Film: It's a Wonderful Life aka: Itsa Wonderful Life
"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 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 Odbody, 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.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.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.See Also: Frank Capra, for more details about the director of this 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.
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, but really, it's the internal conflict that is the most important, so it's the one that gets resolved.
Potter did not get off free. He once again failed to get rid of George's business (which is struggling, but still chugging along). George has renewed vigor in life and many years ahead of him. Potter is a miserable old man who seems to be having health problems and is certain to go to Hell after death. And given how popular George is in Bedford Falls, he'll probably be running the town after Potter croaks.
He stole eight thousand dollars from the Building & Loan, and therefore indirectly from the people of Bedford Falls, not to mention attempting to frame George for embezzlement
There was a deleted scene of Clarence appearing before Potter to shame him for driving George nearly to suicide. Clarence points out the fate awaiting Potter after death and vanishes before his eyes, leaving Potter terrified and suffering a heart attack. See Karma Houdini below.
This may also explain another deleted scene, where a chastened Potter and his mook stop by the Bailey household, intending to confess the truth about the misplaced $8,000, but when Potter hears the rejoicing he turns away in shame without saying anything.
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.
Crapsack World: Pottersville, 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 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 of George finds Martini's grave near Harry's, and that Martini and his family died in a fire because they couldn't move out of Potter's slums.
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.
Guardian Angel: Clarence. George is a bit less than impressed; probably he expected someone with wings.
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.
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 1941*
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!!"
Pottersville has more excitement and a superior economic infrastructure, but under the glamor many people live on the streets (and many of the ladies are hookers instead of homemakers). Bedford Falls only has a moderate manufacturing economy and no obvious places to find excitement, though the honesty and unity between the B&L and small business owners allows them to overcome most financial problems. Once the factory closes down Bedford Falls will suffer depression and unemployment. In the end, a place like Bedford Falls has a better chance of bouncing back from a bad economy because of the mutual cooperation between the banks and small businesses.
If you pay attention, that's actually exactly what happens: George suggests to a plastics magnate that he convert a closed tool-and-die factory and employ the locals. It's a minor throwaway line in the middle of a scene with much more important things going on, emotionally speaking, but it's there.
George makes it clear that he wants to leave Bedford Falls, go to college, and travel the world. All of his dreams are destroyed and he must commit suicide to regain hope and perspective. Potter was partially correct that George’s life has not resulted in personal happiness.
Pottersville being a gigantic Egopolis for Mister Potter is economically depressed to any obvious viewer. The fact that alcohol and hookers are freely available doesn't mean the town is Las Vegas, it just means it's people are trying to find some relief. Plenty of towns have died after going through something similar. Likewise, George is possessed of a beautiful family and numerous friends. George is mostly just wondering if he could have done more if he'd had different circumstances, a situation many people suffer from.
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?
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?
Karma Houdini: Potter, in a time where Karma Houdinis were banned in the film industry. He was supposed to die of a heart attack, but the scene was cut because Clarence's narration over the scene made him seem too macabre.
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.
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.
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, 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 it's 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?
Which is a call-back to one George gives Potter near the beginning of the film...and he gives him another one mid-way through.
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..."
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Threshold Guardians: Inverted with everyone who offers George the chance to left Bedford Falls. It seems that George does a Refusal of the Call every time. The truth is that his true call is staying and looking for his hometown.
Tragic Dropout: George's dissatisfaction with his life is due to his having been this.
Trigger Happy: All George has done is drive his car into a tree and punch a guy at a bar but Bert the cop feels free to whip out his sidearm and take some shots as George runs away down a Pottersville Main Street filled with people.
This is the Pottersville version of Bert. He's most likely mean and nasty as the rest of the mirror-universe residents. Considering the kind of folks that Pottersville attracts, Bert Prime assumes the worst of a mysterious and mentally-unstable visitor.
Unperson: 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.
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.
Although, it might not be. A lot of people round up near their birthday. More than 8yrs, 8 mo. would be rounded roughly to 9. It could have been "'roughly' nine".
You Are Not Alone: The final scenes of the movie is this in spades with 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.
We're also talking about a culture where women typically married quite young. Many married straight out of high school or even quit high school to get married. You were an "old maid" much sooner than we would think of someone being an old maid now.
Not quite out of high school - she was 18 at the time of Peter Bailey's death, so she was 22 when she married George in the original timeline. Which makes her 35 when she's an "old maid".
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.