"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 (played by Jimmy Stewart). One of the angels, called Clarence Oddbody, is told he must answer the prayers, once he's been told who George is. Cue Flashback.Zooming in on the small town of Bedford Falls, the first thing we see 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 next see George at Harry's graduation party, held in the school's gymnasium/swimming pool. George tells Mary 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 just had a stroke. His dreams will have to be deferred.George stays in Bedford Falls to look after the family business, the Bailey Building & Loan, 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).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 Bailey Building & 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 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 of the PBS stations across the country ran it during pledge week. Routinely during Christmas, you could find as many as five or six stations in an area all carrying the movie at some time of the day or evening. This practice ended when the studio that produced the film realized while they couldn't do anything about the film itself, they could - and did - pick up the rights to the music used in it and to the original story, upon which those copyrights were renewed, and 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.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.
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.
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.
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.
George repeatedly breaking the knob off the staircase rail. See Running Gag below.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 actualy 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?
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!
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:
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 operaton, 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.
"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.
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 It might've actually been more believable in 1946, after three years of no new-car production.
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!!"
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?
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.
One could also make the argument that dying alone and unloved, as it's implied he will, technically disqualifies him from Karma Houdini status.
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!"
"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.
Methinks Mr. Martini's path in life was set from birth.
There's also Freddie Othello, Donna'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?
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 cuts in-between Mary and her date to dance with her. Her date protests and George tells him to stop being annoying, and he actually apologizes to George before he realizes what he did.
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.
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'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!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.