad at his daughter for continually playing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" on the piano.
    • He's very agitated and gets annoyed when he hears that his youngest daughter, Zuzu, has a cold.
    • George keeps complaining to Mary, saying he wishes they didn't live in Bedford Falls and have so many kids.
    • He goes up to see Zuzu, who shows him a flower. Some of the petals have fallen off, and she asks George to fix it.
    • George secretly puts the petals in his pocket and gives the flower back to Zuzu.
    • Downstairs, Mary is talking to Zuzu's teacher on the phone, and George grabs the phone, shouting at the teacher for sending Zuzu home from school without being bundled up.
    • He yells at the teacher's husband, too.
    • George yells at his kids, tells his daughter to stop playing the piano, and knocks things over in the living room.
    • Ashamed, he apologizes to his wife and to his kids. They stare at him, and his daughter starts crying.
    • George walks out of the house, and Mary calls Uncle Billy on the phone. She tells the kids to pray for their dad. Something is seriously wrong. This is where we came in at the beginning of the movie.
    • Back at Potter's office, George begs Potter for a loan, explaining that he (really, Billy) misplaced $8,000. Potter ridicules him, suggesting that maybe George was spending the money on Violet or wasting it in other ways.
    • George says he has a $15,000 life insurance policy he can use as collateral, but Potter refuses.
    • Potter tells George he's worth more dead than alive. He says he's going to ask the cops to arrest George for misappropriating funds.
    • George is in shock.
  • Scene 9

    Scene 9

    Search and Rescue

    • In Martini's bar, George sits around drinking and feeling miserable. He prays to God for help; he's at the end of his rope.
    • The bartender asks if he's alright; Martini is worried, too. He loves George.
    • The teacher's husband is at the bar, and he punches George in the face for insulting his wife over the phone.
    • Driving away, George crashes his car into a tree. A man yells at him, saying his grandfather planted that tree.
    • George wanders out through the snow onto a bridge. A nearby man looks at George as he stares over the edge.
    • It's not looking good for our boy, is it?
    • But suddenly, the man falls in and starts yelling for help.
    • George dives in and rescues him.
    • They're invited to go into a watchman's house, where they dry off and change.
    • The man is actually Clarence Odbody, the angel-in-training. He admits he's George's guardian angel from heaven, and he intentionally provoked George into saving him so George wouldn't throw himself off the bridge.
    • The watchman runs outside, freaked out.
    • George is mystified by all of the things Clarence knows about him, like that he owes $8,000.
    • Clarence tells him he's an angel that doesn't yet have his wings.
  • Scene 10

    Scene 10

    Pottersville

    • George tells Clarence that he's worth more dead than alive and that he wishes he'd never been born.
    • That gives Clarence an idea. Clarence consults with one of the other angels (invisibly) and grants George his wish to have never been born.
    • George suddenly finds he can hear in his bad ear. They get dressed.
    • As they walk out, George notices his car has disappeared from the place where it hit the tree.
    • He asks someone about it, and the guy says he doesn't know what he's talking about. The guy says it's one of the oldest trees in Pottersville (which is no longer called Bedford Falls).
    • They go into Martini's and discover that Nick (the bartender) owns it now.
    • When the cash register bell rings, Clarence tells George it means an angel just got his wings.
    • George tells Clarence to stop talking about being an angel. Clarence tells George he's 293 years old.
    • Nick says he's kicking them both out of the bar. Mr. Gower walks in, and Nick sprays him in the face with water.
    • Mr. Gower has been disgraced because he accidentally poisoned a kid (since George wasn't there to stop him) and spent 20 years in prison.
    • Nick throws them out and jokes about handing out wings by ringing the register bell.
  • Scene 11

    Scene 11

    A High Body Count

    • Outside, George is mystified about how it says "Nick's" instead of "Martini's" over the bar.
    • Clarence explains that George has never existed. George realizes that Zuzu's petals and his wallet and everything that identifies him are gone.
    • Clarence says it's a chance to see what the world would be like without him.
    • George doesn't listen and says he's going home. He walks away.
    • As he walks through town, George sees that Bedford Falls has become Pottersville—an awful, gaudy, sleazy place. Just bars and nightclubs. Kind of like Las Vegas.
    • Someone tells him there's no Building and Loan; it went out of business years ago.
    • He sees Violet get thrown out of a club.
    • George gets in a cab driven by Ernie, who doesn't recognize him. Ernie tells him that his (Ernie's) wife ran away, and he lives alone in a shack.
    • At George's house, he sees that it's the abandoned, broken-down place it used to be. Clarence materializes inside and says this is what would have happened if George had never lived.
    • Bert the cop shows up and tries to arrest George, but Clarence bites Bert on the hand and then disappears as the cop tries to tackle and cuff him.
    • George goes to his mother's house, and she doesn't recognize him—she's running a boarding house, now.
    • She tells him Uncle Billy has been in an insane asylum ever since he lost his business.
    • George asks to see his brother, and his mother slams the door in his face. Her only son died years ago.
    • When George leaves, Clarence tells him it's amazing how one man's life affects so many other people's lives.
    • At the cemetery, they find Harry's grave.
    • Harry couldn't win the Medal of Honor or save soldiers on a WWII transport boat because George never saved him. He fell through the ice as a kid and died.
    • This is all freaking George out.
    • Clarence tells George that Mary never married; she's a librarian now.
    • (Librarians in old movies tend to be aging spinsters—a fate worse than death.)
    • George finds Mary leaving the library and asks if she remembers him.
    • She doesn't even recognize him and screams when he touches her.
    • A crowd of people gathers, and a policeman fires shots at George as he runs away.
  • Scene 12

    Scene 12

    All I Want for Christmas Is You

    • George arrives at the bridge and prays to God again. He wants to live.
    • Bert the cop arrives and recognizes George. He tells George his mouth is bleeding (from being punched out by the teacher's husband).
    • George has his life back. Zuzu's petals reappear in his pocket.
    • George runs through town shouting, "Merry Christmas!" to everyone he sees, including Mr. Potter. He looks a little loopy, but it's pure joy.
    • The bank examiner and a cop are at his house, but George seems happy to see them. He's excited to see his kids, who all surround and hug him. Mary enters; more hugs. He's over the top with relief and happiness. He loves everybody.
    • Mary takes him downstairs and shows him that all of the townspeople have banded together to give him the money he needs.
    • Uncle Billy brings in a massive basket of cash he's collected, and tons of people come in to donate more money.
    • He gets a cable from Sam Wainwright, telling him that Sam has granted him $25,000 to keep his business together.
    • Everyone celebrates and sings Christmas carols. Harry shows up, alive and in uniform. He makes a toast to George, calling him "the richest man in town."
    • George holds Zuzu and finds a copy of Tom Sawyer under the tree. It's been signed by Clarence.
    • A bell rings on the tree, and Zuzu says her teacher says it means an angel got its wings. George knows it's Clarence. He joins in singing "Auld Lang Syne" with all of his friends.
    • That's what we'd call an epically heartwarming, Capra-esque ending.