Christmas Flickers: It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life (1947)

Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds, Sheldon Leonard, Larry Simms and Jimmy Hawkins. Directed by Frank Capra. From RKO Radio Pictures.

All images © RKO Radio Pictures

Prayers are going up for George Bailey (Stewart) of Bedford Falls. It is apparent that he is in trouble; it is equally obvious that he is a beloved figure in the town. The angels hear these prayers and a guardian is chosen for George. His name is Clarence (Travers) and he is told that George is contemplating suicide and needs to be saved. How he got to this nadir is told to Clarence in flashback.

In the simplest terms, George is a nice man with integrity. It’s important to note that he is a dreamer; he wants more than anything to see the world but also to contribute to it on a large scale. Erect important structures and build modern cities. As a child, we see him risking his life to save his brother, Harry (Karns) and stepping up like a man when his employer, town druggist Mr. Gower (Warner), makes a potentially deadly mistake.

Alternate movie poster by Barret Chapman from

Try as he might to avoid it, George falls in love with pretty Mary Hatch (Reed). Marriage means ties and George still hopes to one day fly free. But Mary. It is hopeless. They marry and George is heartened by the idea of a honeymoon trip to far-flung places. Even this is denied him as the financial chicanery of the man who owns most of Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter (Barrymore), forces George to stay in town and use his honeymoon money to keep his business afloat. It seems he can’t win.

George works at the family business, the Bailey Building and Loan, with addle-minded Uncle Billy (Mitchell) who proves George’s undoing. In the bank one day to make a crucial deposit, Billy gets distracted. While engaging in some banter with Mr. Potter, he unknowingly drops his wad of cash in Potter’s lap. Sinister Potter watches hapless Billy look everywhere for the money. When George finds out the company is thousands of dollars in arrears, he looks around and is not surprised to find himself at the end of his rope. At his lowest ebb, he prays for guidance. The answer to this prayer is Clarence, the angel. In order to help George, Clarence decides to show him what a sorry state the town and its people would be in were it not for him. George eventually sees that – despite his dashed dreams and the troubles that face him – he has, indeed, lived a wonderful life.

This is a beguiling tale. While many of you have seen the film multiple times and have read countless studies on it, I will add my two cents by looking at a few salient points, some of my favourite aspects of this stunning film.

H.B. Warner plays a devastating drunk. His scene beating and then embracing a young George is the first of many indelible moments of the film. I maintain that playing drunk is something that few actors can do well. Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick take it to horror level in Days of Wine and Roses and Denholm Elliott and Dudley Moore do it well in a lighter vein. Warner as Gower nails it. Town pharmacist Mr. Gower has received a telegram telling him that his son is dead. He is beside himself with grief and takes to the bottle. But there is work to be done and he carries on preparing capsules for one of his customers suffering from diphtheria. George works for Gower out behind the soda fountain counter. Young George whistles while he works and Gower – thrusting his grave, unshaven face through the curtains – tells him to shettup. This is not like Mr. Gower and is the first indication something is amiss. George reads the telegram and knows what’s up.

With excellent Bobbie Anderson as young George.

Handing the pills to George, Gower tells him to deliver them to his customers. But even George can tell that this medicine can be harmful to these people. He leaves but doesn’t deliver them. Upon returning, Gower is on the phone with the disgruntled customer. Warner’s slurring voice on the phone and his miffed blinking after he hangs up are harrowing to behold. He hauls George into the back room. Watching Gower slap George is uncomfortable to say the least. Equally compelling is Warner’s face and his embracing of George when he finds out the boy has just saved his professional career; his life. “I won’t ever tell anyone”, George says. What a scene.

George’s dad (Hinds) is tired. Running the Building and Loan is wearing him out. More than just running the place, Peter Bailey has been standing in the gap for the people of Bedford Falls for years. This has beaten him down. But the Building and Loan is not only an option for people who don’t want to deal with Mr. Potter, it is a fellow worker in the vineyard. It is a helpful agent that gives people an opportunity to live with dignity in a decent home. Surely George can see the necessity of keeping this business afloat. Will George change his mind and take over the family business? George, remember, is a dreamer with plans. He says he just couldn’t stay cooped up in Bedford Falls in a shabby little office – but tells his dad he thinks he’s a great guy. Annie the maid (Lillian Randolph) has been eavesdropping. In a charming moment that depicts the dynamic in this home, Annie says yes, she caught all that and yes, she is glad “one of you lunkheads said it”. George has honoured his father by letting him know that he respects him. Peter understands that George must be free. It’s a tender and poignant moment of discernment between father and son. This is George’s last conversation with his father.

“I think you’re a great guy.”

You’ve heard the expression “You plan, God laughs”? The idea being that even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Well, I think us guys could often say that “we plan, women laugh”. Just look at George Bailey and Mary Hatch walking home after the night of the big dance. They pass the old Granville mansion and George says that they are to make a wish and throw a rock at the place. George throws his and Mary asks what he wished for. George says he made “a whole hatful” of wishes. He says “Mary, I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow and the next day and next year and the year after that. I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy, little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!” Take a look at Mary while George is gushing about his so-called plans. He is effusive; she is looking at him placidly, almost sympathetically. It is at this moment that she knows – she knows – that George will never do any of these things. She knows that what George thinks are his dreams will never come true. Look at her face. It’s as if she almost feels sorry for him. You poor thing. You aren’t going anywhere. But we are going to be happier and more fulfilled than any couple has the right to be. She perceives that right at this moment, their lives are changing and fate is turning.

Mary patiently listens to George ramble – and then turns and sets their shared future in motion.

Then she turns from him. She’s not listening anymore. It is time for her to set things in motion. She picks up a rock, closes her eyes and – quite expertly – breaks a window in the abandoned home. “What’d you wish, Mary?” She doesn’t answer him. He will learn in due time what she wished – because her wish will begin to happen to him. And it’s not really a wish, at all. It is fact. It is what is going to happen. This courting nonsense is part of the process but we are going to marry, have a family and grow old together. Right here in Bedford Falls. It won’t be the life you think you want. But it will be a wonderful life. George plans, Mary laughs. The rock is George’s dreams. She has thrown those dreams – into the place they will call their home.

Your mother just phoned and said you were on your way over to pay me a visit“. Two wise women. Knowing what’s best for him, together they plot George’s salvation.

Still, George is desperate NOT to fall in love with Mary. Y’know what marriage means? It means I’ve gotta stay in this measly little town and make a living. Work. At the Building and Loan. Y’know what it also means? It means I’ll never get anywhere. I’ll never travel. I’ll never do the work I wanna do. But this girl, this Mary Hatch…. Mary for her part seems to want nothing else in this life except George Bailey. She seems confident too that with the right maneuvers, she will make him see that he cannot possibly live without her. They have built a foundation of sorts. The night George’s dad died, the night of the big dance, they had shared a moment. It was on that night that Mary made her plans. Plans that she was determined would not be thwarted.

One night, George goes courting but acts rude to her. It’s comical how obnoxious he is and it’s equally comical how plain Mary’s mother makes it that she thinks George is not right for her girl. The phone rings while George is there. It’s Sam Wainwright (Albertson), their old buddy who is rich and who is Mrs. Hatch’s choice for her daughter. George and Mary both talk to Sam by putting their heads together and sharing the downstairs phone as “Mother’s on the extension” (“I am not!”). Sam is rambling on but George has ceased to hear. The scene with the two of them on the phone beggars description. He eventually breaks down – and it is a joy to behold. You wanna see acting? James Stewart depicts someone falling in love with deft precision. What you’re seeing is George’s whole life changing. As a youngster, I didn’t comprehend why he was so angry when he seemed to like Mary so much. It’s of course because his whole life is changing. He doesn’t want this but he can’t help it – he may not want it, but he can’t live without it. His “Oh, Mary!” is a submission, a sweet submission to a different kind of dream of life. A torrent of emotion in this scene. I would say they should show it in acting class so young people could aspire to it; but it’s so perfect, likely nascent actors would see it and be discouraged. Dang, I could never be that good. Ima be a plumber.

Ms. Davis (Ellen Corby) only needs $17.50. This doesn’t sound like much of a scene but I choke up each time. Potter threatens to shut down the Building and Loan and George’s customers are in a panic. They all show up wanting to withdraw all their money and to close their accounts. George tries to convince each one to take out only what each needs and to keep their accounts open until they can weather this storm. Not having everyone’s full deposit amounts on hand, Mary comes up with the idea to use the wad of cash the newlyweds have for their now-to-be-aborted honeymoon. The first ingrate that comes to the window wants all his cash, thank you very much. George wonders if the money will hold out. Next up is Ms. Davis.

“Could I have $17.50, please?”

Ever so gently she presents George with this precise figure. What does this say about Ms. Davis? She has been watching all this and listening to others demand their money. She perceives what the Baileys are doing here and she analyzes the position of her family. George is in a jam here, she must have felt. How much do I really need to get by for now? Let me see; bread, flour or whatever. She gets to the wicket and quietly – politely – asks for $17.50. Stewart’s reaction is typically pitch perfect. With a sudden surge of joy, he repeats the amount and lays a kiss on Ms. Davis who smiles sheepishly. Such a wonderful touch in a film with many.

Why is Sheldon Leonard not in every movie? He really should be; Sheldon Leonard and Cesar Romero. Wonderful that this notable face has a small role in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s good acting, too. In the “real” world, Sheldon as Nick joins his boss, Mr. Martini, in being genuinely concerned about George. But in the horror show that is Pottersville, Sheldon leans on his noir chops and is cold and ruthless. “Out you two pixies go, through the door or out the window!” is such a musical line. Equally notable here is the devastating Warner showing up as the ruined Mr. Gower. “Hey, you rummy dere…” Heartbreaking to see Gower like this and Nick is particularly cruel in humiliating him.

“The Moment”, I call it. When watching this and many other films with my kids when they were young, I often employed Daddy Commentary. Along the way through movies, I felt I had to explain a little of what was happening so they could keep up and keep interested. Simplify stuff for them. To drive home the poignancy of this scene in Wonderful Life, I told the kids this was “the moment”. George has not been buying the line Clarence is feeding him. Clarence has explained that what George is seeing now is not the Bedford Falls he has loved all his life. It is an alternate universe; Pottersville. This, Clarence explains, is what the town and the people in it would be like if not for the life of George Bailey. If not for his sacrifices and his kindnesses. “I got some bad liquor!”, George figures, echoing Scrooge’s unbelieving conjecture that there is “more of gravy than grave” to Marley’s Ghost.

George assumes that his mother, of all people, will know him, take him in and calm his fears as she did when he was a child. Your father could be anyone; but your mother carried you inside of her and brought you forth into the world. Relationship fractures aside, there is no denying the poignancy of this fact. George knows this and heads to what he remembers as “home”. The scene with his Alternate Mother is harrowing and perhaps the truest Twilight Zone moment of this sometimes-discomfiting film. First of all is Beulah Bondi’s make-up. She looks tired, defeated, bereft of feeling. She looks warily at George and half-closes the door. And Bondi’s acting. The way she repeats “Mother” as if the very idea is distasteful to her. A child? Huh! A child may have softened my life and filled my old age with joy. But my only child drowned when he was quite young. There was no one there to save him that day.

The horror.

George is horrified by the stunning fact that his mother doesn’t know him. He flees the door, running but then stops dead. The close-up Capra achieves with his cinematographers (apparently there were three) emphasizes the horror in George’s face. This is the moment he realizes that what Clarence has been telling him might be true. And if it is, what does that mean? It means he has been erased from existence and he has lost “the greatest gift” – his life. Again, it is make-up plus acting. As if that tortured, horrified face belongs to the genial James Stewart. The close-up, lasting only a few seconds, may be one of the most harrowing shots in the history of classic film.

I’m telling you, without wives or women, the human race would disintegrate. Case in point, Mrs. Mary Bailey. George comes home and he is clearly not himself. Mary perceives this instantly. Something is definitely wrong. George is spiralling and Mary knows it. As he begins to lash out – confirming her fears – she protects her brood, gathering her children near to her and putting her arms around them. As George flees his family and his home, Mary’s mind begins to work. She knows something is wrong, George seems not able to deal with it so she must step up as an equal partner in this union. Though she feels turmoil gripping her, she can still spell “frankincense”. She heads out into the town to discover what is wrong, which – think about it – must have entailed going to Uncle Billy’s house where he is a wreck and extracting from him what has happened. Thinking fast amidst this chaos, she visits a few other important townspeople and she sets George’s rescue in motion. When George returns after having been shown the light by Clarence, he is delirious with joy and oblivious to anything that is not Mary. Watch how he continues to kiss her cheek enraptured. Meanwhile, she eagerly watches the door awaiting the miracle she has orchestrated. “Mary did it, George!”, Uncle Billy later says, overcome with emotion. We have seen intense darkness come over George and all of Bedford Falls. This darkness has been dispelled by Mary Bailey; woman, wife, mother, hero.

“To my big brother George; the richest man in town”  And cue the waterworks. George feels as if he’s come back from the brink. Having looked over the edge and seen the abyss, he has a new perspective. He is thrilled simply to be back in his home, this drafty, old barn. The bank examiner, reporters and a warrant for his arrest? Swell! He is happy that there is a newell post to come loose and he is happy to see his kids. And then Mary. George is entranced. Then the townsfolk start streaming in. People are thrilled to have a chance to repay George; “I wouldn’t have a roof over my head if it wasn’t for you, George”. His sacrifice and his goodness are repaid. In the gratitude of these people, he sees plainly his contributions to the world. Perhaps not huge like the cities he wanted to build for faceless thousands but the simple kindnesses, the empathy, the understanding that a small, clean, warm home is all many of these people ever needed; and George helped provide that. What he has accomplished is brought into sharp relief.

George makes note of people like Mr. Gower, whom he saw in the wicked light of Pottersville, and who are now restored, as he is. Ernie Bishop (Faylen) reads a telegram. Funny but through all of this there may have been the thought that George has a wealthy close friend who could have fixed things in an instant. He was unable to reach Sam Wainwright in Europe but word has got through to him. His reply in the telegram is that he is ready to give George more than enough money to pay his debts. It’s at this moment that the Bailey financial troubles are over. As George lowers his head, the viewer feels an immense weight being lifted. “And there it is”, I often say when I watch this scene. But his brother, Harry. Harry – alive again because George Bailey exists – puts a capper on the evening with his toast. George has felt hampered, trapped and poverty-stricken. He has felt robbed and he has felt that the chains of Bedford Falls have kept him from fulfilling his destiny and from seeing and doing the things he wants. But Harry declares that – not only has George been restored to life – he is wealthy; wealthy in the things that matter. He’s the richest man in town. This town. His town. Bedford Falls.

Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol has had his life restored and he becomes the patron saint of his city. The same with George Bailey. He has been shown a bleak and desperate darkness, an alternative based on his skewed perceptions and broken outlook. I imagine that his return from the brink resulted in a renewed effort to work for the good of his family, his fellow citizens and his home town.

I hesitated to bring forth my thoughts on It’s a Wonderful Life because the film has been discussed countless times by people much smarter than me. But when I thought about the few elements of the story that always enthral me, I felt there might be some use in presenting my perspective. Thing is, the story is so rich, most people have formed their own opinions on various aspects and discussions abound. And that is one of the hallmarks of a great film. Surely, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the greatest. And close to perfect.



  1. Awesome review, Gary.

    By the way, the telegram to Gower came from Hammerton College (where Gower’s son Robert was attending college), not from the War Office. Robert died in the Spanish Flu pandemic, not in World War I.

    Just wanted to clear that up.


    Fred Goodwin
    San Antonio, TX

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