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This article is about the 1946 film. For The Goldbergs episode, see It's a Wonderful Life (The Goldbergs).

Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?

— Clarence after showing how awful life would be without George

The poster for the film's original theatrical release.

It's a Wonderful Life is a film cowritten for the screen, produced and directed by Frank Capra (who won the 1947 Golden Globe for Best Director for his work on this film), and starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, and Lionel Barrymore. It was produced by Liberty Films and originally distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, and released on December 20, 1946. It currently belongs to Paramount Pictures and is co-owned by Republic Pictures. It received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor and Best Picture, but lost in each category. However, it has since come to be regarded as a cinematic classic, particularly through annual television airings in December. ' Although the film begins and ends on Christmas Eve, it is not a strict "Christmas movie". Most of it is actually a straight dramatic story of the life of George Bailey, who keeps trying to get out of his small town of Bedford Falls, but keeps getting pulled back in for various reasons, most of them having to do with Henry F. Potter, the richest man in town. The film chronicles George's life from childhood, graduating from Bedford Falls High School, and his many battles with Mr. Potter, as he tries to take over George's family-owned bank, the Bailey Building and Loan.

Synopsis

The opening shot of the film.

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In Bedford Falls, New York, on Christmas Eve, George Bailey is deeply troubled. Prayers for his well-being from friends and family reach Heaven. Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, is assigned to save George and earn his wings. Franklin and Joseph, the head angels, review George's life with Clarence.

At the age of 12, George saved his younger brother, Harry, who had fallen through the ice on a frozen pond, though George lost the hearing in his left ear in this effort. Later, working in the local pharmacy, George luckily noticed that druggist Mr. Emil Gower, despondent over his son's death, had mistakenly filled a child's prescription with poison and saved the poor man from irrevocably ruining his own life by inadvertently killing the child.

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As he grows up, George repeatedly sacrifices his dream to travel the world. He waits for Harry to graduate from high school and replace him at the Bailey Building and Loan Association, vital to the townspeople. On Harry's graduation night, George, now 21, discusses his future with Mary Hatch, who has long had a crush on him. Later that evening, George's absent-minded Uncle Billy interrupts them to tell George that his father has had a stroke, which proves fatal. A few months later, Mr. Henry F. Potter, a slumlord and majority shareholder in the Building and Loan, tries to persuade the board of directors to stop providing home loans for the working poor. George talks them into rejecting Mr. Potter's proposal, but they agree only on condition that George run the Building and Loan. Giving his college money to Harry, George delays his plans with the understanding that Harry will take over upon graduation.

When Harry graduates from college, he unexpectedly brings home a wife, whose father has offered Harry an excellent job. Although Harry vows to decline the offer out of respect for his brother, George can't deny Harry such a fine opportunity and decides to keep full ownership of the Building and Loan, knowing that this will kill his dream to travel the world.

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George calls on Mary, who has recently returned home from college. After several arguments, they reveal their love for each other, and marry soon after. As they depart for their honeymoon, they witness a run on the bank that leaves the Building and Loan in danger of collapse. They quell the panic by using the $2,000 earmarked for their honeymoon to satisfy the depositors' immediate needs. Mary enlists the help of George's two best friends, a cop named Bert and a cab driver named Ernie, to create a faux tropical setting for a substitute honeymoon. They embrace while Bert and Ernie sing in the background.

George starts Bailey Park, an affordable housing project. Mr. Potter tries to hire him away, offering him a $20,000 salary, along with the promise of distant business trips, something that George always wanted to do. George, initially tempted, turns Potter down after realizing that Potter intends to close down the Building and Loan and take full control of Bedford Falls.

Time passes, and George and Mary raise four children: Pete, Janie, Zuzu, and Tommy. When World War II erupts, George is unable to enlist, due to his bad ear. Harry becomes a Navy fighter pilot and shoots down 15 enemy planes, two of which were targeting a ship full of troops in the Pacific. For his bravery, Harry is awarded the Medal of Honor.

On Christmas Eve morning, Uncle Billy is on his way to Mr. Potter's bank to deposit $8,000 of the Building and Loan's cash funds. He greets Mr. Potter (who has the newspaper reporting Harry's heroics) and taunts him by reading the headlines aloud. Mr. Potter angrily snatches the paper, but Uncle Billy inattentively allows the money to be snatched with it. Mr. Potter opens the paper, notices the money and keeps it, knowing that displacement of bank money would result in criminal charges for George. When a frantic search turns up with nothing, and with a bank examiner due that day, George takes his anger and frustrations out on his family.

A desperate George appeals to Mr. Potter for a loan. Mr. Potter mockingly and coldly turns George down, and then swears out a warrant for his arrest for bank fraud. George, now completely depressed, gets drunk at the bar owned by his friend, Giuseppe Martini. After crashing his car into a tree, George staggers to a bridge, intending to commit suicide, feeling he is "worth more dead than alive" because of a life insurance policy. Before he can leap, Clarence jumps in first and pretends to be drowning. After George rescues him, Clarence reveals himself to be George's guardian angel.

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George does not believe him, but when he bitterly wishes he had never been born, Clarence shows George what the town would have been like without him. Bedford Falls, named Pottersville, is home to sleazy nightclubs, pawn shops, and amoral people. Bailey Park is never built. Mr. Gower was sent to prison for poisoning the child and is a despised derelict. Martini does not own the bar. George's friend, Violet Bick, is a strip-dancer and gets arrested as a pickpocket. Ernie is helplessly poor with his family having left him. Uncle Billy has been in an insane asylum for years. Harry is dead as a result of George not being there to save him from drowning, and the servicemen he would have saved are also dead. Ma Bailey is a bitter widow, and Mary is a single spinster librarian.

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George runs back to the bridge and begs to be allowed to live again. His prayer is answered when Bert finds him and calls out to him by name, and he runs home joyously, where the authorities are waiting to arrest him. Mary, Uncle Billy, and a flood of townspeople arrive with more than enough donations to save George and the Building and Loan. George's friend, Sam Wainwright, sends him a $25,000 line of credit by telegram. Harry also arrives to support his brother, who is now "the richest man in town". George finds a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with the inscription, "Dear George: Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. P.S. Thanks for the wings! Love, Clarence." As they sing "Auld Lang Syne", Zuzu notices that one of their Christmas tree's bells is ringing. She tells George that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. George agrees, and looks up to Heaven, winks, and says, "Atta boy, Clarence!"

Soundtrack

A CD, featuring excerpts from the film's soundtrack, including music, dialogue and sound effects, was released in 1997 under the Nick at Nite Records label, distributed by Sony Music Entertainment.

In 2021, to commemorate the film's 75th anniversary, La-La Land Records released an album collecting its full score. It was limited to 2,000 copies. The track list was as follows:

# Track title Length
1 Main Title / Heaven 3:46
2 Ski Run 1:31
3 Death Telegrame 1:59
4 Gower's Deliverance 2:03
5 George And Dad 1:45
6 Father's Death 0:30
7 Love Sequence 2:12
8 Dilemma 0:37
9 Bank Crisis 0:55
10 Wedding Cigars 0:41
11 George Lassoes Stork 2:03
12 This is the Army, Mr. Jones / Dankgebet 2:20
13 Uncle Billy's Blunder 1:15
14 Search for Money 2:01
15 Potter's Threat 0:50
16 Clarence's Arrival 2:24
17 George is Unborn 2:24
18 Haunted House (With Chorus) 2:40
19 Pottersville Cemetery 1:14
20 Wrong Mary Hatch / The Prayer 2:05
21 It's a Wonderful Life 3:24
22 Auld Lang Syne / End Title 0:53
Bonus tracks
23 It's a Wonderful Life (Vocal) 3:52
24 Main Title (Film Version) 1:16
25 Father's Death (Alternate) 0:21
26 Wedding March 0:51
27 Big Band 0:20
28 Haunted House (Alternate) 2:40
29 Pottersville Cemetery (Alternate - Without Chorus) 1:19
30 Auld Lang Syne (Alternate) 0:30
31 Trailer Music 1:03

Home video releases

Television airings

When the original copyright expired in 1974 due to a clerical error by National Telefilm Associates, the rights holders at that time, the film went into public domain, meaning anyone could broadcast it without the copyright holder getting paid. Ironically, it was during this period, when frequent broadcasts during anytime of the year became a staple of off-hours broadcast, that the film enjoyed a huge resurgence - albeit with copies that were of continually lesser quality, both on TV and on VHS.

Paramount Pictures laid claim to a copyright on the unique music of the film in the 1990s, and is the current rights holder, and since 2002, granted NBC broadcast rights to air it twice a year, including Christmas Eve in the USA. NBC's sister channels, the USA Network and E!, also aired it. In the UK, Universal Pictures, the owners of NBC, who in turn are owned by Comcast, holds the rights. Oddly enough, Paramount held the rights to the film from 1951 until 1955 when they bought Capra's production company, Liberty Pictures. They sold the right to U.M. and M. Company in 1955, then were purchased by NTA several years later.

The title card to the 2007 colorized version.

A colorized version of the film exists, but it is a subject of controversy for many fans, who feel the process was tampering with a film masterpiece. It has not been shown on TV in years, but a newer colorized version was included on the 2007 2-disc DVD release and the subsequent Blu-ray release.

Cast

Actor Character
Jimmy Stuart George Bailey
Donna Reed Mary Bailey
Lionel Barrymore Henry F. Potter
Thomas Mitchell Uncle Billy Bailey
Henry Travers Clarence Odbody
Beulah Bondi Ma Bailey
Frank Faylen Ernie
Ward Bond Bert
Gloria Grahame Violet Bick
H.B. Warner Mr. Emil Gower
Todd Karns Harry Bailey
Samuel S. Hinds Pa Bailey
Mary Treen Cousin Tilly
Frank Albertson Sam Wainwright
Virginia Patton Ruth Dakin
Charles Williams Cousin Eustace
Sara Edwards Mrs. Hatch
Bill Edmunds Giuseppe Martini
Lillian Randolph Annie
Argentina Brunetti Mrs. Martini
Bobby Anderson Young George
Ronnie Ralph Young Sam
Jean Gale Young Mary
Jeanine Ann Roose Young Violet
Danny Mummert Young Marty Hatch
Georgie Nokes Young Harry
Sheldon Leonard Nick
Frank Hangey Mr. Potter's bodyguard
Ray Walker Luggage Shop Joe
Charlie Lane Real estate salesman
Edward Kean Building & Loan Tom
Larry Simms Pete Bailey
Carol Coomes Janie Bailey
Karolyn Grimes Zuzu Bailey
Jimmy Hawkins Tommy Bailey

In popular culture

Musical

In 1986, a stage musical titled simply A Wonderful Life was produced. Aside from the songs, much of the story remained the same, with some exceptions.

  • Every instance of water playing a role in the story is reworked due to the constraints of a stage play. As a result, young George instead saves Harry from an oncoming train; this also served as his method of contemplated suicide before Clarence intervenes.
  • George is more openly an agnostic verging on unstated atheist prior to his encounter with Clarence.
  • George and Harry feud bitterly when Harry reneges on his promise to take over the Building amd Loan.
  • Mr. Potter is depicted as a younger man, nearly George's contemporary.

Reworks and parodies

Other Christmas specials/films

Main article: Category:It's a Wonderful Life adaptations and parodies
Production Year Protagonist
It Happened One Christmas 1977 Marlo Thomas
Married...with Children: "It's a Bundyful Life" 1989 Al Bundy
Tiny Toon Adventures: "It's a Wonderful Tiny Toon Christmas Special" 1992 Buster Bunny
Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills: "It's a Gorganus Life" 1995 The Galactic Sentinels
Groundling Marsh: "It's a Wonderful Marsh" 1997 Eco
Richie Rich's Christmas Wish 1998 Richie Rich
Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain: "Yule Be Sorry" 1998 The Brain
It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie 2002 Kermit the Frog
Maya & Miguel: "Miguel's Wonderful Life" 2005 Miguel Santos
Kappa Mikey: "A Christmas Mikey" 2006 Mikey Simon
Uncle Grandpa: "Christmas Special" 2014 Uncle Grandpa

Other parodies

  • Don Rosa wrote a special comic story for Donald Duck's 60th birthday, titled "The Duck Who Never Was", in which Donald, who feels that he is as much of a nobody as George, meets a genie who grants wishes to whoever rubs his lamp on their birthday (which in Donald's case is June 9th) and wishes he were never born. He is then thrown into an alternate reality where, because of him never being born, everyone he cares for is much worse off than they were with him around (except his irritatingly lucky cousin, Gladstone Gander, who is just as lucky as he is in the normal reality). After seeing all this, Donald immediately wishes things were back to the way they were.
  • The Rugrats episode "Chuckie's Wonderful Life" parodies the film. After Angelica steals Chas' favorite CD and gets Chuckie in trouble for it, Chuckie decides to run away, but his guardian angel then shows him the horrible consequences of what life would be like if he was never around.
  • Garfield and Friends did a parody in a U.S. Acres segment in which Wade Duck, after failing to guard the farm's vegetable crop, rescues an angel who, like Clarence, takes people into fantasy sequences to show what the world would be like without them ("like that movie they show seven million times every Christmas"). Ironically, the alternate Wade-less reality is not very different from the regular one, but Wade does find out how Orson's brothers stole the vegetables he was trying to guard earlier.
  • The Donkey Kong Country cartoon had an episode parodying the film (and even having the same title), in which Donkey Kong gets everybody upset with him and decides to run away, but falls unconscious during his trek. He has a dream where Eddie the Yeti, as his guardian angel, shows him an alternate version of Kongo Bongo Island where he does not exist, in which Diddy is an evil dictator, Candy is married to Bluster, and King K. Rool is protecting a papier-mache lilypad.
  • An episode of the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, titled "Shredderville", has the Turtles thinking the world would be better off if they never mutated, and then having a dream where they wake up in a world in which they never existed and Shredder succeeded in his plans to taking over the world. The whole city is a mess, and not even Shredder is happy with it.
  • Issue #19 of the Pinky and the Brain comic book had a story titled "It's a Wonderful Narf". After accidentally messing up Brain's latest plan and getting a massive chewing-out for it, Pinky runs away and almost jumps off a bridge, thinking Brain would be better off without him. However, he is then shown by his guardian angel (actually a disguised Brain) how much worse off the world would be if he was never born.
  • Issue #16 of the comic book Cartoon Network Presents featured a Top Cat story, "It's a Wonderful Strife", in which both T.C. and Officer Dibble, tired of putting up with each other, both wish they had never come to the city. They are then shown alternate realities by their guardian angels, played respectively by Huckleberry Hound and Snagglepuss. Huck shows T.C. that, without guidance from a crafty leader, his gang would have to resort to crime for sustenance, and Snagglepuss shows Dibble that if he never became a police officer, T.C. would be an anarchistic tyrant bossing around the entire police force.
  • Issue #18 of The Flintstones and the Jetsons features a treatment of the story given to The Flintstones, titled "It's a Wonderful Prehistoric Life", in which Fred finds that he had not received a Christmas bonus. He gets depressed about this and starts going on a walk without realizing he is headed toward a tar pit. The Great Gazoo then yanks him out of time and shows him what things would be like if he never existed. They arrive in a world where Bedrock is a lot larger and is now known as Slaterock, Barney has an administrative position at Mr. Slate's business, and Wilma is married to Mr. Slate. At first, Fred thinks they're better off, but Gazoo then shows him that Slaterock grew up "too big, too fast" and crime is now way up. Betty is single and homeless because she never met Barney (because Fred introduced her to him), and Barney is quite lonely and spends his nights in the office depressed. Pebbles is a spoiled brat and Wilma is unhappy with her marriage. Gazoo then takes Fred back to his own time, where he declares that he is alive... and in pain from falling into the tar pit. He returns home now more appreciative of his family, and Mr. Slate arrives with Fred's bonus, saying his secretary forgot to put it in his pigeonhole.
  • A two-part story in Captain Planet and the Planeteers, titled "Two Futures", lets Wheeler, who was chosen by Gaia to possess the ring of Fire, see what Earth would be like in the future, if he never joined the Planeteers. In the end, he discovers just how important his role in the team really is.
  • The Fairly OddParents did an episode titled "It's a Wishful Life", in which Timmy is shown what life would be like if he had been born as a girl. Controversially, everyone is shown to be better off in the alternate reality.
  • In 1986, Saturday Night Live did a sketch called "The Lost Ending of It's a Wonderful Life," with Dana Carvey portraying George. It depicts Mr. Potter receiving quite the violent confrontation when it is discovered he has withheld the lost $8,000.
  • In the Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi episode "Yumi Goes Solo", Yumi wishes she never joined the band. In her dream, she becomes a rich solo rock star while Kaz and Ami's lives are miserable (Kaz has a unhappy job of working for a cat food commercial in a studio, and Ami is a homeless accordion player).
  • The Honeymooners comic book featured a story titled "She's A Wonderful Wife", in which both Ralph and Alice, after a heated argument, see a world where they never married. It breaks the fourth wall, as the writer and artist get stuck, realizing that they never had both of them storm out of the house before at the same time. After an awkward encounter with the immigrant family living there in the other world, they find each other again, and to boot, one of Ralph's money-making schemes actually works.
  • The iCarly Christmas episode, "iChristmas", involves Spencer making a magnetic Christmas tree that catches on fire destroying all the presents. An infuriated Carly makes the mistake of wishing that he was born normal.
  • In the Beavis and Butt-Head short "It's a Miserable Life", a spirit appears to Butt-Head, showing that if he was not born, Highland would have been a better place. However, even here, his influence strikes this world, causing Beavis to start his trademark laugh and Principal McVicker being driven into his trademark shudders and stuttering.
  • In the fourth season premiere of That '70s Show, also titled "It's a Wonderful Life", Eric breaks up with Donna and wishes that they had never kissed (which started their relationship). An angel then comes and shows him what life would have been like if they had not gotten together, and Eric would be off worse.
  • The Beetlejuice episode "It's a Wonderful Afterlife" features the title character being shown what life in both the Neitherworld and the real world would be like if he was not around.
  • The Annoying Orange episode "Wishful Thinking" has a mistletoe showing Orange what the world would be like if he was not born. At the end, it turns out the mistletoe is actually Liam the Leprechaun, who tried to make all of Orange's friends ignore him after they did not invite him to their Christmas party.
  • An episode from the second season of the PBS series Seven Little Monsters titled "It's a Wonder-Four Life" featured the character Four being shown by his guardian angel what the world is like if he was the only sibling of his family.

References

  • An audio clip of George saying, "I bet it's a warrant for my arrest, isn't it wonderful?" can be heard in the DuckTales episode "Full Metal Duck".
  • A different clip of the film was seen in each of the first two Home Alone films, and each was in a different foreign language (French in Home Alone, and Spanish in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York). In the fourth film, Peter and Kate are at one point watching it while living in different houses, remembering how they always watched it together as a family at Christmas.
  • The film's title was referenced in the Darkwing Duck episode title "It's a Wonderful Leaf".
  • In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Christmas With the Joker", Robin makes a deal with Batman that, if they can't find a sign of the Joker while out on patrol, they watch It's a Wonderful Life (which Batman admits he's never seen) later. However, when they do try to watch it, they find that the Joker has hijacked the airwaves. At the end of the episode, Commissioner Gordon loans them his copy of the movie for them to watch.
  • In A Flintstone Family Christmas, Fred finds the movie It's a Wonderful Stone-Age Life playing on TV, and tells Stoney that it's his favorite holiday movie.
  • In Elmo Saves Christmas, one of the side effects of it being Christmas every day is that It's a Wonderful Life is the only thing on TV. At one point, Ernie and Bert pass by a TV set playing it and pause for thought when they hear George saying, "Bert! Ernie! What's the matter with you two guys? You were here on my wedding night." This is in reference to the rumor that Ernie and Bert were named after the characters.
  • In Arthur's Perfect Christmas, Buster's mother, Bitzi, mentions the film briefly and stated it would be the fifth time they would watch it.
  • In The Night Before the Night Before Christmas, Hannah mentions herself and one of her friends having watched the film.
  • In The Big Bang Theory episode "The Cooper Extraction", Sheldon's friends mention the film and present their own ideas about what life would be life without him, while he returns to Texas to help his sister deal with the birth of her first child.

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