Follow TV Tropes


Film / It's a Wonderful Life

Go To
"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."

The Trope Namer for It's a Wonderful Plot, and an annual staple of Christmastime viewing, this much-beloved 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 on Christmas Eve 1946, angels are listening to myriad prayers from various residents of the small town of Bedford Falls, New York, requesting help 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 Bedford Falls in 1919, the first thing we see 12-year-old George do is rescue his younger brother Harry from drowning in a frozen pond, at the cost of permanent deafness in one ear. A little later, a girl named 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 dance, held in the school's gymnasium/swimming pool. There, George tells Mary (Donna Reed) about his plans for the future: leave town, see the world, go to college, build big things. But 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 absentminded 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, are forced to use their honeymoon nest egg to keep the Building and Loan afloat after a run on the bank, 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, drinking dens, violence, and pawn shops. 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.

A box-office bust on its initial releasenote , It's a Wonderful Life enjoyed a resurgence in the U.S. beginning in The '70s, when it was discovered that the copyright had never been renewed, which meant the film was now 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 claim the rights to the original story and music... and they promptly did so. 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 network TV rights since 1994, and usually airs it twice annually, once early in December and again on Christmas Eve; since 2014, cable channels owned by NBCUniversal, such as USA Network and Bravo, have given the movie a few additional showings each year. Similarly, Paramount (whose parent company, Viacom, acquired Republic in the late '90s) currently holds exclusive home video rights for the film. At some point in the late 2010's, Prime Video gained the streaming rights to 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 games 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:

    open/close all folders 

  • #1 Dime: Clarence's copy of Tom Sawyer.
  • Actor Allusion:
    • George hopes to go to college to "learn how to build things." In real life, James Stewart majored in architecture at Princeton University.
    • Lionel Barrymore played Scrooge in the popular annual radio version of A Christmas Carol, so casting him as Potter emphasized the similarities in the two characters for 1946 audiences.
    • The newspaper Bert the cop is holding when George asks Ernie the cab driver for a ride, has the headline "Smith Wins Nomination". note 
  • Adaptation Deviation: Several, naturally, but the most notable is the change to Mary's fate in the timeline where George was never born. In the film, she never married and works at the library, which Clarence finds too terrible to speak of. In the short story, she was married to an abusive alcoholic — an appropriately horrific fate that would've seemed just as sad and frightening to viewers decades later with no Values Dissonance involved.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Subverted. The first half of It's a Wonderful Life is almost an entirely original story, while the second half (the final Christmas scenes) are adapted from The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In "The Greatest Gift", 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.
  • Adapted Out: Mary's abusive husband from the alternate universe in the original story.
  • Adult Fear: Losing all your money? Possibly betrayed by those you love? Never fulfilled your dreams? This movie has Adult Fear in spades.
    • From the very beginning the movie is filled with the kinds of things that keep grown-ups up at night - George almost loses his little brother to a tragic accident, and is himself disabled because of it. The whole scene with Gower in the pharmacy is Adult Fear on both sides - Gower loses his beloved son to a terrifying epidemic, and if George hadn't noticed what he did to the drugs while intoxicated, a family would have unknowingly given their sick child poison because they would have had no reason not to place their trust in a medical authority. And that's just in the first twenty minutes of the movie.
    • George's return home after losing the money: watching a parent and husband act out of sorts and hostile for no apparent reason right in front of their kids.
    • In-universe, George is largely just confused by Clarence's granting of his wish, and nothing he sees really snaps him out of his depression into getting especially worked up. It's only when he sees his house has become a dilapidated wreck and he can't find his family that he really turns on Clarence.
  • Aesop Enforcer: Clarence works as George's Enforcer.
  • The Alcoholic:
    • Uncle Billy is one and then some. In the Georgeless universe, he's put in a sanitarium for it.
    • And Gower, who was imprisoned for poisoning the child whose life George would have saved. Nick even calls him a "rumhead".
  • All There in the Manual: The man whose tree George crashes his car into is never named in the film. The short story gives his name as Hank Biddle.
  • 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.
  • Angelic Transformation: Clarence Oddbody introduces himself as an "Angel, Second Class" and his reward for helping George is that he is promoted to First Class and earns wings. His name and somewhat bumbling nature suggest that he was once a living man, which is solidified when he mentions having died previously.
  • Angels in Overcoats: Ur-Example. Guardian angel Clarence wears an overcoat, but it's winter in Bedford Falls, and everyone's wearing an overcoat, so it's not clear that this counts as an example.
  • The Anti-Nihilist: For a movie considered the most inspiring movie ever, it’s ultimately this. It makes no secret that life can be despairing and cruel and dreams just won’t ever work out. But you can either give up on it or go out and appreciate it however you can.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: After they get thrown out of Nick's, Clarence tells George that he has no forms of ID, so no papers, no cards, no driver's license, no 4F card and no insurance policy, before pointing out that he doesn't have Zuzu's petals, either.
    • Zuzu's petals are what convinces George that something isn't right with Clarence; only he knew that he put them in his watch pocket. No one else knows, not even Zuzu, who thought he had "pasted" the flower back together.
  • Art Shift: The Pottersville scenes are done in the Film Noir style.
  • 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.
  • Backhanded Compliment: Potter eulogizing Peter Bailey as "a man of high ideals."
  • Bad-Guy Bar: Nick's. "This oughta be Martini's place!".
    Nick: (to Clarence) Hey, look, mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere! Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?
  • The Bad Guy Wins: In George's absence, Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, and everyone who lives there suffers for it.
  • Bar Brawl: Zuzu's teacher's husband, Mr. Welch, finds George at Martini's bar and punches him in the jaw. Martini then kicks Welsh out of the bar.
  • Barrier Maiden: George's influence protects Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville.
  • Batman Gambit: When George is on the verge of suicide by jumping off a bridge into a river, Clarence decides that the best way to stop him is to jump in himself and then yell for help, so that George will drop everything and try to save him. It works. Bonus points for the parallel to the childhood incident (which Clarence saw) where George saved his own brother from drowning.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: "I wish I'd never been born!"
  • Bedlam House: Uncle Billy in the alternate timeline ends up committed to an instituion, and Mrs. Bailey is quick to recommend George (who comes across as a stranger to her in the alternate timeline) as a resident:
    Mrs. Bailey: I don't let strangers into my house, not unless they're sent by someone I know.
    George: But I know everyone you know! Like... your brother-in-law, Uncle Billy.
    Mrs. Bailey [apprehensively]: You know him?
    George: Of course I do.
    Mrs. Bailey: When'd you see him last?
    George: Today, over at his house.
    Mrs. Bailey: That's a lie! He's been locked up in an insane asylum ever since he lost his business! And if you ask me, that's where you belong!
  • 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).
  • Big Brother Instinct: Harry breaks through the ice as a boy and George saves him from drowning, at the cost of the hearing in his left ear as a result of infection from a bad cold he caught from saving Harry.
  • Big Damn Heroes: George saving Harry from drowning at the start of the film.
    • George indirectly stopping a sick boy from being accidentally poisoned by Gower.
    • Actually, pretty much everything George does to stop Potter taking over Bedford Falls counts as this in the long run. If he hadn't been there to stop it (as we see during the Pottersville sequence), the result would have been horrifying.
    • Harry pulls one off in the war by saving a transport full of soldiers from kamikaze pilots.
  • Big Good: As Clarence shows, George's exploits in his past made him the Big Good of the entire town.
  • Bill... Bill... Junk... Bill...: Potter, as head of the draft board: "1A...1A......1A."
  • Bittersweet Ending: Surprisingly for such a famously feel-good movie. Potter gets off scot-free for everything he did and George never gets the chance to live his dream of traveling abroad and becoming an architect. However, George is now content with his life knowing that everything he's done has saved Bedford Falls from the influence of Potter's greed and he's surrounded by loving family, friends and neighbors who will go to great lengths to help him.
  • Bizarro Universe: Pottersville. All the familiar faces are there (well, except Harry), but they behave much differently.
  • Black-and-White Morality: George is a kind, selfless man, while Mr. Potter is a heartless business owner who wants to run the town.
  • Bonding Through Shared Earbuds: A technology-relevant variant happens when George and Mary have to share a candlestick phone when talking to Sam. For the time period the small distance between them could be considered too intimate for people who aren't even formally dating.
  • 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.
  • Break the Cutie: George goes through a lot of turmoil, here. His 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.
  • Brick Joke:
    • George repeatedly breaking the knob off the staircase rail.
    • "Hee-haw!"
    • 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...
  • Briefer Than They Think: George arrives at the river bridge with exactly 31 minutes remaining in a film that runs 2 hours and 10 minutes. Even if you've seen it a bunch of times, it's easy to forget that Clarence and Pottersville are the third act, not the main plot.
  • Butterfly Effect: When George saves Clarence from the river, it is snowing quite heavily. After his wish, there is none falling (a harsh wind is blowing instead). 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.
  • Butt-Monkey: The only thing George wanted to do is travel the world. Everything from saving his brother from drowning to keeping the Building & Loan afloat kept him from leaving Bedford Falls. Even a World War keeps him home, fighting the "Battle of Bedford Falls" (scrap drives, rubber drives, paper drives, etc.).
  • Call-Back:
    • George ends his "The Reason You Suck" Speech to Mr. Potter by saying that, while his father may died living paycheck to paycheck, he still helped a lot of people and had many friends, which makes him richer than Mr. Potter will ever be. At the end, when Harry arrives after the townspeople have all pitched in to raise the $8,000 George needs, he proposes a toast to George, "the richest man in town".
    • Mary's comment to George when she reveals she's pregnant ("George Bailey lassos stork!"), refers back to him saying he would lasso the moon for her years before, and her embroidery of him doing just that.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Clarence gives a philosophical "Reason You Suck" Speech to Mr. Potter in a scene that only exists in the script:
    Clarence: You're an old man, Henry Potter; bitter, selfish and lonely. You're going to die soon - then what? Can you think of anyone in the world - man, woman, child or animal that would care? Think hard, Potter, are you the richest man around here, or the poorest?
  • Capitalism Is Bad: The portrayal of Mr. Potter as an evil banker, both in the year of its release, and later years has lent this film much credibility as an anti-capitalist film, and even a left-wing one. It gets lost that George Bailey and his family business are also bankers and capitalists, and the film glorifies George as the main pillar that helps other people achieve their dreams. As noted by Capra's friends, the film shows that capitalism can work and be humane, and even quasi-messianic through the figure of George Bailey. Ultimately, it ends up more being a pro-capitalist movie that doesn't shy away from showing the downsides of capitalism and calls out the people who abuse the system like Potter.
  • Catchphrase: "Hee-haw!" for Sam Wainwright.
  • Catch Your Death Of Cold: George lost the hearing in his left ear from a cold he caught as a result of saving his brother from falling in the ice. Zuzu catches a cold from walking home with her coat unbuttoned. George complains that they ought to all have pneumonia from how drafty their house is.
  • Celebrity Paradox: The Bells of St. Mary's is prominently featured on a theater marquee. That film starred Henry Travers, who plays Clarence in this movie.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Gun: George losing the hearing in his left ear as a child when saving Harry from drowning means he is unable to enlist (as he likely wanted to) when WW2 breaks out.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Harry, literally. George saves his life in one of the film's opening scenes and during WW2, he becomes a Navy pilot and shoots down two kamikaze planes, saving a transport full of soldiers, which earns him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
    • Sam Wainwright. He first appears as one of George's childhood friends, and as an adult, after a comment made by George about making plastics out of soybeans, he goes on to make a fortune selling plastic hoods for planes in the war. After Uncle Billy misplaces the BBL's $8,000, George tries to contact Sam for help but fails. Luckily, Gower is able to contact Sam, explain the situation, and Sam is able to get him more than enough to save the day.
  • 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.
    • In fact, there are many such shots throughout the picture, and they often manage to include someone else in frame, even if it's just a nonspeaking extra, so that you always have a sense of community and George's connection to others.
  • Cloudcuckoolander:
    • 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.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The day of George and Mary's wedding, where George has gathered together about two thousand dollars in cash to finance the various events of their honeymoon, is the same day as a run on the bank and Bailey Building and Loan happens, with George and Mary driving through town right at the start of the run. With a large supply of cash in hand, George is able to singlehandedly keep the BBL afloat by loaning it out in place of the money the BBL doesn't have.
  • Corpsing: As Harry and George reunite after being apart for so long, there's a noticeable ear-to-ear grin on the baggage porter. Possibly justified in that it's a small town so he may know them and recognize the significance of the moment. Another example is when, after Harry's party, Uncle Billy drunkenly stumbles home. George starts to go back inside, when an enormous crash is heard, followed by Uncle Billy shouting "I'm all right! I'm allllllllll right!", and George laughing at it. As it happens, a crewman dropped a tray of props at that moment; Thomas Mitchell (who played Uncle Billy) quickly improvised as if he had just stumbled into some garbage cans. Jimmy Stewart's reactions in the scene are completely genuine.
  • 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.) The primary reason that Pottersville is where Bedford Falls ought to be: George Bailey wished that he'd never been born, and the town wasn't the same without his wholesome influence.
  • 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 epicenter of the Earth. Or maybe he just means the Earth time relative to where George is. (In a later scene, a time is given again, this time specifically referring to it as "Bedford Falls time".)
  • Crucified Hero Shot: If you're looking for it, it's so obvious: when the angels 'pause' George's life (in the first scene we see of his adulthood), 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 vs. 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.
    Mary: He's making violent love to me, Mother.note 
    • When she sees George walking back and forth in front of her house scraping her wooden fence with a stick, she yells out her window, "What are you doing? Picketing?"
    • When George comes to bed late thinking she's asleep and they share a tender moment:
      George: Why did you ever marry a guy like me?
      Mary: To keep from being an Old Maid.
    • George himself is a fair snarker in his own right.
      Clarence: We don't use money in heaven.
      George: Ah, well, it comes in pretty handy down here, bub.
      • Casually musing about selling tickets while Mary (not yet his wife) is hiding behind a bush in a rather embarrassing state.
    • They actually engage frequently in a playful banter reminiscent of ol' Nick and Nora.
      • This takes on a much darker shade during George's desperation sequence.
    • Annie the cook has her share:
      George: Annie, why don't you draw up a chair? Then you'd be more comfortable and you could hear everything that's going on.
      Annie: I would if I thought I'd hear anything worth listening to.
      • And later, when the town has come together to help George out:
      Annie: I've been saving this money for a divorce, if ever I get a husband.
  • Death by Adaptation: George's father is still alive when he's an adult in the original story and appears along with his mother in the alternate universe.
  • Deathly Dies Irae: A quiet instrumental "dies irae" plays as George goes to the snowy bridge, preparing to throw himself off of it.
  • Decoy Damsel: Inverted with Clarence, who screams like a girl after intentionally jumping in the river.
  • Delayed Reaction: George doesn't immediately register when Mary tells him that she is pregnant.
  • 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?
  • Deus Exit Machina: Subverted. When George goes to Potter's office to ask for a loan to cover the missing $8,000, Potter asks why he doesn't ask Sam for the money. George tells Potter that he tried but Sam is in London and he couldn't get in contact with him. Later on, when the town gets together to raise the money, Mr. Gower manages to get a cable message to Sam explaining everything and he instructs his office to loan George three times the total.
  • Digital Destruction: Paramount had all the grain removed in 2006, giving their DVDs and Blu-ray Discs of the movie an overly-sterile appearance. Paramount fortunately commissioned a more filmic restoration in 2018, for the movie's 4K Digital debut, and the following year's UHD and Blu-ray releases.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: When Uncle Billy misplaced the $8,000 intended for the bank examiner and absent-mindedly handed it to Mr. Potter, and George Bailey is in a tight situation, he threatens Uncle Billy with a bit of physical violence:
    George: Where's that money, you silly, stupid old fool? Where's that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison! That's what it means! One of us is going to jail; well, it's not gonna be me!
    • Later at home, as George is trying to recover from the shock of the misplaced money, he turns sour on his family, and yells over the phone at Mrs. Welch who teaches the Bailey children. Mr. Welch goes to Martini's and punches George for driving his wife to tears, especially since she works hard to educate the children.
  • 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.
  • Driven to Suicide: George contemplating jumping off the bridge. Thankfully, Clarence was there to save him.
  • Drives Like Crazy: George after leaving Martini's, before contemplating suicide, resulting in him driving into a tree. Justified because he was drunk.
  • 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. It's something of an unusual case in that George's actions after losing the eight thousand dollars don't really help his situation at all. Instead, it's the things he's already done, the faith in his character and the gratitude of the townspeople for how much he's done for them all that drives the film's resolution. George had already earned his happy ending before his troubles even began. And Clarence finally gets his wings after everything he went through to help George.
  • Egopolis:
    • 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 traveling. 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 realization that he will never be able to drop everything and do just what he wants.
    • Taken a step further and averted in the musical adaptation, A Wonderful Life. George loses his quiet and his cool when confronting Harry, who openly spurns the agreement they made when he left for college, managing to insult George and their father in the process.
  • Empathic Environment: The snow ceases to fall when George is in the alternate universe and resumes when he returns.
  • Eureka Moment: After George bitterly wishes he had never been born, Clarence at first tells him he shouldn't say things like that, but then he realises that by showing George just how awful things would have been had he not been born, he can earn his wings by showing George just how much his life mattered to those around him.
  • Everyone Has Standards: In Pottersville, Nick is quite a jerk, but he is disgusted by Gower poisoning the child years earlier, which of course happened because George wasn't there to prevent it.
  • 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:
    • He 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.
    • He even assumes that the "rabble" that runs on the B&L is a violent lynch mob rather then the frightened but decent 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 not making 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.
    • When George comes begging Potter for money because "I misplaced $8,000." Potter (who hid that very money after watching George's Uncle Billy lose it) replies in shock, "You misplaced $8,000?" (emphasis his) — evidently, although Potter expected the loss of the money to cause a lot of problems for his rival, George taking the blame and risking going to jail himself wasn't one of them.
    • 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.
    • 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 is a cruel, petty, avaricious old man.
  • Evil Is Petty: George calls Potter a "warped, frustrated old man" in the board meeting scene that took place in 1928. Potter not only remembers this insult word-for-word, but throws it back in George's face in the last act of the film, which takes place 17 years later.
  • Extremely Short Time Span: Although the first two-thirds of the film covers the last thirty years or so of George's life, the flashbacks are shown to be Clarence's mission briefing. Even when Clarence steps in in the final act and we see time skips, they are each only about five or six minutes. In all, the movie proper takes place over, at most, three or four hours on the evening of Christmas Eve.

  • Failed a Spot Check:
    • George and Mary are the only couple who don't realize they're dancing over a swimming pool until they fall into it.
    • Uncle Billy losing $8000 in an envelope wrapped in a newspaper that he inadvertently gives to Potter.
    • When George is about to commit suicide, Clarence jumps in first, so George naturally jumps in to save him. He fails to realize Clarence was not on the single-level bridge near him, despite "falling in" right in front of George.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Mr. Potter puts on airs of respectability, but he's a thoroughly loathsome human being.
  • The Fettered: George Bailey, to the point where it's actually painful to watch. Mr. Potter does his best to get him to throw off the fetters and Clarence tries to convince him not to be bitter over them.
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis: When young George tells Mr. Gower that he accidentally put poison in his capsules instead of medicine, Gower is skeptical until he puts some of the powder on his finger and tastes it, realizing to his horror that George is right.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Lampshaded by Joseph's voiceover before Harry (as a boy) almost drowns after breaking through the ice: "Something happens here you'll have to remember later on." This comes back in two ways, first Clarence sets himself up as a drowning victim when George is about to jump off the bridge because he knew he would save him, and when George wishes he'd never been born, Harry did drown because George wasn't there to save him.
    • During the scene in Gower's drugstore, Little Mary says that Little Violet likes every boy, as well as George. Little Violet sees no problem with it. This statement follows her into adulthood as it is implied she Really Gets Around, and is made even worse later, taking on quite a harsh turn when she is implied to have become a prostitute in Pottersville.
    • When George is about to throw a rock at the old Granville house, Mary says she would one day like to live in it. George says he wouldn't live in it as a ghost. George and Mary later marry and move into the house exactly as Mary wished when she throws her rock, and in the Georgeless universe, of course the house is still empty and devoid of life because George wasn't there to move in, and neither was Mary, because she ended up as an old maid.
    • Sam says over the phone to George and Mary his father wants to build a factory for making plastics out of soybeans (thanks to an offscreen comment from George). George suggests refurbishing an old factory in town and employing locals who were thrown out of work when it closed. During the war montage, it's revealed Sam did just that and made a fortune — especially when the war began and he got huge government contracts to make plastic hoods for airplanes. This may also explain where he got the money to send to George at the end.
    • One towards the end, where George and Clarence walk towards where George crashed his car, but because in this version of the world, George doesn't exist, there is no car by the tree. The man who owns the tree George originally crashed into says it's one of the oldest trees in Pottersville. Because that's what happened to Bedford Falls without George to stop Potter taking over the town.
  • For Want of a Nail: The entire meaning of the alternate world.
    • George saving his brother as a child:
      Clarence: Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke 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!
    • George prevented a grief-stricken Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a child, which would have caused the child to die and Mr. Gower to serve a two decade prison sentence before becoming an alcoholic, homeless man.
    • 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 due to the stress he endured.
    • Mary never found love.
    • Grief stricken by her husband and Harry's deaths, as well as Billy's institutionalization, George's mother became a bitter woman running a boarding house.
    • In-movie, George spends time trying to find the bar owner Martini, one of the last people he talked to before entering Pottersville. A deleted scene showed that Martini and his whole family had died in a massive fire that consumed Potter's slums because George and the Building & Loan didn't build the Bailey Park housing complex they moved into.
    • George goes deaf in his left ear as a result of a bad cold he caught after saving Harry from drowning. This results in him being unable to fight in World War II and enables him to stay in Bedford Falls, and possibly means that it is another stumbling block for Potter, because George is the only one seemingly able to keep him in check and prevent him from taking over the town.
    • Thanks to a comment from George offscreen, Sam was able to set up a factory for making plastics out of soybeans and make a fortune from it. Without George there to make that comment (though we never see Sam during the scenes of Pottersville), he would likely have never set up the factory.
  • 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.
  • Gender-Equal Ensemble: The Bailey family after George and Mary have children, as there are three males (George, Pete and Tommy) and three females (Mary, Janie and Zuzu).
  • George Lucas Altered Version: Even though Jimmy Stewart hated colorization, this movie received that treatment twice in The '80s, and again in 2007.
  • Get Out!: SLAM. "That's it. Out you two pixies go, though the door or out the window!"
    • Also, Martini throws Mr. Welch out of his bar for punching George, and bans Welch from returning.
  • 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.
    • The boys' reactions to seeing Violet walk down the street:
    Ernie: you want to...?
    George: (a little too quickly) Yes.
    Bert: "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.
    • Harry's running around hitting on Annie (and Annie's threats to knock Harry out with her broom) is obviously meant as a joke, and one suspects both Harry and Annie banter like this all the time. Still, Harry is an 18-year-old white man flirting with a black woman twenty years his senior. Not something you'd see in a lot of movies in 1947.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Hate Sink: Mr. Henry F. Potter is the richest and meanest man in the town of Bedford Falls. Throughout the film, Mr. Potter strives to bring the town under his heel through buying everything out, with only George Bailey keeping him at bay. On Christmas Eve 1945, Potter finds a check misplaced by George’s Uncle Billy. Potter pockets the money and when George comes to him for a loan when Billy’s mistake is discovered, Potter gloats about the fact that George is ruined and sends out a warrant for his arrest out of spite, nearly causing George to commit suicide. When George wishes he was never born, he is transported to a reality where Potter has taken over the town of Bedford Falls and renamed it Pottersville, a Wretched Hive with rampant crime, alcoholism and unhappiness. Mr. Potter stands out as one of film history’s most infamous misers.
  • 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.
  • Head-Turning Beauty: Violet Bick nearly causes a man to get run over just because he's so distracted by her looks that he nearly walks into a speeding car.
  • Heaven Above: Whenever Clarence the angel talks to distant superiors, the audience will know he's not just talking to himself because he's looking straight up at the sky, which is where angels are supposed to live.
  • "Hell, Yes!" Moment: George has a big one, accompanied by a joyous laugh, when Bert points out his mouth is bleeding and his car is crashed into a tree, because he knows now that he's back in the real world.
  • 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.
  • Hobos: As George wasn't there to stop him from fatally mixing up a prescription, Pottersville's Mr. Gower is now a homeless, alcoholic ex-con.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: George's friend Sam Wainwright 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: Implied to be the case with Violet. She Really Gets Around, but is still respectful to George and virtually everyone else.
  • 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: the first half of the movie details George's life and how he got to be in the mental state he was in when Clarence first met him.
  • 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: Potter, with all the businesses he owns, already comes close to it in regular old Bedford Falls. In Pottersville, Exactly What It Says on the Tin is in effect.
  • Ignored Epiphany: When Potter ends up with the misplaced $8,000, he changes his mind and decides to hang onto it when he overhears Uncle Billy looking for it when he had taunted him moments before.
  • 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.
    • Not to mention he's shooting at an already moving target halfway down the street at night with what appears to be a revolver, which aren't very good at long range. Even realistically, it would have been more suspect if he HAD managed to hit him.
  • 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 .
  • In Medias Res: The film starts on the night everyone is praying for George, then jumps back to in time via a flashback started by Joseph.
  • 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.
  • Infant Immortality: Almost averted twice at the start, played straight thanks to George. He saves Harry's life as well as that of a sick boy who would have been poisoned with cyanide-laced capsules. Averted with both cases in the alternate world, for obvious reasons.
  • 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?
  • Irony: When George comes to Mr. Potter, the latter says the former is "worth more dead than alive." This coming from the man who not only stole those $8000, but is behind every grievance that's kept George in Bedford Falls, not to mention he's the reason every citizen in town struggles just to keep out of his slums. If anything, the town would be financially better off if it weren't for Potter.
  • 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.
    • George's father tells Potter that he doesn't need the money he invested in the Building and Loan since he has no family to take care of and no children to leave it to. Whether or not Potter has a family or children shouldn't really have any bearing on whether he has the right to expect a return on his investment.

  • Karma Houdini: Potter, who ends up with the misplaced $8,000 that Uncle Billy was supposed to deliver to the state bank examiner, 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.
  • 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.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After spending his whole life sacrificing his dreams for the benefit of Bedford Falls, the whole town comes to George's rescue at the end to save the Building and Loan, and prevent George from going to prison.
    • On the darker side of things, when George berates Mrs. Welch over the phone, Mr. Welch, who had an argument over the phone with George, knocks him to the floor with a right-cross punch at Martini's:
    Mr. Welch [after knocking George down]: Next time you talk to my wife like that, you'll get worse! She cried for an hour! It's not enough she teaches stupid children to read and write, you had to bawl her out!
  • Last-Name Basis: Potter is always referred to by his surname or as "Mr Potter". Joseph reveals when we first see him that his full name is Henry F. Potter, and his full name is seen on the door of his office a few times.
  • 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.
  • Licked by the Dog: An overjoyed George at the end, rushing through Bedford Falls, bangs on Potter's window and yells through it, "Merry Christmas, Mr Potter!" Potter replies with a sarcastic "Happy New Year to you, in jail! Go on home, they're waiting for you!" and a final "Huh!" after George runs off homeward.
  • The Load: Uncle Billy is this thanks to his poor memory.
  • 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.
  • Mammy: Annie, with a healthy helping of humor and genuine affection toward and from her employers.
  • 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.
    • George again at the end of the Pottersville sequence as he begs to be given his life back.
    • After Uncle Billy has lost the $8,000, during the search for it George snaps furiously at him and leaves. Left alone, Uncle Billy breaks down sobbing.
  • 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.
    • George Bail-ey, who sacrifices his honeymoon funds to bail out the bank customers when they make a run on the bank.
    • 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 is the owner of a bar.
  • Merchant Prince: Mr. Potter uses his money to basically run the entire town except Bailey Building & Loan.
  • Minor Major Character: Marty Hatch makes very few appearances in the last two thirds of the film, despite the fact that he is both Mary's older brother and one of George's best friends.
  • Mood Dissonance: At least from the outsiders' perspective; when George returns to Bedford Falls and reaches his home, he finds a bank examiner and some reporters in his house who are there to notify him of his arrest. Given all that George has gone through, he's more thrilled to simply be back and after getting a bit of perspective he doesn't even mind that he's possibly going to jail, so he acts quite ecstatic about the entire situation, much to the bewilderment of the others.
  • 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. There's a lot of this all through the story.
    • Then at the end, after nearly two hours of George's frustration, despair and utter disorientation at the Pottersville vision, the moment when he is put back in Bedford Falls, it is a cascade of pure undiluted joy at finding his family exists again and then the full scope of how wrong Mr. Potter is about all the people he's sacrificed his dreams for as they come storming in to help him.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: Averted with the Baileys, and played straight with Potter. While it's unclear what the initial source of the latter's fortune is, midway through the film he buys out the bank during the Depression and it's in this capacity we see him for the remainder of the story.
  • 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.
    • George has this after Uncle Billy loses the B&L money to Potter and he (George) snaps at his family.
  • Mysterious Middle Initial: Henry F. Potter.
  • Naked People Trapped Outside: Happens to Mary when George steps on her robe, leaving her naked in public but fortunately at night (and by accident on his part).
  • 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.
    • Ernie wears a snazzy top hat while helping George and Mary with their honeymoon.
    • Potter's Dastardly Dapper Derby is just about the only thing "nice" about him.
  • 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.
  • Not So Above It All: At Harry Bailey's Graduation Dance, the gymnasium floor is opened by a pair of students, pulling a prank on the dancers. Under the floor is a swimming pool and George and Mary fall into it as they're dancing. The entire student body then jumps into the pool too, while the Principal is standing there yelling and scolding them all to get out of there. After a little while however, the principal just shrugs, and jumps in the pool himself to join in the fun!
  • Offscreen Crash: After Uncle Billy makes his drunken exit from Harry's homecoming party. But he's all right, he's aaaaaallllllll right!
    • This was actually the result of an unscripted soundstage accident; see Throw It In! on the Trivia page.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Who wouldn't want to see the subplot where Mary rallies the people of Bedford Falls to help George pay his due $8000?
  • Oh, Crap!: A lot of them, mainly from George.
    • Harry at the beginning when he breaks through the ice while sledding.
    • George when he realizes Gower, drunk and grief-stricken by the death of his son, has poisoned the capsules by accident.
    • Gower himself when he realises just how close he came to accidentally killing a child.
    • George and Mary have a moment of this at the dance just before they fall over the edge of the floor into the pool.
    • George when he realizes that unless he takes over running the Building & Loan, Potter will take charge of it.
    • Uncle Billy when he realizes he has lost the Building and Loan money he was going to deposit. George too when he finds out, knowing it will result in police charges against him.
    • Mary when she realizes why George is so angry after he comes home and snaps at the kids.
    • George in the Pottersville sequence when he sees the Wretched Hive the town has become.
    • George in Pottersville when he sees his house is a derelict, empty old shell like it was before he moved in.
    • George when Mary doesn't recognize him and he starts yelling for Clarence as the crowd mobs him.
  • Older Than They Look: "Two hundred and ninety-three, May."
  • Old Maid: Mary becomes one in the Georgeless universe because of how she never married.
  • The One Who Made It Out: George Bailey from his youth and teenage years wanted to get out of Bedford Falls, and was set up to do this, but circumstances led him to stay there. Frank Capra noted that the telephone scene between George and Mary, is intense because James Stewart visually communicates the conflict he has. He loves Mary, but accepting that means he will give up his dream of leaving the city.
  • Our Angels Are Different: Angels here are depicted as giant celestial bodies, generally stars or galaxies, that can see into the past and future with concentration. They can take on human form to help people and even change the course of history to make a point or two. The movie also originated the whole 'every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings' concept. Also, angels here are treated with the common (but totally non-Biblical) belief that when a good human dies, he becomes an angel—after he earns those wings.

  • Pals with Jesus: Clarence drops some hints implying he actually knows Mark Twain in the afterlife, such as telling George that he should see the book he's writing now.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain:
    • When Mr. Potter tries to buy George out, he shows some prejudice towards Italians when he sneers at the sort of people Bailey has spent his life helping:
    "A young man—the smartest one in the crowd, mind you—a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places because he's trapped. Yes, sir, trapped into frittering his life away, playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic eaters."
  • The Power of Friendship: It's through the close bonds George has cultivated with the townsfolk that he manages to overcome his struggles and realize that he has served a purpose. As Clarence tells him, "No man is a failure who has friends."
  • 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.
  • Proportional Article Importance: Invoked. When George shows off the newspaper headline about Harry winning the Medal of Honor, Ernie plays a joke by pretending to only notice the weather forecast ("Gonna snow again.").
  • Rage Breaking Point: George is understandably furious and suffering from Suppressed Rage when he comes home after Uncle Billy loses the B&L money. What sets him off is Janie continuously playing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" on the piano.
  • 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.
  • 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... and Orson Welles as Mr. Potter!
  • Remaster: In 2018, Paramount commissioned a 4K restoration of the deteriorating camera negative, and replaced torn or missing frames with frames from fine-grain masters.
  • Ret-Gone: 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.
  • Retargeted Lust: Bert the cop, after watching the slinky Violet walk down the street, says: "Think I'll go home and see what the wife's doing."
  • Rhetorical Request Blunder: When George Bailey comes to Mr. Potter to apply for a loan, Mr. Potter tells him before issuing a warrant for his arrest:
    Potter: What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No securities, no stocks, no bonds, nothin' but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. You're worth more dead than alive! Why don't you go to the riffraff you love so much and ask them to let you have $8,000? You know why? Because they'd run you out of town on a rail.
    • Moments later, the townspeople dig into their savings and raise the money George needs to make up the discrepancy in the accounts, proving Potter's prediction that they would run him out of town wrong.
  • Rule of Pool: As a prank against George in the dancing scene in the high school gym, the floor is opened to reveal the swimming pool under it, so that George will fall in. George and Mary eventually do fall in, but once they land in the water, they just keep on dancing. This causes almost everyone else (including the pranksters and eventually the school principal) to follow them into the pool.
  • Rule of Symbolism: This film is loaded with symbolism.
    • There's a scene where a young George playfully wishes he had a million dollars, and clicks a cigarette lighter while saying it. When it lights, he exclaims, "Hot dog!" He does this again as a young adult. This represents the romantic, escapist side of George's personality, and shows he still has a child-like sense of wonder.
    • George's famous "lasso the moon" speech also symbolizes unrealistic but pleasant daydreams. Later, when Mary shows George the old, broken-down house where they'd eventually live, she made a sign saying, "George Lassos the Moon" Mary's basically saying anywhere can be the moon if he's with people who love him.
    • "Buffalo Gals" was recorded by various artists over the years. The song plays multiple times during the film, each representing George and Mary's relationship. First, it's heard in bits during the opening credits. Then it's played when they dance at the high school, and Mary sings it later that night as she and George are having romance with each other during the "lasso the moon" speech. She puts it on her record player the night George comes over years later in hopes of bringing back some memories, and smashes the record when George storms out and their relationship was at stake. Then hear the song again from Mary just before she tells George she's pregnant, and an upbeat version during the final credits.
    • Even something as simple as the stair post George pulls off thrice shares some meaning. The first time George pulled the post off, Mary was repairing the house, and George was handling his daily struggle to keep the Building and Loan going, often returning late after work and forgetting about the broken post. The second time occurred when George was irritated about the $8000 going missing, and he was going upstairs to Zuzu, once again forgetting about the broken post. Here it reminds George of what he doesn't have. And the third and final time occurs after he returns from the alternate reality, and he's beginning to appreciate his value in life. This time, he didn't care about the broken post and he kissed it before putting it back into place. This symbolizes how life is full of flaws and you need to embrace them.
    • During the alternate reality scene, Clarence and George sat in Nick's bar when the cash register bell rings. Clarence remarks "Somebody's just made it" as he explainins the connection between bells and angels getting their wings. Nick kicks them out thinking he's crazy and jokenly repeatedly rings the cash register bell saying, "Hey! Get me! I'm giving out wings!". But Clarence's claim turns out to be true, when George returns home towards the ending and a bell rings on the Christmas tree, with his daughter Zuzu saying an angel gets its wings whenever a bell rings. Obviously, the ringing was for Clarence. It's possible the connection between the bells and angel wings he that most bells are beautiful and joyous, pealing out happy times like holidays and weddings like angels.
    • George's daughter Zuzu's flower petals (from a flower she won at school), that George pretended to put them back on the flower after falling off when he's secretly putting them in his pocket, represent life and reality. The petals disappeared after George ceased to exist, and returned when he returns to the real world. For George, they're a token warmly symbolizing all the love and life that wouldn't have existed if he'd never been born. (Because he never would have met Mary and the kids wouldn't have been born.)
    • The film in general as an allegory favor within it. Pretty much all the major characters represent symbols in one way or another. Potter, of course, represents greed, power, and isolation, all ultimately joyless; George is the little guy beaten down by the powerful but who prevails because he's a righteous dude. Mary represents the joys of family and Bedford Falls is every small town where a sense of neighborliness and connectedness shows everyone the real meaning of life. Wouldn't be a Frank Capra film without it.
      • Another way to see it is as an allegory about filmmaking. Film Spectrum said this about the concept:
        Here, Capra takes us through the entire process, as God (the filmmaker) enlists the help of Joseph (the cinematographer) to slowly bring George's flashback (the movie) into focus for Clarence (the audience). He speaks to us as if we're eager film students wanting to learn how to see movies in a new way, through the cinematic eye, through the film theory perspective: "Now look, I'll help you out. … If you ever get your wings, you'll see all by yourself."
    • Even the visual effects are there for a reason.
      • Take the drug store George worked in for example, the audience sees them through shelves of medicine bottles. Gower is turned away from the bottles, sadly staring at a photo of his son, who just died from influenza. George is worriedly looking toward the bottle of medicine Gower has just prepared, noticing his mistake with the prescription. There's a ton of information just in that shot. What about the wallpaper? Mary papers the house in a pretty traditional 1940s pattern of people and flowers when it's first being repaied. But, on that same night, a troubled George goes up the stairs to see Zuzu, and there's the wallpaper is now a pattern of nautical anchors. George always loved the sound of anchors being lifted because they signaled the beginning of an exciting journey. Maybe they mean he never got away, or that his home is weighing down on him? Coincidence, I think not!
      • The lighting Capra uses during the alternate-universe scenes is dark and shadowy, to give the scene a terrifying, otherworldly feel. George's abandoned house is all shadows; the police chasing him are silhouetted and backlit; Pottersville is alternately dark and lit up with glaring neon signs.
  • Rule of Three: George pulls the head off the wooden railing three times.
  • Running Gag: George climbing the stairs of his house and yanking the head off of the newel post on the wooden railing.
  • Say My Name:
    • When Pottersville's Bert has Clarence pinned down and preparing to 'cuff him, Clarence yells out Joseph's name to help him before vanishing into thin air.
    • George screams Clarence's name numerous times at the end of the Pottersville sequence, before Bert shows up, as he's fleeing from Bert, and when he gets to the bridge to beg for his old life back.
    • When Bert arrives at the bridge and George continues yelling, he frantically asks "What in the Sam Hill you yelling for, George?!" Realizing that Bert just called him by his name is George's first clue he's back in the real world.
    • George yells Mary's name a few times after he returns to the real world as he joyously runs home.
  • 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..."
  • Servile Snarker: Annie, who works as a maid for George's parents.
  • Shaming the Mob: When a bank run threatens to put the Building and Loan under.
  • She Is All Grown Up: George has to be 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.
    Man: Bah! Youth is wasted on the wrong people! [slams window]
    George: Hey, mister! Come on back out here, and I'll show you some kissing that'll put hair back on your head!
    • George's mother also qualifies when she pushes George to track down Mary.
    • Mrs Hatch appears to be one for Mary and Sam Wainwright, saying to her that Sam doesn't want to speak to George (he does), and listening in on the extension phone until Mary points this out to George and Sam.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Every time Potter makes a haughty remark about George or appears as a Smug Snake, George always has a fitting reply, pointing out that he is nothing but a "scurvy little spider" who sees others beneath him but has no idea what makes any of the Bedford Falls townspeople tick or why George continues to help the town despite the sacrifices he must make.
  • 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.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Mary has eyes only for George. Without him, she would have never found love.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: After George and Mary's phone call with Sam Wainwright, George grabs Mary and starts shouting at her. Pretty soon he runs out of words and it's at that point that he finally admits his love for Mary by hugging and kissing her.
  • Smug Snake: Potter is insufferably full of himself and looks down his nose on anyone whose wealth and power are lesser than his.
  • 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 depictions of a Butterfly Effect.
  • Spin-Offspring: Jimmy Hawkins, who played George's and Mary's youngest son, Tommy, would eventually write a story about him, It's a Wonderful Life For Kids!
  • 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.
  • Start X to Stop X: Clarence arrives on Earth just seconds before George throws himself off the bridge and to a frozen, watery grave. How does Clarence stop him? Jump in the water himself and beg for someone to save him. George jumps in anyway, drags him to safety, and sticks around to make sure he's all right.
  • Stealing from the Till: What George is accused of after Potter takes the money.
  • Stealth Pun: Uncle Billy's pet crow is played by Jimmy the raven (a.k.a. [[ Jimmy the Crow]], an animal performer who also appeared in You Can't Take It with You and The Wizard of Oz.
  • String-on-Finger Reminder: Forgetful Uncle Billy has string tied around multiple fingers. One string is supposed to help him remember to talk to the bank examiner, but the audience doesn't find out what the other strings are for.
  • Stripping Snag: George steps on Mary's robe by accident while walking home from a school-dance-turned-swim, and she needs to hide in the bushes, naked, until he gives her robe back to her.
  • Stupid Sacrifice: Clarence shows George Bailey that without his presence to make a positive difference, the inhabitants of Bedford Falls which turns into Pottersville are worse off as a result of what would happen if George had never been born. In a more Earthly example, George's suicide would have been pointless even if the divine never intervened because the money problems he was going to kill himself over were solved by Mary and Uncle Billy asking everyone for help offscreen while he was in his stupor and the other world, with no apparent help from the angels. If the angels hadn't stopped him, all his suicide really would have accomplished was making his friends' and family's efforts to help him meaningless.
  • 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.
  • Take It to the Bridge: George almost takes a high dive leap from one.
  • Taking the Kids: This happened in the alternate world where Ernie's wife left him and took custody of his child.
  • 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.
  • Tempting Fate: Uncle Billy, when he goes over to Potter's S&L to deposit the money:
    Uncle Billy: After all, Potter, some people like George HAD to stay at home. Not every heel was in Germany and Japan.
  • They Died Because of You: Almost done by a pharmacist, but averted thanks to George. The man was so overwhelmed by his 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 a kid, but George catches the mistake.
    • In Pottersville, Mr. Gower was convicted of poisoning a child due to a mix-up with the poison and the prescription, and George wasn't there to stop him, because he wished he'd never been born.
  • Those Two Guys: Bert and Ernie. Even in Pottersville they appear to be this.
  • 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: Characters are shown aging throughout the film, with their actors changing appropriately.
  • 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?
  • Token Minority: Annie, Ma Bailey's Deadpan Snarker best friend and maid, is the only non-white character with a significant part, though other black citizens of Bedford Falls do appear in crowd scenes.
  • Tragic Dropout: George's dissatisfaction with his life is due to his having been this.
  • Two Face: In the scene where Potter is trying to hire George away from the B&L, his portrait is in frame as well, showing his duplicity.
  • 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, including sleazy dance clubs, pawn shops, and boarded-up house ruins.
  • Villainous Gentrification: What Pottersville represents in George Bailey's vision. Bedford Falls was never entirely perfect to George, and indeed he longed all his life to escape there, but seeing the little good that did exist, and the entire community get destroyed in the alternate timeline scares him out of his resentment.
  • The Voice: Angels Franklin and Joseph, who only "appear" as stars in the night sky during the opening scene.
  • The Voiceless: Potter's aide.

  • Vinyl Shatters: After a fallout with George, Mary, out of frustration, shatters a "Buffalo Gals" record. (This is an example of the primordial version of the trope: the film is set, and was made, before the shatter-resistant vinyl records were common for home use, so the record Mary breaks would be made from the more fragile shellac.)
  • Visual Pun: When the Martinis are moving to their new house, George offers to bring "the kids" over in his car. As the many children load up, the last one in is a young goat.
  • Wealthy Ever After: George at the end when the people of Bedford Falls pledge donations to save the Building and Loan (as well as $25,000 from his old friend Sam Wainwright), and thus George, from financial ruin. Put best by Harry: "To my big brother George, the richest man in town!"
  • 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?
  • What the Hell, Hero?: George gets a comic one from Mary when he refuses to give her back her robe, but a graver one later when he takes out his frustrations on the children. Then Mr. Welch delivers one to him in the shape of a fist.
  • What You Are in the Dark: George Bailey has had such a moment all his life ever since he was a boy. He and Mr. Gower are the only two people who know he almost accidentally gave poisoned pills to a child. A crueler person would've blackmailed Mr. Gower, but no, not George. Instead, he promises not to tell a soul. Even years well into his adulthood, not one person knows but him.
    • And Mary. There's a shot of her sitting on her stool at the lunch counter witnessing the whole thing.
    • Not surprisingly, Mr. Potter gets a villainous one: when $8000 that Uncle Bill Bailey was supposed to deposit accidentally falls into Mr. Potter's hands, instead of doing the right thing for once in his life, he hides the money away, watches George twist in the wind and eventually uses the crises to try to drive poor George to suicide.
  • Who's on First?: In Pottersville, when George enters the bar looking for Martini, Nick thinks George is ordering a martini.
  • Wretched Hive: Without George's wholesome influence, Bedford Falls would have turned into this as Pottersville in the alternate reality.
  • Yet Another Christmas Carol: The film is basically a (modern) inversion of Dickens' story. Instead of a Jerkass who learns to be a good man after seeing that people would be either uncaring or outright happier with him gone, it's about a good man who despairs that he hasn't mattered to anyone, and sees just how much of a difference he has made.
  • 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!"


Video Example(s):


It's a Wonderful Life - Vinyl Shatters

After a fallout with George, Mary, out of frustration, shatters a "Buffalo Gals" record.

How well does it match the trope?

4.2 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / VinylShatters

Media sources:

Main / VinylShatters