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  • Writer's pictureRonny Duncan Studios

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)


Plot Summary: George Bailey (James Stewart) grows up in the Town of Bedford Falls, N.Y., and has spent a lifetime in the service of others, putting his family, his friends, and his community above himself and his dreams of seeing the world and doing something big. On Christmas Eve, Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) mistakenly loses $8,000, leaving a shortage in the Building & Loan accounts. Being at his wit’s end, George asks for help from his nemesis and the Town’s villain, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who not only refuses to help but swears out a warrant for his arrest for theft. Contemplating suicide, George is visited by Clarence, a guardian angel who has yet to win his wings. To convince George that his life matters, Clarence grants George his wish that he had never been born. As George experiences a world devoid of him, will he learn his true value and what his years of self-sacrifice really meant?


Cast:

  • James Stewart as George Bailey

  • Donna Reed as Mary Hatch

  • Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter

  • Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy

  • Henry Travers as Clarence

  • Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Bailey

  • Frank Faylen as Ernie

  • Ward Bond as Bert

  • Gloria Grahame as Violet Bick

*Recognition:

  • In 1947, It's a Wonferful Life was nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director (Frank Capra), Actor (Stewart), Editing, and Sound Recording. It won a Technical Achievement Award for "the development of a new method of simulating falling snow on motion picture sets."

  • Upon initial release, the film recorded a loss of $525,000 at the box office for RKO.

  • In 2002, Channel 4 in the United Kingdom ranked It's a Wonderful Life as the seventh-greatest film ever made in its poll "The 100 Greatest Films". The network airs the film to British viewers annually on Christmas Eve.

  • In June 2008, AFI revealed its 10 Top 10, the best 10 films in 10 "classic" American film genres, after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. It's a Wonderful Life was acknowledged as the third-best film in the fantasy genre.

  • In 1990, It's a Wonderful Life was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Did You Know:

  • The film's elevation to the status of a beloved classic came three decades after its initial release, when it became a television staple during Christmas season in 1976. This came as a welcome surprise to Frank Capra and others involved with its production. "It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen", Capra told The Wall Street Journal in 1984. "The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be President. I'm proud ... but it's the kid who did the work. I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."

  • It is commonly believed that the characters of Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street were named after Bert the cop and Ernie the cabdriver; however, in a correction for the 1999 "Annual Xmas Quiz" in the San Francisco Chronicle, which made this claim, series writer Jerry Juhl confirmed that, per producer Jon Stone, the shared names were merely a coincidence. Despite this, the 1996 holiday special Elmo Saves Christmas references the rumor, during a scene where Bert and Ernie walk by a TV set, which is playing the movie. The pair are surprised by the line: "Bert! Ernie! What's the matter with you two guys? You were here on my wedding night!"

  • On May 26, 1947, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a memo stating, "With regard to the picture 'It's a Wonderful Life', [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists. [In] addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters."

  • For the scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through the window of the Granville house, director Frank Capra hired a marksman to shoot it out on cue. To everyone's amazement, Reed broke the window by herself. She had played baseball in high school and had a strong throwing arm.

  • As Uncle Billy drunkenly leaves the Bailey home, it sounds as if he stumbles into some trash cans on the sidewalk. In fact, a crew member dropped a large tray of props right after Thomas Mitchell went off-screen. James Stewart began laughing, and Mitchell quickly improvised, "I'm alright, I'm okay!" Director Frank Capra decided to use this take in the final cut and gave the stagehand a $10 bonus for "improving the sound."

  • The gym floor that opens in the middle to reveal the swimming pool underneath was filmed at Beverly Hills High School In Beverly Hills, California, USA was real and is still in regular use. The same gymnasium moving floor was used in a similar school dance scene in Whatever It Takes (2000), fifty-four years later.

  • Films made prior to this one used cornflakes painted white for the falling snow effect. Because the cornflakes were so loud, dialogue had to be dubbed in later. Director Frank Capra wanted to record the sound live, so a new snow effect was developed using foamite (a fire-fighting chemical), soap, and water. This mixture was then pumped at high pressure through a wind machine to create the silent, falling snow. 6,000 gallons of the new snow were used in the film. The RKO Effects Department received a Class III Scientific or Technical Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the development of the new film snow.

  • Sam makes a fortune in plastics while Harry becomes an engineer at his father-in-law's glass factory. Both of these come out of director Frank Capra's own education in chemical engineering. Capra himself was unable to find a job with his background, and like George Bailey, considered himself a failure for many years.

  • The Martinis are based on director Frank Capra's own family, who emigrated from Sicily in 1903. In the movie, a goat accompanies them in their car. "Capra" means goat in Italian.

What is this movie is about?/Elevator Pitch: You never know what you've got til it's gone.


Best Performance: James Stewart (George)/Frank Capra (Director/Screenwriter)

Best Secondary Performance: James Stewart (George)/Lionel Barrymore (Potter)

Most Charismatic Award: Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy)/Donna Reed (Mary)

Best Scene:

  • Mr. Gower

  • Graduation Dance

  • George Lassos the Moon

  • Run on the Bank

  • Clarence Saves George

  • Pottersville

  • George Pleads to Live Again

  • The Town Saves George

Favorite Scene: Run on the Bank/George Visits Mary

Most Indelible Moment: The Town Saves George


In Memorium:

  • Anne Rice, 80 (American Author, The Vampire Chronicles)

Best Lines/Funniest Lines:

House Owner: Oh, youth is wasted on the wrong people!


George Bailey: How old are you anyway? Mary Hatch Bailey: Eighteen. George Bailey: Eighteen. Why it was only last year you were seventeen.


Zuzu Bailey: Teacher says, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."


Annie: I've been savin' this money for a divorce, if ever I got a husband.


Clarence:[to George] 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 Bailey: My mouth's bleeding, Bert! My mouth's bleedin'!


George Bailey: Hey! Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!

Mr. Potter: A happy new year to you...in jail!


Mrs. Hatch: Who is down there with you, Mary? Mary Hatch Bailey: It's George Bailey, mother. Mrs. Hatch: George Bailey? What does he want? Mary Hatch Bailey: I don't know! Mary Hatch Bailey: [to George] What do you want? George Bailey: Me? Nothing! I just came in to get warm, is all. Mary Hatch Bailey: [pause] He's making violent love to me, mother!


Clarence: [In book inscription] Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.


George Bailey: Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!


Uncle Billy:After all, Potter, some people like George had to stay at home. Not every heel was in Germany and Japan.


The Stanley Rubric:

Legacy: 9.5

Impact/Significance: 5.75

Novelty: 9

Classic-ness: 7.75

Rewatchability: 8.25

Audience Score: 9.35 (92% Google, 95% RT)

Total: 49.6


Remaining Questions:

  • What did Potter do with the money, and does Uncle Billy ever remember?

  • How does the Bank Examiner just let George and Billy walk away since he knows the replacement money clearly didn't come from the bank?

  • Is Burt a decent cop?

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