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.