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  • Adaptation Displacement: The film is adapted from a short story called "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern. It is infinitely better known than the story these days.
  • Alternative Character Interpretation:
    • Is George really a saintlike hero who selflessly sacrifices his hopes and dreams for the good of others, or is he just an Extreme Doormat who lacks the spine to stick up for himself and only gives because it's expected of him? Some have also claimed that George brings his problems on himself by running an overleveraged, illiquid bank and letting his alcoholic uncle handle the business.
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    • Can the "unborn sequence" with Clarence be seen as a vision reminding George how important life is, or as an example of his grandiose egotism where the only thing that convinces him life is worth living if he is somehow convinced that he is a Christ-like martyr who is literally saving the souls of everyone in the town? William S. Pechter pointed out that logically the film leads to George Bailey's suicide, and the coda as fantastic, over-the-top, and emotionally compelling as it is, merely serves to indicate the lengths Capra had to go to convince himself, the viewer, and George himself, that his otherwise thwarted, frustrated, and sad life was truly worth living.
    • The Agony Booth interpreted Mary as being the true villain of the film, because it's implied her broken-window-wish to marry George is what caused him to suffer tragedy after tragedy that kept him from leaving Bedford Falls. (It's doubtful she knew it would happen that way, though.)
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    • A lot of fans have speculated that Violet is actually pregnant in the third act of the film, and is planning to move to New York to avoid the scandal that would come from such a thing in a small town.
    • Does Clarence honestly care about George? Or is he trying to reignite the desire to live in him because that's his job? Having his own salvation secured, does he care about George's fate? Or does he play the yes-man to God and just wants his wings i.e. greater status in Heaven?
    • Even Mr. Potter can be subject to this: he seems to have a sincere understanding of George's financial and personal frustrations in the scene where he tries to buy George out, the only time in the movie where he comes off as remotely sympathetic (at least until George realizes he's being played). Presumably he can relate from his own experiences as a small-town businessman who only succeeded at the expense of his soul and principles. While Capra doesn't really dwell on it (Potter crosses the Moral Event Horizon anyway when he doesn't return the lost money to Uncle Billy), this may be the residue of earlier script drafts where George's fate in Clarence's vision was essentially to become Mr. Potter, i.e. a successful but lonely and unloved businessman.
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  • Big-Lipped Alligator Moment: Mary losing her bathrobe and having to hide naked inside a bush. George even lampshades it. "This is a very interesting situation!"
  • "Common Knowledge":
    • A minor example. Viewers very often mistake the man whose tree George runs his car into for William Frawley of I Love Lucy. This character was actually played by an uncredited J. Farrell MacDonald. It is an easy mistake to make, since the two do look and sound similar and his only two appearances in the film are in dimly-lit nighttime scenes.
    • A more major example is the general pop-cultural perception that the film is a corny, diabetes-inducing schlockfest that only young children and old people stuck in the '40s would be able to stomach. Those who believe this are frequently surprised to see that the film contains Black Comedy, sex jokes, discussions of economics and banking that are difficult to understand without prior knowledge of the subjects, and copious Adult Fears and Nightmare Fuel even before the Bad Future sequence kicks in.
  • Draco in Leather Pants: An odd example. A lot of viewers think Pottersville looks like a fun place, citing that there are lots of places for potential work. This is ignoring the obvious rampant corruption that's going on in town — Violet in particular implied to be a prostitute — and that the citizens are clearly miserable, most likely due to an increase in poverty and thus people living in the poor houses of Potter's slums which all the entertainment establishments perpetuate by encouraging the careless squandering of money. That's not to mention the Fridge Horror in a town that's run and owned by Potter.
  • Family-Unfriendly Aesop
    • If you're a woman and don't marry your designated soulmate, you'll spend your life as a miserable spinster.
    • Your hopes, dreams, and how you want your life to turn out are ultimately irrelevant. And if God decides that your purpose is to suffer so others don't have to, you'd better learn to accept it since you have no real say in the matter.
  • Glurge: Out of context, the film can come across as this. It's "Common Knowledge" that this is an uplifting film full of Tastes Like Diabetes moments. Thus it's quite a shock to new viewers how cynical the first half is — and how much Nightmare Fuel is in the portion where George sees what life would be like without him. This is lampshaded in a Friends episode where Phoebe watches the movie and turns it off before the end, finding it too dark and gloomy. This fan trailer and this one bring out the nasty, horrific aspects. This one references The Twilight Zone.
  • Harsher in Hindsight:
    • The banks today are basically run by Potters, and the way they were run caused much of the late 2000s recession. Meanwhile, the small-town savings and loan operations of the sort run by George Bailey are pretty much dead after causing a financial crisis of their own in The '80s.
    • And on that note, today George Bailey's more open lending practices are likely to be viewed a lot less favorably, especially in light of the subprime mortgage crisis. See Values Dissonance below.
  • Hilarious in Hindsight:
    • Mary's sarcastic line to her mother that George is "making violent love to me, mother" is an example of Having a Gay Old Time. Mary's merely saying George is giving her an overemotional courtship (when it's her that's doing the courting). With the modern meaning of the term, the joke becomes even funnier and now comes across as Refuge in Audacity.
    • Also, Those Two Guys in this movie are named Ernie and Bert. The entire Sesame Street crew has always insisted this is a complete coincidence, and they got the names in an unrelated way.
  • Hollywood Homely: Pottersville Mary is supposed to be an unmarried, unattractive "old maid." All they did was put Donna Reed in a heavier coat, hat, and a pair of glasses, then apply concealer and darker eyebrow makeup. See Hot Librarian below.
  • Inferred Holocaust: 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. And, 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.
  • Iron Woobie: George. He essentially gave up his life for the people of Bedford Falls, though he cracks when he has to either put his dreams on hold or abandon them entirely. You can't help but feel sorry for him throughout the scene where he's angry after Uncle Billy loses the money, and then during the whole of the Pottersville sequence.
  • It Was His Sled: George Bailey gets sent to an Alternate Future where he was never born.
    • This is almost a case of All There Is to Know About "The Crying Game" since the plot twist is so well known; the actual surprise comes not from the twist itself but from the fact that it only comes about in the last quarter of the film, rather than being the basis of the entire plot.
  • Jerkass Woobie:
    • As a result of losing his son, Mr. Gower is a grumpy old man who is driven to drink and would have fatally poisoned a child if not for George's intervention; seeing his reaction to learning what he did and his fate in the alternate future is heartbreaking. Thankfully, he gets better in the main timeline, his brief appearance showing that he has come back from despair, shaped back up, and become a very good friend to George.
    • George himself veers into this from time to time. He can become abrasive, but as this usually comes after he has to abandon or put his dreams on hold, you still feel bad for him. He always comes back from it, however; see Iron Woobie above.
  • Memetic Mutation:
    • The video of Mary smashing a record out of frustration, replaced with trashy music, has been used as meme fodder.
  • Misaimed Fandom:
    • Mr. Potter has started to get a number of fans who see him as a representation of a good capitalist businessman. This requires ignoring his criminal action later in the film, his cruelty mixed with his business tactics, and his cold disregard for anyone else at all, favoring placing more value on material possessions and total control over everything he can have than on human life and decency.
    • Pottersville itself has a few people who think that it actually looks like a fun place to live, and that the various nightclubs and strip clubs would boost the town's economy. This is ignoring the fact that it's clearly a Crapsack World where everyone is a complete asshole, or the very least utterly miserable, and there are so many nightclubs and strip clubs because people are desperate and unhappy, drowning their sorrows in alcohol, and buying just a few minutes of the pretense of human connection in the clubs (or with the hookers), and this squandering of money on such tasteless establishments only perpetuates the rampant poverty that lands many of its citizens in Potter's slum neighborhoods, This article by Gary Kamiya in Salon examines this argument in more detail, claiming that the portrayal of Pottersville versus the straight-laced Bedford Falls suffers from a bad case of Do Not Do This Cool Thing by making the town look glamorous enough that people might actually want to live there, while Bedford Falls, by contrast, seems to have a dearth of entertainment options and a severe lack of privacy. Likewise, it doesn't help that Capra himself shoots Pottersville in a very glamorous Film Noir-style that is visually quite striking.
    • It's fairly easy to miss, but there are two brief scenes that undercut any idea that Pottersville is more economically healthy than Bedford Falls. When George first arrives in downtown Pottersville, we see a montage of all the various sleazy establishments the town has, then when George returns to Bedford Falls at the end, we see what these storefronts are hosting in the real world. In Pottersville, the general store has been replaced by a gigantic pawn shop, or, in other words, there's more of a market for selling than buying in Pottersville, and in addition, the movie theater is now a strip club, the Building and Loan is a taxi-dancing parlor (from which we see Violet being dragged kicking and screaming in handcuffs), and a casino is glimpsed briefly as well - all places known for encouraging frivolous wasting of money on useless things.
  • Moral Event Horizon: Mr. Potter is a hateful and greedy man throughout the whole movie, but what he does to George near the end — taking George's misplaced money and hiding it away so that George risks bankruptcy and imprisonment, and then calling out a warrant for his arrest when he comes to him begging for help, on Christmas Eve — is where he truly crosses the line and cements his place as one of the most memorable and evil villains in cinema.
    Mr. Potter: [chuckling] You're worth more dead than alive.
  • Narm:
    • Clarence's "She became an old maid" due to Values Dissonance can become this. Especially given the rest of Pottersville. Given it comes after the increasingly intense revelations about his uncle, his brother, etc., it can feel like Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking. What makes it come off even more that way is that after the buildup Clarence gives to this reveal, even George himself completely ignores it and just demands again where his wife is.
    • The portrayal of angels as animated stars. It ends up looking really silly.
  • Narm Charm: George's unadulterated joy and relief when he realizes he's alive again. The endless shrieks of "Merry Christmas!!!" to every person and every building he meets should be Ham and Cheese at best, and Narm at worst. But in this movie, it's a cue for the Manly Tears of a man who went through emotional hell that almost drove him to suicide and just experienced a disturbing divine vision to give his life a powerful new perspective.
  • Popularity Polynomial: The reputation of this film these days is that it's an overexposed "classic" that plays too often on Christmas, and that it's too sappy and sentimental to really be taken seriously, or alternatively embraced by its defenders for its serious and compelling portrayal of middle-class despair and for James Stewart's performance leading to George Bailey's breakdown. Strangely enough this was more or less the reaction to the film in the year of its release, and by many of Capra's contemporaries, friends and colleagues (Jean Arthur often noted that it irritated her when Capra called it his best film), and that it was only in the '60s and '70s when it played on cable that it became a classic.
  • Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped: George’s speech against Mr. Potter’s ruthless policies and in defence of Ernie and Potter’s other employees.
  • Strawman Has a Point:
    • 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.
    • Potter is also right to be concerned about George giving loans to people that were turned down by the bank because they didn't qualify and that just because people like Ernie have good character it doesn't necessarily mean they'll be able to make their loan payments.
  • They Wasted a Perfectly Good Character:
    • Ruth Dakin-Bailey, George's sister-in-law, never appears following her introductory scene, and her only role is essentially to supply yet another Diabolus ex Machina to keep George in Bedford Falls.
    • Marty, who is Mary's older brother, one of George's best friends, and the one that really introduces them to each other at the dance. After that, he only appears a few more times in the rest of the film and does nothing of any significance.
  • They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot: Some of Capra's critics note that the "unborn sequence" i.e. the finale where Clarence shows George a vision of Bedford Falls if he had never been born, would have been more compelling and cathartic if instead the vision showed him what life would have been had George become The One Who Made It Out, went out of the town and succeeded in the big city, and not had his ambitions frustrated.note  This would more or less bring George to the same aesop, i.e. his life as he lived it in Bedford as frustrating as it was, did matter to people around him, and he shouldn't be too bitter about what might have been, and it would do so without making him a quasi-Messianic figure who is the only thing preventing Bedford Falls from becoming Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • Unintentionally Unsympathetic:
    • A few viewers find it difficult to sympathize with George because they feel he brings his problems on himself by choosing to run an unsuccessful business even though he's given many opportunities to do something else. For example, Harry was perfectly willing to take over the Building & Loan after he came back from college, but George refused to let him and insisted he take the job his father-in-law offered. The more patriarchal mentality of being "the eldest" and man of the house, arguably makes George's dilemma more relatable to international audiences, since it's more common outside America these days than withn.
    • Mary. When George comes home, clearly distressed, rather than ask him what's wrong and try to calm him down, she ignores the signs and continues to let him make an ass of himself. However, she does make up for it later by working with the townsfolk to gather money for him.
  • Values Dissonance:
    • In Pottersville, Mary is a single woman who works at the library. It is evidently supposed to be a horrible fate that she couldn't become George's wife and instead is an old maid. Frank Capra admitted decades later that this didn't age well and wished he gave her a different fate. George's more personal horror that the love of his life never knew him and his children were never born, though, is still timeless.
    • Major Values Dissonance with Mr. Gower and young George. First, would George at that age be legally old enough to hold a paying job nowadays? Second, when Mr. Gower slaps George, drawing blood from his bad ear.... in modern times, that would be a lawsuit, and probably a jail sentence.
    • Laws preventing extreme child labor existed in 1911, but children and teens routinely worked after-school and weekend jobs up until the mid-1970s.note  Teens could also take apprenticeship-type jobs and learn a trade (this is coming back). Stricter laws may have been good in some ways, but also meant that children could no longer earn money either to save for themselves or to contribute to their family.
    • The idealistic portrayal of the Building & Loan comes across as very naïve after both the savings & loan industry's huge meltdown in the late '80s and, more recently, the subprime mortgage crisis of the late '00s. George's style of lending to people who he knew likely couldn't pay him back wound up setting off financial crises and recessions in real life.
    • Pottersville has a taxi dance, a burlesque house, a dime-a-dance, a pawn shop, and a bunch of places where you can get alcohol. By twenty-first century standards, it seems like a pretty tame place to live.
    • The prejudice that Mr. Potter has towards Italians comes across as odd to modern viewers as the group isn't one that is considered to be a discriminated minority this day and age.
    • Harry straight-up sexually harasses Annie the housekeeper during the dinner scene, and it's treated like a harmless adolescent prank. For that matter, the only black character in the movie being a stereotypical maid qualifies.
  • Values Resonance: The film's lambasting of the amoral way Potter runs the town bank, up to and including flat-out robbing his customers, remains ever relevant in light of the Great Recession, as is him getting away with it, and being untouchable despite all the stuff he does.
  • What Do You Mean, It's Not Political?: From the very beginning, this film has always been a political football for a number of critics, mostly because the particular style, story, and tone it takes lends itself to a number of Political Ideologies:
    • In the year of the film's release and its critical and commercial failure, it was common for many to interpret the film as being anti-capitalist, or saying Capitalism Is Bad, and indeed a number of Communist newspapers acknowledged it. Capra for his part, had a "left-wing" reputation owing to the socially critical films he made in the '30s, and this even led some voices to raise questions about whether the film was "communist", which Capra's own friends and defenders had to soften by pointing out that at heart the movie is about a good banker (George Bailey) versus a bad banker (Mr. Potter). Nonetheless the film's remorseless portrayal of a banker as a soulless and sadistic evil capitalist who is also a Karma Houdini in defiance of The Hays Code does provide the film a lot of "street cred" compared to other films made in the time, as is the general ethos of small businesses and small communities versus big capitalists and gentrified communities that the film still conveys.
    • In real-life, Frank Capra was at heart a "populist", i.e. someone who liked to take the side of the "little guy" against the system. That allowed him to take a bunch of contradictory attitudes. His strong individualism made him oppose, in his personal life, the New Deal policies of FDR and even admire, initially, Mussolini as a strong-man. But as an Italian-American in WASP America, he also understood the sympathies of the underdog, and as someone who wanted to entertain and please audiences, his movies in The '30s largely reflected the social criticism that was popular at the time.note  When he made It's A Wonderful Life! his intention was to counter The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler which was a somber, critical, view of how the war changed American society and the plight of the returning veterans. However, in the year of its release, Capra's film failed while Best Years of Our Lives was as success.
      Jonathan Rosenbaum: "It says something about the American public of 1946 that they preferred the realistic, astringent honesty and quiet resolution of Best Years to the fantasy feel-good solution that papered over the panic-stricken despair of It’s a Wonderful Life."
    • Since the film's re-evaluation from the '70s onwards, when it was Vindicated by Cable, many saw the film as a Proto-Reagan nostalgia piece, upholding the values of "small-town America" over the big city, with its overly religious and fable-like celebration of Christmas becoming seen as too dated and old-fashioned, seemingly enough. The biggest criticism and controversy settles on the "unborn sequence" since even critics of the '40s and '50s recognized it as a truer portrayal of America in The '40s than the nostalgia-laden depiction of Bedford Falls, and Capra was more or less advocating for the past over the present (in a manner analogous to many films in the time such as Meet Me in St. Louis and even The Magnificent Ambersons). A number of film critics argue that the film's real political criticism is not in terms of economics, but in the film's portrayal of the American nuclear family, which has been recognized as critical, albeit from the perspective of the man of the house. Neoliberal economists largely prefer Pottersville over Bedford Falls, while others see it as a case of Villainous Gentrification and the defenses for the lively and entertainment driven community can be seen as a case of short-sighted consumerism over authentic, albeit boring, communities.

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