"No man is a failure who has friends."
"Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel's just got his wings."
Source of the trope It's a Wonderful Plot
, and an annual staple of Christmastime viewing, this much-loved 1946 Frank Capra
film tells of one man's life of self-sacrifice and quiet despair, from which he is rescued by a miracle.
As the film begins, angels are listening to myriad prayers for a certain George Bailey. One of the angels, called Clarence Oddbody, is told he must answer the prayers
, but only after he's been told who George is. Cue Flashback
Zooming in on the small town of Bedford Falls, the first thing we see 12-year-old George do is save the life of his younger brother, Harry, at the cost of deafness in one ear. A little later, a girl, Mary Hatch, whispers promises of eternal love into his deaf ear just before George saves another life, and a pharmacist's career.
Skipping ahead a few years, we see the now-grown George (Jimmy Stewart
) attending Harry's high school graduation party, held in the school's gymnasium/swimming pool
. George tells Mary (Donna Reed) about his plans for the future: leave town, see the world, go to college, build big things. Before an hour has gone, George learns his father has had a fatal stroke. His dreams will have to be deferred.
George stays in Bedford Falls to help his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) look after the family business, the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association, on the understanding that Harry will take over when he returns from college. However, Harry brings back a wife, whose father offers him a much better job, which George insists Harry take, sacrificing his opportunity. Soon afterward, George himself is offered a better job, but turns it down, knowing that without him the family business will be taken over by the avaricious banker
, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore
). He is further tied to Bedford Falls when he and Mary get married and eventually have four kids together.
For several years, George's life continues in this vein. Every golden opportunity is frustrated by his self-imposed duties, until one Christmas Eve, when Potter seizes an opportunity, thanks to George's hapless uncle, to steal $8,000 from the Building and Loan, then threatens to charge George with the theft. This latest indignity, on top of his daily troubles, drives George first to verbally abuse his family, to get drunk
, and then to attempt suicide
, after realizing his life insurance would be able to cover all his debts and then some.
This is where the film began. Clarence (Henry Travers) appears, prevents George from committing suicide, and then grants his unintentional wish
, creating an Alternate Universe
in which George never existed.
Wandering around town, George soon discovers that Pottersville, the alternate Bedford Falls, is full of strip clubs and drinking dens. All his friends and acquaintances are miserable, his brother is dead (as are a number of soldiers whose lives Harry saved in World War II
), and his wife is a spinster
. Clarence then explains how George single-handedly prevented this dire fate. He, and he alone, kept Potter in check, preventing the town from descending into squalor and vice.
George takes back his wish and Bedford Falls is restored. When he returns home, the sheriff is waiting to arrest him, but all the neighbors rush in, offering money. Mary had started making telephone calls immediately after George left the house, finding out the truth and spreading the word. George has been saved. His life may never improve, but he now knows that he is appreciated, and has made a difference.
This film had a resurgence for a while in the U.S. during the 1980s when it was discovered that the copyright
on the film was never renewed, which meant the film was in the Public Domain
and any television station could legally show it as often as they wanted without paying for a license. Many PBS
stations across the country would run it during pledge week, and around Christmas time, you could routinely find as many as five or six stations in an area all carrying the movie at some time of the day or evening. It was also issued on VHS, in varying levels of quality, by numerous companies large and small. This practice ended when Republic Pictures, the successor to the film's original rights holder, realized that while they couldn't claim copyright over the film itself, they could - and did - claim the rights to the music used in it and to the original story, upon which those copyrights were renewed. Republic then announced to television stations that from that point forward they would enforce the copyright on the music and story, meaning you'd now need a license to broadcast the movie. NBC
has had exclusive TV rights since 1994, and usually airs it twice annually, once early in December and again on Christmas Eve. Similarly, Paramount
(whose parent company, Viacom
, acquired Republic in the late '90s) currently holds exclusive home video rights for the film.
Not to be confused with It's a Wonderful World
, a completely different black-and-white Jimmy Stewart movie made seven years prior. Neither should be confused with the video game It's A Wonderful World
AKA The World Ends with You
or Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life
, which is about farming.
Just say the word, Mary, and I'll lasso you some Tropes:
- Adaptational Villainy: In the short story that the movie is based on, Mr. Potter is only the unseen owner of a photography studio and doesn't have any conflict with George.
- Adult Fear: Losing all your money? Possibly betrayed by those you love? Never fulfilled your dreams? This movie has Adult Fear in spades.
- The Alcoholic: Uncle Billy and then some. In the Georgeless universe, he's put in a sanitarium for it.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: That gym with the swimming pool under the floor really exists (at Beverly Hills High School). Capra added the scene to the movie after he heard about the gym, noting that no writer could have come up with an idea like that.
- An Aesop: No man is a failure who has friends.
- Aesop Enforcer: Clarence works as George's Enforcer.
- Author Tract: That the movie bears down very hard on the value of home ownership and the need for it to build happy, healthy communities, as opposed to the dangerous shacks Potter rents out is not a coincidence. To audiences at the time it bordered on Anvilicious.
- Art Shift: The Pottersville scenes are done in the Film Noir style.
- Backhanded Compliment: Potter eulogizing Peter Bailey as "a man of high ideals. ...so called."
- Bad-Guy Bar: Nick's. "This oughta be Martini's place!".
- Bald of Evil: Mr. Potter.
- Bar Brawl: Zuzu's teacher's husband, Mr. Welsh, finds George at Martini's bar and punches him in the eye. Martini then kicks Welsh out of the bar.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: "I wish I'd never been born!"
- Being Good Sucks: Pretty much a fact of George's life for the first bit of the movie. He probably has it in him to live the exciting life he wants - if he weren't such a stand-up guy as to keep putting it off to help everyone around him (and, even when that isn't going on, life likes to give him a sharp poke in the side). All that goodwill comes back around in the end though.
- Betty and Veronica: Mary and Violet, respectively (George chooses Mary).
- Bill... Bill... Junk... Bill...: Potter, as head of the draft board: "1A...1A......1A."
- Bittersweet Ending: For such a famously feel-good movie, audiences may be frustrated by how Potter gets off scot-free and that George never gets the chance to live his dream of traveling abroad and becoming an architect. But really, it's George's internal conflict that is the most important, so that's the one that gets resolved.
- Bizarro Universe: Pottersville
- Black and White Morality: George is a kind, selfless man while Mr. Potter is a heartless business owner who wants to run the town.
- Black Best Friend: Annie to Ma Bailey.
- Bookends: The first thing we see George do is save Harry from drowning, and the last thing he does before wishing he was never born is save Clarence from drowning.
- Bowties Are Cool: Clarence. Also, Ernie when he's on the job.
- Break the Cutie: George goes through a lot of turmoil, here. See Despair Event Horizon, below.
- Brick Joke:
- George repeatedly breaking the knob off the staircase rail. See Running Gag below.
- Kind of a dark one (though YMMV in regards to how dark). George at one point asks Mary what she'd be if they weren't together. She jokingly replies "an old maid" and it's quickly forgotten. Come the Alternate Timeline though...
- Butterfly Effect: When George saves Clarence from the river, it is snowing quite heavily. After his wish, there is none falling. When he is "restored," the snow immediately falls at the same rate. Somehow George not being there altered the weather patterns for upstate New York.
- Catchphrase: "Hee-haw!" for Sam Wainwright.
- Chekhov's Armory: Pretty much everything that happens over the course of the movie is shown to be significant when George sees what Bedford Falls is like without him.
- Chekhov's Gag: Uncle Billy's being forgetful and scatter-brained is Played for Laughs for about 2/3 of the film until his carelessness leads him to leave the company's $8000 with Mr Potter.
- Childhood Friend Romance: Mary, who was in love with George from girlhood onward.
- Chivalrous Pervert: George shows signs of this. "Maybe I can sell tickets."
- Christmas Miracle: However 90% of the movie is a story about George's life and takes place at some point other than Christmas. It's also just a coincidence that the event that would push George over the edge, Uncle Billy losing the $8000, happens on Christmas Eve. It could've happened any other day of the year and we'd have had the exact same story.
- Chronic Hero Syndrome: George just has to help everyone at the cost of his own dreams. He doesn't even go through with his own suicide when he sees that someone (Clarence) is drowning and needs help, and he decides to jump in to rescue him instead.
- Close-Knit Community: Bedford Falls
- Close-Up on Head: While George is drowning his sorrows at the Martini bar, the camera moves up close to his head as he makes a desperate prayer and is crying Manly Tears. There are also many loving shots of Donna Reed's face.
- Everyone thinks Clarence is nuts at his first appearance, including George.
- Among the living, Uncle Billy is the best candidate. In the alternate timeline where George was never born, he wound up in an insane asylum.
- Clueless Chick Magnet: Young George doesn't notice (or is repelled by) Violet and Mary's advances — he's too busy planning for his future harem in India. Even as he gets older, he still has no idea how much Mary (and possibly Violet) still loves him.
- Comically Missing the Point:
- George excitedly shows Ernie a newspaper headline about Harry's Congressional Medal of Honor; Ernie kids him by glancing at the paper and remarking that it's going to snow again.
- Upon hearing that Ma Bailey had lunch with the President's wife, Eustace asks what they had to eat.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Henry Potter, one of the most notable examples in film.
- Crapsack World: Pottersville, at least from Capra's wholesome, conservative Catholic perspective. The main part of town is a swinging place packed with bars, dance halls, strip clubs and gambling dens blasting jazz music. (Just in case you might think that actually sounds pretty awesome, the rest of the town is a depressing, dreary slum full of abandoned houses, where the people George knows are all miserable. George spends most of the Pottersville sequence trying to find the last friend he saw, bar owner Martini. A deleted scene exists in which George finds Martini's grave near Harry's, as Clarence explains that Martini and his family died in a fire because they couldn't move out of Potter's slums.)
- Creator Provincialism: At the start of the film Saint Joseph observes that George is due to kill himself "at exactly 10:45 Earth time". Apparently even God thinks America (specifically upstate New York) is the epicentre of the Earth.
- Crucified Hero Shot: If you're looking for it, it's so obvious: when the angels 'pause' George's life, he's standing with his arms held up and out in the pose. This is a subversion, however, as George is shown from the side, rather than the front, and has spread out his arms to excitedly ask for a large suitcase.
- Daddy's Girl: Zuzu seems to be this.
- David Versus Goliath: George vs. Mr. Potter.
"And are the local yokels making with those David-and-Goliath wisecracks..."
- Dead Guy Junior: George and Mary's first son is named Peter, after George's late father.
- Deadpan Snarker: Mary, of all people, has moments of this.
- Decoy Damsel: Inverted with Clarence, who screams like a girl after intentionally jumping in the river.
- Despair Event Horizon: George's entire life is a spiral of quiet desperation which is slowly winding him up... until he finally snaps. And it is terrifying. He gets better, though.
- Deus ex Machina: Completely averted. The "god" appears, but when he goes away, George is physically in the same spot he was in before; the only thing that is different is his attitude.
- And it drives home the point of the whole movie: everyone is George.
Clarence: Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many others, and when he isn't there, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?
- Digital Destruction: Paramount had all the grain removed in 2006, but the public didn't seem bothered with how sterile the image became until after watching it on Blu-Ray a few years later.
- Distracted by the Sexy: At one point, a nameless background male character turns his head to watch Violet walk by while crossing the street and nearly gets hit by a car as a result.
- The Ditz: Uncle Billy.
- Door Focus: After a heated argument, George Bailey leaves Mary's house only to return because he forgot his hat. A little more yelling later, smoochies ensue.
- Dramatic Wind: Lampshaded by Clarence, who is irritated at the unwanted special effects.
- Drink Order: George orders a bourbon while Clarence deliberates what to get, which only makes the barman angrier.
Look, mister, I'm standin' here waitin' for you to make up your mind
... Clarence: That's a good man
- Driven to Suicide: George contemplating jumping off the bridge. Thankfully, Clarence was there to save him.
- Drowning My Sorrows:
- George gets drunk in the bar before attempting suicide.
- George's boss in the past, Mr. Gower, gets smashed after receiving a telegram informing him of his son's death.
- The Dutiful Son: George stays in Bedford Falls to take over his dead father's business.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: George is nearly driven to suicide. But in the end, all his problems are solved and he's surrounded by loving family, friends and neighbors.
- Pottersville. Ernie lives "in a shack in Potter's Field", the bizarro version of Bailey Park.
- Ironically, the ego getting stroked is George's. He's being shown a Crapsack World that exists because he didn't. The real world even has a housing complex called Bailey Park. Although, "Bailey Park" is named after his father.
- Emotion Suppression: George does this very subtly in the scene where Harry comes back from college with a wife, and announces that he's been offered a really good job, which George knows will mean that he himself won't be able to quit the bank and go travelling. Harry and his wife pass out of the shot and we hear them and George's mother chatting away happily, but the camera follows George for a few seconds as he walks silently after them, with all his earlier good humour completely gone from his face — and then he joins them and you can see him forcing himself to be cheerful again. At least one critic has pointed out that this is the moment in the film where George is almost crushed by the realisation that he will never be able to drop everything and do just what he wants.
- Empathic Environment: The snow ceases to fall when George is in the alternate universe and resumes when he returns.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Mr. Potter is this trope. Seriously, almost every scene and every fifth line of his dialogue features a gross miscalculation of one of the Baileys, or human nature in general. To elaborate ...
- Potter doesn't understand Peter Bailey's motivation for creating the Building & Loan, or George's motivation for (permanently) postponing his vacation and college education to keep the B&L going... even after George spells it out for him in his "The Reason You Suck" Speech. The notion that providing decent housing for the townspeople might be rewarding simply does not click with Potter.
- Potter assumes that the crowd that runs on the B&L is a violent lynch mob rather then the frightened, desperate, but quite well-behaved crowd it actually is.
- Still not sure who or what he's dealing with, Potter wonders aloud to his real estate flunky how Bailey commands public respect despite the fact that he doesn't make a great deal of money off of his (potentially lucrative) housing projects.
- Potter attempts to bribe George with a lucrative job — provided that George dissolve the B&L and hand it over to Potter. Potter makes a good sales pitch... but George is only tempted for a grand total of thirty seconds (time it), before the revulsion hits him. It's Potter's sweaty palm that tips George off to the fact that Potter is still scheming against him.
- Potter's final swing-and-a-miss is easy to overlook, though the climax hinges on it. While gloating over George's downfall, Potter taunts him asking "why doesn't he ask the rabble" for the money, predicting that the "rabble" would run him out of town. Of course, this is exactly what Mary and Uncle Billy do, and the townspeople rally in support en-masse around George. Potter is a poor student of the human creature...
- Honestly, does anyone who considers a fellow human being "worth more dead than alive" understand Good?
- Evil Cripple: Mr. Potter's wheelchair looks like a throne.
- Evil Old Folks: Potter.
- Evil Is Petty: Potter never forgets George's insult to him at a board meeting, even twenty years later.
- Failed a Spot Check:
- George and Mary are the only couple who don't realize they're dancing over a swimming pool.
- Uncle Billy losing $8000 in an envelope wrapped in a newspaper that he inadvertently gives to Potter.
- Faux Affably Evil: Mr. Potter.
- For Want of a Nail: The entire meaning of the alternate world.
Clarence: Harry Bailey fell through the ice and drowned at the age of nine.
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!
- It goes beyond that:
- George prevented a grief-stricken Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a child.
- George prevented the failure of the Bailey B&L, which would have closed after his father died, leaving Uncle Billy to end up in the nuthouse.
- Mary never found love.
- A Friend in Need: The entire town, for George Bailey.
- Friend to All Living Things: Uncle Billy has a bizarre assortment of animals living with him.
- From Bad to Worse: Potter holding the money mistakenly handed to him by Uncle Billy.
- George Lucas Altered Version: Even though Jimmy Stewart hated colorization, this movie received that treatment twice in The Eighties, and again in 2007.
- Get Out: SLAM. "That's it. Out you two pixies go, though the door or out the window!"
- Getting Crap Past the Radar:
- After loaning out his own money and having only two dollars left.
George: Let's put them in the vault and see what happens.
- Violet is as promiscuous as a female character is allowed to be in 1940's cinema, culminating in her clearly implied fate as a hooker in Potterville, making this Foreshadowing gag in the childhood flashback scene all the harsher:
Violet: I like him.
- Potter very strongly implies that some folk think that George is having an affair with Violet, due to his loaning her money.
- Bert's reaction to seeing Violet walk down the street: "Think I'll go home and see what the wife's doing."
- Potter's status as a Karma Houdini, given that The Hays Code made them strictly verboten. For 1947, this was quite impressive.
- Gondor Calls for Aid: The entire town turns out to help raise the money for George.
- Good Is Not Dumb: George is idealistic but not foolish. His rant at Potter in the board meeting after his father's death illustrates this. He'll handle things differently from his father (who was "no businessman"), but he won't turn down people in trouble and he'll make certain the homes in his subdivision are attractive, well-made and solid, even if they're just "a couple of decent rooms and a bath."
- The Great Depression: George and Mary's wedding day was the day of a bank run on the Building and Loan.
- This is very fortuitous, as the $2000 that George withdrew for their honeymoon is what kept the BBL from going under.
- Guardian Angel: Clarence. George is a bit less than impressed; probably he expected someone with wings.
- Guilt Complex: Although, at first, he rightfully blames Uncle Billy for the loss of the money, George then blames himself, without explaining how he could have been expected to prevent it.
- Hannibal Lecture: When Potter is trying to recruit George for his operation, he shows that although he doesn't understand George, he has been watching him.
- Happily Married: George and Mary. George's parents are also implied to have been this, and in a single throwaway line midway through the movie, it's implied that Uncle Billy is in perpetual mourning for his own late wife.
- Have a Gay Old Time:
- "He's making violent love to me, mother!" Though this wouldn't have scandalized her much less in the '20s with the meaning intended than it would now with the current meaning.
- Pottersville Nick kicking George and Clarence out of his bar, calling them "you two pixies" (which back then was almost certainly meant as slang for hobo or drunk; also, the term 'pixilated' was slang for 'kind of crazy'). Or just Nick making fun of Clarence's claims to being an angel.
- Hello, Nurse!: Violet Bick.
- Heroic BSOD: George suffers this when he's on the verge of being arrested for embezzlement.
- Heroic Sacrifice:
- Not in the normal sense, but George and Mary give their honeymoon money to the people who need money to make it through the week that the local bank is closed.
- George's whole life, really, staying home and working for the people of Bedford Falls.
- Clarence dives into the river just before George jumped off the bridge, thus resulting in George saving him from saving George.
- Hobos: As George wasn't there to stop him from mixing up a prescription, Pottersville's Mr. Gower is a homeless ex-con.
- Honest Corporate Executive: George's friend makes it big in emerging businesses, and at the end he wires enough money to George to bail him out several times over.
- Honor Before Reason: A lot of things George does, especially refusing the job Mr. Potter offers him.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Violet
- Hot Librarian: While Pottersville Mary isn't really meant to be this, she's still Donna Reed in glasses. They had to apply a mask of concealer just to make her seem average.
- How We Got Here
- I Coulda Been a Contender: George had big dreams of seeing the world, all of them dashed.
- I Need a Freaking Drink:
- In Pottersville, George convinces himself that a stiff one will clear him right up.
- Ernie says this after he witnesses Clarence teleport.
- I Own This Town: Pottersville, natch.
- Iconic Item: Zuzu's petals.
- Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Pottersville's Bert finally has enough of George and fires a wayward shot at him. Probably Justified, since God is unlikely to let George get seriously hurt.
- Improbably Cool Car: Inverted by George Bailey's circa-1920 Dodge tourer. Not treated as an Alleged Car but far older than a prominent citizen and owner of a financial institution would've owned by 1941note .
- Incessant Music Madness: When George returns home after discovering that Billy misplaced the deposit money, he begins to mentally unravel while Janie can be heard practicing Hark the Herald Angels Sing on the piano. Eventually, he snaps and shouts, "Haven't you learned that silly tune yet? You've been playing it over and over! Now stop it! Stop it!!"
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: George Bailey.
- He loses his pureness in a few brief scenes, when he's freaking out about the missing money. But he always returns to his true self. He apologizes to his children after he yells at them. And he selflessly takes the fall for Uncle Billy, despite his earlier outburst.
- Ironic Echo: Potter's brow is twisted with rage as he recalls George calling him a "warped, frustrated old man."
Potter: What are you but a warped, frustrated young man?
- It's a Wonderful Plot: Trope Maker and Trope Namer. Go click on the trope page to see a long list of how many works have either played this trope straight or lampooned it.
- Jacob Marley Apparel: Clarence is still wearing the undershirt he wore when he kicked it. "I didn't have time to get changed."
- Jerkass: Honestly, if you didn't want to just smash Potter in the face before this movie, after viewing it, you will.
- Jerkass Has a Point:
- George employs an incompetent relative in a position of trust and gives home loans to people with bad credit. Sound familiar?
- George concedes Potter's point that "(his) father was no businessman," and that he doesn't understand why he established the company in the first place—in the middle of a "The Reason You Suck" Speech no less.
- Karma Houdini: Potter, in a time where Karma Houdinis were banned in the film industry. He was supposed to die of a heart attack, onscreen no less, but the scene was cut because Clarence's narration over the scene made it all seem too macabre.
- Decades after the film, the cast of Saturday Night Live took it upon themselves to rectify this matter in an epic sketch that saw Mr. Potter finally get his comeuppance (and inadvertently revealed him as a fraud).
- One could also make the argument that dying alone and unloved, as it's implied he will, technically disqualifies him from Karma Houdini status.
- Kneel Before Zod: Potter relishes George groveling before him at last.
- Also, the chair across from his desk is noticeably shorter than Potter's wheelchair, so that whenever someone comes into his office, he can literally look down upon them.
- Lampshade Hanging: Uncle Billy notes that "Nobody changes, here!" after Harry comes home from college.
- Large Ham: Actually a World of Ham, especially George, thanks to Jimmy Stewart whenever he's happy or depressed.
- Law of Conservation of Detail: Much of the first hour sets up what will be changed by George not existing.
- Leitmotif: Some of Clarence's scenes have an instrumental of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" playing in the background.
- The Load: Uncle Billy.
- Maiden Aunt: When George gets the chance to find out how the world would have turned out if he'd never been born, he finds that his wife Mary had become a bitter, unhappy Maiden Aunt.
- Manipulative Bastard: Mr. Potter is a textbook example of this trope, constantly scheming and plotting, to ruin George Bailey's life, and by extension, the lives of the inhabitants of Bedford Falls. Not for nothing is he ranked #6 on AFI's List of "Villains"
- Manly Tears: Jimmy Stewart, everybody. The tears were real. Jimmy Stewart got so into the moment that he genuinely started crying while reciting the lines of the prayer. Frank Capra asked him to do it over so he could zoom the camera in and Stewart couldn't duplicate it. So the scene isn't a camera zoom, it's hours of painstaking work to take a small part of the original footage and enlarge it bit-by-bit.
- Mathematician's Answer: When George asks Mary whether she is having a boy or a girl, she just nods and says "Mmm-hmmm!"
- Meaningful Name:
- "Pottersville". In the Bible, the potter's field refers to a place where foreigners (or strangers) are buried. In George's alternate reality, the town is a graveyard where he finds his brother's tombstone.
- There's a more overt reference than that. In the first act, the neighborhood Potter built (that the Martini family moves out of) is actually called "Potter's Field".
- There is also the Biblical reference as 'The Potter's Field' was the place where suicides were also buried.
- Of lesser note, Mr. Martini (mentioned above) is the owner of a bar.
- Merchant Prince: Mr. Potter uses his money to basically run the entire town except Bailey Building & Loan.
- Mood Whiplash: George's romping with Mary outside of their future home is interrupted by his Uncle Billy, with the news that George's father had a stroke.
- Actually, there's a lot of it all through the story.
- Morally Bankrupt Banker: Averted and played straight.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Gower's reaction after he finds out for himself that George is telling the truth about the poisoned capsules.
- Mysterious Middle Initial: Henry F. Potter.
- Naked People Trapped Outside: Mary. In 1946! (Or 1928, according to the movie's chronology.)
- Never Recycle a Building: George and Mary move into an old abandoned mansion which, until then, had been used for the local teens to throw rocks at.
- Nice Hat: Clarence's fedora hat.
- No Communities Were Harmed: Bedford Falls is apparently modeled after Seneca Falls, New York, which has a museum dedicated to the film and holds an "It's a Wonderful Life festival" each December.
- Number One Dime: Clarence's copy of Tom Sawyer.
- Older Than They Look: "Two hundred and ninety-three, ahh......next May."
- Our Angels Are Different: This is where the whole 'every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings' concept was born.
- The Power of Friendship
- Prayer Is a Last Resort: George even prays, "Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man..." Slightly subverted, though, since his Guardian Angel has been looking out for him all along after all.
- Pretty in Mink: A few furs in the backgrounds of some scenes, and it's mentioned Violet has a few.
- Prophetic Name:
- Methinks Mr. Martini's path in life was set from birth.
- There's also Freddie Othello, Mary's would-be jealous suitor at the high school dance.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: See the Aluminum Christmas Trees entry. The scene was called "Movie fakery at its worst" despite there being a real one, since the real one was in Beverly Hills, Calif. Swimming pools under the floorboards were rare then. A small town in New York State which is being kept respectable by creative refinancing is not likely to have one back in the late 1920s. Who paid for that?
- We don't know who paid for it, but the idea was likely George's.
Principal Partridge. George, welcome back! Putting a pool under this floor was a great idea. Saved us another building.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
- Well, what are you but a warped frustrated young man?
- Which is a call-back to one George gives Potter near the beginning of the film, declaring that while his father wasn't a success, he helped other people realize their dreams of home ownership, making him richer than Potter will ever be.
- George gives Potter another one mid-way through, accusing him of thinking the world revolves around him and dismissing him as nothing more than a "spider."
- Refuge in Audacity: George at the dance after he flirts with Mary and then cuts right in-between her and her date to dance with her. Her date protests and George tells him to stop being annoying, and the guy actually apologizes to George before he realizes what he'd just done.
- The Remake: The 1977 Made-for-TV Movie It Happened One Christmas, featuring a Gender Flipped version of the story with Mary (played by Marlo Thomas) as the central character.
- Ret Gone and Un-Person: Combined in the definitive scene, where George gets to see what life would be like in Bedford Falls – check that, Potterville – if he never existed. Indeed, none of the townspeople George holds dear – Bert, Ernie, Mary, Uncle Billy, Giuseppe, Harry and his mother – know who he is, and think that this strange fellow is some kind of kook who is out to cause trouble. Worse, Mr. Potter has a vice grip on Bedford Falls, which becomes Pottersville (because George's nullifying influence that always foils Potter isn't there). In the end, George sees that he is needed in Bedford Falls and wants to become a person again. God obliges. Nothing happens until he addresses him.
- The Roaring Twenties
- Rule of Three: George pulls the head off the wooden railing three times. See Running Gag below.
- Running Gag: George climbing the stairs of his house and yanking the head off of the wooden railing.
- Screaming Woman: Mary as an old maid in Pottersville. She even faints in the arms of some burly men!
- The Scrooge: Potter, obviously.
- Scully Syndrome: George is slow to believe Clarence is really an angel who has altered reality, and keeps waving off the clues that something is wrong, like his restored hearing. "Musta been that jump in that cold water..."
- George really starts edging out of this trope and into Idiot Ball territory toward the end of the "Pottersville" sequence. He knows that he is in some kind of alternate reality where he never existed, and asks Clarence where Mary is. But when he sees her, he immediately starts acting as if she is his Mary, and doesn't seem to understand why she is running away from him.
- Though given that he's also drunk, recently knocked senseless by a stranger, and not a particularly religious man, it's not too ridiculous that he thinks this is all some sort of nightmare or hallucination that he can shake off.
- Servile Snarker: Annie, who works as a maid for George's parents.
- Shameful Strip: Happens to Mary when George steps on her robe, leaving her naked in public but fortunately at night (and by accident on his part). See the Naked People Trapped Outside above.
- Shaming the Mob: When a bank run threatens to put the Building and Loan under.
- She Is All Grown Up: George has to strong-armed into dancing with his friend's "kid sister" Mary at the graduation party, and reluctantly agrees only as a favor to his friend. Then he sees what Mary looks like now, and isn't reluctant any more.
- Shipper on Deck: A middle-aged man who is tired of waiting for George and Mary to kiss.
- George's mother also qualifies when she pushes George to track down Mary.
- Shout-Out: Toward the end when George is running through town, we see a movie theater with the Bing Crosby movie The Bells of St. Mary's prominently advertised on its marquee. (Henry Travers, who plays Clarence in IAWL, had costarred in the earlier film.)
- Shut Up, Kirk!: Potter, after a lengthy "The Reason You Suck" Speech from George capped off with how "in (his) book," his father is richer than Potter will ever be, says "I'm not interested in your book. I'm talking about the Building and Loan!"
- Single Malt Vision:
- A snarky old man to George, who insists he drove into the man's tree. "You must mean two other trees."
- Also used when Uncle Billy gets soused. He asks George where his hat is (he's wearing it); George takes it off his head and offers it to him.
Uncle Billy: Which one?
George: The middle one.
- Smug Snake: Potter.
- Snow Means Love: It stops snowing after George wishes he'd never been born, and only starts up again after he decides he wants to live again. Also, one of the earliest depiction of a Butterfly Effect.
- Stars Are Souls: At the beginning, some angels are talking and the visuals shown are a galaxy and a nebula that flash in synch with their voices. Then Clarence is summoned and a smaller star shoots into view. Clarence is also explained to have died previously, although we aren't told whether the other two angels were ever people.
- The first two beings are thought to be God the Father and Saint Joseph. The closed captioning on the DVD, however, calls the seniormost angel "Franklin," and if this is the case Joseph is likely not that Joseph, either. Franklin was apparently intended at one point to be the spirit of Benjamin Franklin.
- Stealing from the Till: What George is accused of after Potter takes the money.
- Suicide Dare: "You're worth more dead than alive!" So sayeth Potter, in one of the most reprehensible, heartless, remorselessly cruel comments ever to make it to the big screen … and it drives George to the brink.
- Super Multi-Purpose Room: The high school gym, which opens up into a swimming pool.
- Talking Down the Suicidal: The whole reason for the plot. The angels have decided to respond to the many people praying for George Bailey by having Clarence do whatever he can to persuade George to not commit suicide. He does this by granting George's wish to have never been born and showing him the resulting state of affairs, demonstrating what a positive force George has been in the lives of his friends and family.
- Take It to the Bridge: George almost takes a high dive leap from one.
- Telegraph Gag STOP: Sam Wainwright sends a telegram from London when he hears George is in trouble. Ernie reads it aloud, including the stops.
Mr. Gower cabled you need cash, stop. My office instructed to advance you up to twenty-five thousand dollars, stop. Hee Haw and Merry Christmas! Sam Wainwright.
- They Died Because of You: Almost done by a pharmacist, but averted thanks to George. The man was so overwhelmed by his young son's death that he was going about his day in a drunken daze, and filled a prescription wrong. The error would have ended up killing some other kid, but George catches the mistake.
- Those Two Guys: Burt and Ernie.
- Threshold Guardians: Inverted with everyone who offers George the chance to leave Bedford Falls. It seems that George does a Refusal of the Call every time. The truth is that his true calling is staying and looking out for his hometown.
- Timeshifted Actor
- Title Drop: Clarence pulls this on George.
Clarence: You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it all away?
- Tragic Dropout: George's dissatisfaction with his life is due to his having been this.
- Un-Person: Clarence turns George into one, allowing him to see what the world would be like if he was just erased from existence and nothing filled his void.
- Vice City: Pottersville seems to be full of less than reputable establishments.
- The Voice: Angels Franklin and Joseph, who only "appear" as stars in the night sky during the opening scene.
- The Voiceless: Potter's aide.
- We Can Rule Together: Potter attempts to bribe George into giving up the Building & Loan.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Ruth Dakin Bailey. Shouldn't she have accompanied Harry to Bedford Falls at the end?
- World War II: Mentioned in the first act. George was exempt from military service because of his bad ear, but organized his community's efforts and served in civil roles. Harry Bailey served in the Navy, and received the (Congressional) Medal of Honor for saving a transport full of soldiers.
- You Are Better Than You Think You Are: The essential point Clarence is telling George; rather than a worthless failure, George is a deeply respected community leader who has been a blessing to everyone he knows.
- You Are Not Alone: The final scenes of the movie is this in spades when every one of George's companions comes to his aid for once.
- Younger Than They Look: In the alternate universe, Clarence says that Mary is an "old maid", yet when we see her, she looks a bit younger when she is closing the library. Maybe it must be due to that makeup.
- Youngest Child Wins: Appears to be in full force, with George's younger brother Harry becoming a war hero. Averted in the end, as Harry leads the toast for George Bailey, the most popular man in Bedford Falls.
"To my big brother George, the richest man in town."
- We see in the backstory that Harry only won because George stepped aside for him. George looked out for his brother and made several sacrifices for him, including staying behind and looking after the Building & Loan so Harry could go to college (even paying for it with his own tuition). In the alternate Bedford Falls, Harry never lived to see his tenth birthday without George to save his life.
Ding Ding! 'Atta boy, Clarence!