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It’s a Wonderful Life, 1 Movie, 2 Fantasies

Updated on April 20, 2018
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Theatrical release posterGeorge Bailey and A2C ClarenceJames Stewart & Donna Reed as Mr. & Mrs. Bailey.George (James Stewart), Mary (Donna Reed), and youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes)George in Mr. Gower's drugstore with Violet and Mary.Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore)
Theatrical release poster
Theatrical release poster | Source
George Bailey and A2C Clarence
George Bailey and A2C Clarence | Source
James Stewart & Donna Reed as Mr. & Mrs. Bailey.
James Stewart & Donna Reed as Mr. & Mrs. Bailey. | Source
George (James Stewart), Mary (Donna Reed), and youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes)
George (James Stewart), Mary (Donna Reed), and youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) | Source
George in Mr. Gower's drugstore with Violet and Mary.
George in Mr. Gower's drugstore with Violet and Mary. | Source
Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore)
Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) | Source

It’s a Wonderful Life Background and Plot

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a perennial Christmas favorite. The film didn’t do well at the box office.[i] It didn’t become a holiday favorite until after 1974. In 1974 a clerical error caused the film to become public domain. Many local stations aired this free Christmas movie.[ii] An episode of “Married with Children” spoofed this situation.[iii] This overplaying of the movie exposed it to a larger audience and increased the movie’s popularity. This article contains spoilers.

“It’s a Wonderful Live” is a fantasy with a Christmas setting. This movie doesn’t have Santa Clause and is geared to an adult audience. Many people are praying for George Bailey (James Stewart). George is suicidal. God sends down Angel Second Class Clarence (Henry Travers) to convince George not to kill himself. Clarence’s record is 200 years of failure. Clarence gets a briefing on George’s life before Clarence goes down to earth. George lives in a small town, Bedford Falls. He is an intelligent man and had dreams of moving to the big city and becoming a big success. Every time he was going to leave Bedford Falls fate, in the form of the family’s business, Bailey’s Building and Loan, prevented him. He wasn’t even able to leave on his honeymoon. Facing arrest for a crime he didn’t commit drives George to the brink.

[i] From its initial release in January 7, 1947 through December 31, 1947 it earned $7.27 million, the film cost $3.18 million to make. U.S. Movie Database, last accessed December 12, 2017.

[ii] U.S. Movie Database,, last accessed December 12, 2017.

[iii] In a Christmas Episode Al and Peggy can’t find anything on television except “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

The Movie’s Fantasy

George is about to jump in the river. Clarence, knowing George would attempt to rescue him, jumps in the river. In the aftermath George tells Clarence he wished he was never born. Clarence grants George his wish. An unbelieving George learns no one knows him. Then he learns of the differences he made.

When George was a boy he saved his brother, Harry (George Nokes), from drowning. This left George with a permanent loss of hearing in one ear. Harry (Todd Karnes) was a naval aviator in World War II. He won the Medal of Honor for shooting down two kamikaze planes that were going to strike a transport ship.

While still a boy George worked in a drug store. Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner), the druggist was distraught over the death of his son. Mr. Gower was also drinking. He received an order for medicine and mistakenly used poison. George saw the mistake and didn’t deliver the medicine. After Mr. Gower smacked him down George explained about Mr. Gower’s mistake. George told Mr. Gower he wouldn’t tell anyone about the mistake.

When George’s father (Samuel S. Hinds) died Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) wanted to dissolve Bailey’s Building and Loan. George argued against it. The Building and Loan board agreed to keep the Building and Loan provided George stays on and ran it. This kept the Building and Loan in business, which enabled the working people of Bedford Falls to get loans to by houses. It meant George couldn’t go off to a big city as he wished.

George married Mary (Donna Reed) and they had $2,000 to spend on a honeymoon in New York City. As Mr. & Mrs. Bailey were leaving they saw a crowd running to the bank. George had the cab driver take him and his wife to the Building and Loan. Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) closed the Building and Loan and there was a crowd of shareholders standing outside. George opened the Building and Loan and let in the shareholders. The shareholders wanted their money and Uncle Billy had given it all to the bank. Mr. Potter called George and told him either the Building and Loan stayed open all day or he would take it over. Quick thinking Mary showed the $2,000 honeymoon money and George used that money to satisfy the shareholders and keep the Building and Loan.

On Christmas Eve, 1945 Uncle Billy took $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s money to deposit in the bank. At the bank he taunted Mr. Potter. In the process he gave Mr. Potter a rolled-up newspaper with the $8,000 inside. An auditor arrived to audit the Building and Loan. George also loaned/gave Violet (Gloria Grahame) some money so she could get out of town and start over. With $8,000 missing George knew there would be a scandal and he might go to jail. He went to Mr. Potter for a loan. Mr. Potter told George he was going to call the police to have him arrested for embezzlement. George went home distraught. He went to a bar where he got punched. Then he crashed his car into a tree. Then he went to the river where Clarence made his entrance.

George learns had he never been born his bother would have drowned and the kamikaze planes would have crashed into the transport ship killing everyone one board. Mr. Gower would have unintentionally killed a child with the poison. He would have gone to prison and after his release would have been the town drunk. Bailey’s Building and Loan with the inept Uncle Billy at the helm would have gone bankrupt. Uncle Billy drank himself into a lunatic asylum. Bedford Falls was renamed Pottersville and became a sleaze pit. Violet would have become a prostitute. Mary would have become an “old maid”[i]. George realizes he had a wonderful life and made a big, positive, difference to many people.

[i] An obsolete term for a woman who never marries. It is the term for a popcorn kernel that never pops.

An Alternate Fantasy

A distraught Mr. Bailey goes into a bar and drinks. He gets knocked down with a sucker punch. Then he crashes his car. Suicidal, he walks to the river. The drinks, crash, his emotional state, and his high opinion of himself bring about a fantasy. A close look at the events don’t bear out Clarence’s claims.

He rescued his brother from the drowning. While laudable the reality is it was George Bailey’s fault his brother almost drowned. If the younger Bailey brother didn’t have an older brother to lead him in this dangerous activity he probably wouldn’t have fallen through the ice in the first place. Children should exercise more caution when they are playing with their younger siblings. Younger siblings naturally want to emulate what their older siblings do. An exciting experience for the older sibling could be dangerous for the younger sibling. Had his brother died as a boy another man would have taken his place. That aviator would have been in Commander Bailey’s flight position. He would have had similar training to Commander Bailey. That pilot, or other members of his flight, would have shot down the kamikazes.

The Pharmacist was drinking heavily and so put poison in some medicine. George Bailey told the Pharmacist of the mistake and swore he’d never tell anyone about it. What boy would knowingly deliver poisoned medicine to someone? Most boys would have articulated the problem to the Pharmacist better and save themselves a beating. In those days telling on someone was considered a very bad thing to do hence it’s unlikely another boy would have acted differently in that manner. Had George Bailey never existed the results would have been fundamentally the same.

The primary contribution of George Bailey revolved around his family’s business. George Bailey never thought much of the town. It held few opportunities for him. Had it become a sleaze pit it’s reasonable most of the town’s decent people would have left to live in better places where they would have more opportunities. By George Bailey keeping the town a tolerable place to live almost all the people in the town didn’t have any pressing need to leave so they lived out their mundane existence. George Bailey trapped himself and everyone else in a small town with little hope of progress.

George Bailey sent his incompetent uncle to deposit $8,000 at the local bank. Uncle Billy unconsciously handed the envelope with the money to Mr. Potter. As any nemesis would do Mr. Potter left with the money. This meant when the auditor came the same day there would be an $8,000 discrepancy with the books. George goes to Mr. Potter to ask him for the money to cover the discrepancy. Mr. Potter promptly swore out a warrant for Mr. Bailey’s arrest. Had Mr. Potter been an honest man who had nothing to do with the missing $8,000 he would have been duty bound to do exactly as the evil Mr. Potter did. George Bailey trusting his uncle with that much money was an obvious case of negligence. Had Mr. Potter reported to the auditor, who made a point of mentioning that the Building and Loan accepted a non-business collect call, Uncle Bill’s carelessness there would have been a scandal. While it wouldn’t have resulted in criminal charges it was likely to have resulted in a bankrupt Building and Loan or a Building and Loan with Mr. Potter in charge.

Without George Bailey to marry Mary was destined to be a lonely old woman. She was a beautiful woman with a lovely personality. She was also a quick thinker. In all likelihood if George didn’t exist she would have married some other lucky fellow. This other husband probably wouldn’t turn down a job offer that paid ten times what he was currently getting.

George having justified himself to himself steps away from the brink and joyfully rushes back to town to face whatever comes. Who said drinking never solved a problem? His friends covered the missing $8,000 and George and the other people of Bedford Falls lived, what passed for them, happily ever after.


• Some people have inflated images of themselves. They think the world would fall apart if they weren’t around to keep it together.

• Some people have grand dreams but they always find a reason for not following through with their plans. The saying, “He who hesitates is lost.” applies here.

• Never enter a partnership where your partner is unreliable. Honesty is good, but it isn’t enough. An honest incompetent can cost you as much as a thief.


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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 4 weeks ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. You bring up some very good points. Mary in the alternate reality shows how much times have changed. Speculating about Harry brings up many possibilities. I remember watching a documentary where a Kamikaze pilot was supposed to fly his fateful mission. On his mission 3 allied fighters jumped him. For the next 1/2 hour these allied fighters were trying to shoot him down. They gave up, presumably out of ammunition or low on fuel. The Kamikaze plane was badly shot up so he couldn't continue the mission. The allied pilots saved his life.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 4 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

      I am a devoted fan of this movie and have watched it every year for a long time. Of course there are things we can pick apart. I always laugh when the alternative reality depicts the tragedy of Mary becoming the town librarian which, to me, sounds like a pretty nice life. And that without George, she'd have to wear glasses. But the child George may be more observant than other children. Most kids in such a position would just do what they were told and not question the pharmacist's dangerous error. The film zeros in on the poison because Frank Capra thinks we are stupid and must highlight the mistake in an obvious manner. Uncle Billy worked for the savings and loan for years with little problem so why not trust him if he had always been trusted before. And those men saved by Harry? Another pilot could have been shot down before he saved them.

      This is one movie when I am fully prepared to suspend disbelief. I love George and blubber along with this movie every year. I certainly enjoyed your article.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 2 months ago

      Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this article.

    • Rhyme Vine Poetry profile image

      Tamara Yancosky Moore 2 months ago from Uninhabited Regions

      A lovely review, Robert. I am a fan of this movie, and it is an amazing classic! The acting is superb, as is the storyline. One of my favorites!

      Nice lessons you have added here, as well :-)

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 3 months ago

      You have a point there. Life is much easier if there are many people to support you. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I love watching this movie, maybe, more because of how people rallied to save someone. No matter what mistake you've made when some people still put their trust on you, it is what matters.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 3 months ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. It's a Wonderful Life is one of those movies that is a seasonal tradition. I'm glad you liked the review.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 3 months ago from Dallas, Texas

      This is one of our all time favorite Christmas movies to watch. Often we have a movie marathon to see how many times during the season we can watch this one. It holds so many lessons dear to life about gratitude and appreciation. Nice review.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 3 months ago

      You have a point there. The Navy probably wouldn't have been a man down. They most likely would have had a lesser pilot. The unit would still have had the same number of pilots. This is where things get interesting. The odds favor the alternate reality pilot wouldn't have as many air victories as Commander Bailey. Then there is the debate of a "one man gang" vs a "team effort". Assuming a flight of 4 would the alternate reality pilot with the same tactical position have shot down the 2 aircraft? Would the flight split up the 2 kills between them? Would at least 1 of the planes gotten through to sink the transport? It is mind boggling. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 3 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand


      I enjoyed this hub, but not sure I totally agree with you on some of your 'alternate' fantasy.

      Yes, the pilots all get similar training, but each pilot has different reactions, and speed to react, no two pilots react the same way!

      If George's brother hadn't been there, with the stringent requirements for naval aviators, it's just as likely the unit would have been a 'man down' and the consequences could have been far worse!

      As you can guess, 'a wonderful life' is one of my favourite Jimmy Stewart movies!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 5 months ago

      It is a bit of a paradox. Had the stations paid for showing the movie the copyright holders would have gotten money. If the stations had to pay to show the movie they probably wouldn't have shown it. It's doubtful the movie would have ever achieved the popularity it has. The lesson here might be for copyright holders to let their movies be shown for free or new free to boost the popularity.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 months ago from Houston, Texas

      This movie certainly is shown over and over again. I am sure that the movie makers were unhappy that a clerical error put this into the public domain. They would have lost a lot of income from that simple mistake!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 5 months ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. The thing is it's a blind choice. The concept is the subject of many time travel stories and movies.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 5 months ago from North Texas

      Interesting sometimes to ponder how life might have been different for people if one or more of the people in their lives hadn't been there. Of course someone else would have been, but who? Some people suggest that even the slightest action, however unimportant it may seem, makes a difference in how one's life progresses. Whether or not one stoops to pick some trash up and place it in a trash receptacle, for example. Just that simple action has the likelihood of making a difference down which path someone's life goes down.

      Great analysis and review! Happy holidays!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 5 months ago

      Thank you all around. Did you ever see the 1977 remake, "It happened One Christmas", with Marlo Thomas as the protagonist?

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James-MizBejabbers 5 months ago

      I don't see how some people watch that movie over and over every Christmas. I hated that movie from day one, but I finally watched it again last year and didn't think much better of it then. Somehow life has a way of compensating. I like your version much better.


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