It's a Wonderful Life is a 1946 American Christmas fantasy drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra, based on the short story "The Greatest Gift", which Philip Van Doren Stern wrote in 1939 and published privately in 1945. The film is now among the most popular in American cinema and because of numerous television showings in the 1980s has become traditional viewing during the Christmas season.
The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be had he never been born.
Despite initially performing poorly financially because of high production costs and stiff competition at the time of its release, the film has come to be regarded as a classic. Theatrically, the film's break-even point was $6.3 million, approximately twice the production cost, a figure it never came close to achieving in its initial release. An appraisal in 2006 reported: "Although it was not the complete box office failure that today everyone believes ... it was initially a major disappointment and confirmed, at least to the studios, that Capra was no longer capable of turning out the populist features that made his films the must-see, money-making events they once were."
It's a Wonderful Life is one of the most acclaimed films ever made, praised particularly for its writing. It was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, placing number 11 on its initial 1998 greatest movie list, and number one on AFI's list of the most inspirational American films of all time. Capra revealed that the film was his personal favorite among those he directed, adding that he screened it for his family every Christmas season.
In Bedford Falls, New York, on Christmas Eve 1945, George Bailey is suicidal. Prayers for him reach Heaven. Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to save George in order to earn his angel wings. To prepare Clarence, his superior Joseph shows flashbacks of George's life.
In 1919, 12-year-old George saves his younger brother Harry, who falls through the ice on a frozen pond, from drowning: this heroic act results in George losing his hearing in one ear. One day while working after school at the local drug store, he catches a deadly mistake made by his boss Mr. Gower, who had gotten himself drunk after news of the death of his son in the flu epidemic and accidentally poisoned a prescription.
On Harry's graduation night in 1928, George (James Stewart) discusses his dreams of travel and building things with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who has had a crush on him from an early age. After the sudden death of his father, George postpones his plans in order to sort out the affairs of the family business, Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan, a longtime adversary to Henry F. Potter, a greedy banker who is the richest man in town. Potter wishes to dissolve the Building and Loan, which has been preventing him from controlling the entire town. George convinces the board of directors to vote against Potter, which they will do so under one condition, George succeed his father, running the business along with his absent-minded uncle William "Billy" (Thomas Mitchell). He gives his college money to Harry, under the agreement that George will attend college after Harry graduates, whereupon Harry will assume the presidency of the Bailey Building & Loan.
When Harry graduates, he brings home a wife, whose father has offered Harry a job. Although Harry vows to decline the offer for the sake of their earlier agreement, George cannot deny him such a great opportunity and keeps running the Building and Loan. George and Mary get married and plan a dream honeymoon having saved up enough money, but on the way out of town witness a run on the bank and use the money to lend financial support until the bank reopens.
George builds Bailey Park, which offers houses affordable to lower-middle income families who would otherwise have to live in Potter's overpriced apartments. Mary and George welcome the Martinis, a family of Italian immigrants who just bought of one the houses, and have a traditional blessing ceremony. Potter, frustrated at losing control of the housing market, attempts to lure George into becoming his assistant with a huge salary and the prospect of business trips to Europe, appealing to his yearning to travel. George is tempted, but rejects the offer.
During World War II, George is ineligible for service because of his bad ear, and instead leads a recycling campaign to collect metal and rubber for the war effort. Harry, however, becomes a Navy flier and is awarded the Medal of Honor, having intercepted a kamikaze that would have bombed an amphibious transport. On Christmas Eve morning 1945, the town prepares a hero's welcome for Harry. Uncle Billy goes to Potter's bank to deposit $8,000 for the Building and Loan. After bragging to Potter about Harry, Potter angrily grabs the newspaper from Billy along with the $8,000. Realizing the potential scandal would lead to the Building and Loan's downfall, Potter secretly hides the money.
When Uncle Billy cannot find the money, he and George frantically search for it. When the bank examiner arrives to review their records, Uncle Billy panics. George berates his uncle for endangering the Building and Loan, goes home and takes out his frustration on his family. He apologizes to his frightened wife and children, then leaves.
Desperate, George appeals to Potter for a loan. When George claims a life insurance as collateral, Potter mockingly says George is worth "more dead than alive". George gets drunk at a local bar, and gets in a fight with a man who is married to the teacher of one of his children (whom George had gotten in a phone tirade earlier). Mr. Martini, the owner of the bar, ejects George's attacker, but cannot catch up to George, who has driven away and crashes his car into a big tree. He staggers to a nearby bridge to commit suicide. Unbeknownst to him, Clarence has been watching him from the shadows.
Before he can jump, Clarence jumps in the river and pretends to be drowning. George rescues him, but does not believe Clarence's claim to be George's guardian angel. When George wishes he had never been born, Clarence shows him what life would have been like without him: Bedford Falls is now named Pottersville and is filled with cocktail bars, casinos, and gentlemen's clubs; Mr. Gower has recently been released from prison for manslaughter, having put the poison in the pills because George was not there to catch his mistake; The Building and Loan is defunct, as George never took over after Mr. Bailey's passing. George's friends Ernie, a cab driver, and Burt, a policeman, exist in this reality, but are darker individuals than the good friends he knew, suggesting George was a positive force in their lives.
George runs to see his own mother, who does not recognize him. She reveals that Uncle Billy was institutionalized after the collapse of the Building and Loan. In the cemetery where Bailey Park would have been, George discovers the grave of his brother. Clarence says the soldiers on the transport all died, as Harry was never there to save them, as George had never saved Harry from drowning. Mary never married, and became the local librarian. When George claims he is her husband, she considers him a stalker and screams for the police, causing George to flee and Burt to give chase.
George runs back to the bridge and begs for his life back. His prayer is answered, as Burt catches up to him, but only to say he was glad he found George as everyone was worried about him. George runs through the town joyously, wishing everyone he sees a merry Christmas, and is fine with his forthcoming arrest when he comes home. Mary and Uncle Billy arrive, having rallied the townspeople, who donate more than enough to cover the deficit and for Potter's warrant to be torn up. Harry arrives and toasts George, calling him "the richest man in town." A bell on the Christmas tree rings, and his daughter recalls the story that it means an angel has just earned his wings. George then sees a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer signed by Clarence, who reminds him that "No man is a failure who has friends".
James Stewart as George Bailey
Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey
Henry Travers as Angel Clarence Odbody
Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Henry F. Potter
Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy Bailey
Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey
Frank Faylen as Ernie Bishop, the cab driver
Ward Bond as Bert, the cop
Gloria Grahame as Violet Bick
H.B. Warner as Mr. Gower, druggist
Frank Albertson as Sam "I-A" Wainwright
Todd Karns as Harry Bailey
Samuel S. Hinds as Peter "Pop" Bailey, George's father
Lillian Randolph as Annie, the Baileys' maid
Virginia Patton as Ruth Dakin Bailey, Harry's wife
Mary Treen as Cousin Tilly, employee
Charles Williams as Cousin Eustace, employee
Sarah Edwards as Mrs. Hatch, Mary's mother
Harold Landon as Marty Hatch
William Edmunds as Mr. Giuseppe Martini
Argentina Brunetti as Mrs. Martini
Sheldon Leonard as Nick, Martini's bartender
Bobby Anderson as Little George Bailey
Jean Gale as Little Mary Hatch
Jeanine Ann Roose as Little Violet Bick
George Nokes as Little Harry Bailey
Frank Hagney as Potter's mute aide
Charles Lane as Potter's rent collector
Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu Bailey
Larry Simms as Pete Bailey
Carol Coombs as Janie Bailey
Jimmy Hawkins as Tommy Bailey
Lynn O'Leary-Jameson as infant Janie Bailey
Charles Halton as Mr. Carter, bank examiner
J. Farrell MacDonald as the man whose tree gets damaged
Harry Holman as Mr. Partridge, high school principal
Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer as Freddie, Mary's annoying high school suitor
Dick Elliott as the fat man on the porch
Tom Fadden as the bridge caretaker
Stanley Andrews as Mr. Welch, teacher's husband
Al Bridge as the sheriff with arrest warrant
Marian Carr as Jane Wainwright, Sam's wife
Cy Schindell as the cashier/bouncer at Nick's Bar
Ellen Corby as Miss Davis
Adriana Caselotti as the singer in Martini's Bar[N 2]
Joseph Granby as Angel Joseph (voice)
Moroni Olsen as the Senior Angel (voice)
Directed by Frank Capra
Produced by Frank Capra
Screenplay by Frances Goodrich,Albert Hackett and Frank Capra
Based on "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Edited by William Hornbeck
Production Liberty Films
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures1
Release dates December 20, 1946
Running time 130 minutes
Country United States
Budget $3.18 million[N 1]
Box office $3.3 million (US rentals)
Awards and honors
Prior to the Los Angeles release of It's a Wonderful Life, Liberty Films mounted an extensive promotional campaign that included a daily advertisement highlighting one of the film's players, along with comments from reviewers. Jimmy Starr wrote, "If I were an Oscar, I'd elope with It's a Wonderful Life lock, stock and barrel on the night of the Academy Awards". The New York Daily Times offered an editorial in which it declared the film and James Stewart's performance to be worthy of Academy Award consideration.
It's a Wonderful Life received five Academy Award nominations: