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"Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel's just got his wings."
Source of the trope It's a Wonderful Plot, and an annual staple of Christmastime viewing, this much loved film tells of one man's life of self-sacrifice and quiet despair, from which he is rescued by a miracle.
As the film begins, angels are listening to myriad prayers for a certain George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart). One of the angels, called Clarence Odbody, is told he must answer the prayers, once he's been told who George is. Cue Flashback.
Zooming in on the small town of Bedford Falls, the first thing we see George do is save the life of his younger brother, Harry, at the cost of deafness in one ear. A little later, a girl, Mary Hatch, whispers promises of eternal love into his deaf ear just before George saves another life, and a pharmacist's career.
Skipping ahead a few years, we next see George at Harry's graduation party, held in the school's gymnasium/swimming pool. George tells Mary about his plans for the future: leave town, see the world, go to college, build big things. Before an hour has gone, George learns his father has just had a stroke. His dreams will have to be deferred.
George stays in Bedford Falls to look after the family business, the Bailey Building & Loan, on the understanding that Harry will take over when he returns from college. However, Harry brings back a wife, whose father offers him a much better job, which George insists Harry take, sacrificing his opportunity. Soon afterward, George himself is offered a better job, but turns it down, knowing that without him the family business will be taken over by the avaricious banker, Mr. Potter.
For several years, George's life continues in this vein. Every golden opportunity is frustrated by his self-imposed duties, until one Christmas Eve, when Potter seizes an opportunity, thanks to George's hapless uncle, to steal $8,000 from the Bailey Building & Loan, then threatens to charge George with the theft. This latest indignity, on top of his daily troubles, drives George first to verbally abuse his family, to get drunk, and then to attempt suicide.
Wandering around town, George soon discovers that Pottersville, the alternate Bedford Falls, is full of strip clubs and drinking dens. All his friends and acquaintances are miserable, his brother is dead (as are a number of soldiers whose lives Harry saved in World War II), and his wife is a spinster. Clarence then explains how George single-handedly prevented this dire fate. He, and he alone, kept Potter in check, preventing the town from descending into squalor and vice.
George takes back his wish and Bedford Falls is restored. When he returns home, the sheriff is waiting to arrest him, but all the neighbours rush in, offering money. Mary had started making telephone calls immediately after George left the house, finding out the truth and spreading the word. George has been saved. His life may never improve, but he now knows that he is appreciated, and has made a difference.
Despite the seeming feel-good ending, it's significant that Potter completely gets away with the theft, almost impossible to achieve at the time under the Hays Production Code. Admittedly it's more that he took advantage of Uncle Billy's mistake, but it was still wrong.
See Also: Frank Capra, for more details about the director of this film.
Not to be confused with It's a Wonderful World, a completely different black-and-white Jimmy Stewart movie made seven years prior. Neither should be confused with the video game It's A Wonderful World AKA The World Ends With You.
Trope Namer / Trope Maker for:
Just say the word, Mary, and I'll lasso you some Tropes:
- Adaptational Villainy: In the short story that the movie is based on, Mr. Potter is only the unseen owner of a photography studio and doesn't have any conflict with George.
- Adult Child: The head angel grumbles that Clarence has the brain of a rabbit. Even George picks up on this after a few minutes.
- Adult Fear: Losing all your money? Possibly betrayed by those you love? Never fulfilled your dreams? This movie has Adult Fear in spades.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: That gym with the swimming pool under the floor really exists (at Beverly Hills High School). Capra added the scene to the movie after he heard about the gym, noting that no writer could have come up with an idea like that.
- An Aesop: No man is a failure who has friends.
- Art Shift: The Pottersville scenes are done in the Film Noir style.
- Backhanded Compliment: Potter eulogizing Peter Bailey as "a man of high ideals. ...so called."
- Bad Future: What would happen without George, obviously.
- Bad Guy Bar: Nick's. "This oughta be Martini's place!"
- Bar Brawl: George starts up one when he gets drunk at the Martini bar.
- Bald of Evil: Mr. Potter.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: "I wish I was never born!"
- Betty and Veronica: Mary and Violet, respectively (George chooses Mary).
- Bittersweet Ending: For such a famously feel-good movie, the ending is surprisingly ambiguous. George's life hasn't really improved, only his perspective has. Audiences may be frustrated by how Potter gets off scot-free, but really, it's the internal conflict that is the most important, so it's the one that gets resolved.
- Potter did not get off free. He once again failed to get rid of George's business (which is struggling, but still chugging along). George has renewed vigor in life and many years ahead of him. Potter is a miserable old man who seems to be having health problems and is certain to go to Hell after death.
- He stole eight thousand dollars from the Building & Loan, and therefore indirectly from the people of Bedford Falls, not to mention attempting to frame George for embezzlement
- There was a deleted scene of Clarence appearing before Potter to shame him for driving George nearly to suicide. Clarence points out the fate awaiting Potter after death and vanishes before his eyes, leaving Potter terrified and suffering a heart attack. See Karma Houdini below.
- This may also explain another deleted scene, where a chastened Potter and his mook stop by the Bailey household, intending to confess the truth about the misplaced $8,000, but when Potter hears the rejoicing he turns away in shame without saying anything.
- The ending suggested by Saturday Night Live - where the town finds out Potter stole the money, and they turn into a lynch mob - seems to be the fan-preferred ending. It helps that it turned out Potter faked being crippled all those years. http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/its-a-wonderful-life-lost-ending/2731/
- Book Ends: The movie begins and ends with the shot of a large, ringing bell.
- Bow Ties Are Cool: Clarence. Also, Ernie when he's on the job.
- Brick Joke: George repeatedly breaking the knob off the staircase rail. See Running Gag bellow.
- Catch Phrase: "Hee-haw!" for Sam Wainwright.
- Chekhov's Armory: Pretty much everything that happens over the course of the movie is shown to be significant when George sees what Bedford Falls is like without him.
- Chekhov's Gag : Uncle Billy's being forgetful and scatter brained is Played for Laughs for about 2/3 of the film until his carelessness leads him to leave the company's $8000 with Mr Potter.
- Childhood Friend Romance: Mary, who was in love with George from girlhood onward.
- Chivalrous Pervert: George shows signs of this. "Maybe I can sell tickets."
- Christmas Miracle
- Chronic Hero Syndrome: George just has to help everyone at the cost of his own dreams. He doesn't even go through with his own suicide when he sees that someone (Clarence) is drowning and needs help, and he decides to jump in to rescue him instead.
- Close Knit Community: Bedford Falls
- Closeup on Head: While George is drowning his sorrows at the Martini bar, camera moves up close to his head as he makes a desperate prayer and is crying Manly Tears.
- The tears were real. Jimmy Stewart got so into the moment that he genuinely started crying while reciting the lines of the prayer. Frank Capra asked him to do it over so he could zoom the camera in and Stewart couldn't duplicate it. So the scene isn't a camera zoom, it's hours of painstaking work to take a small part of the original footage and enlarge it bit-by-bit.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Everyone thinks Clarence is nuts at his first appearance, including George.
- Among the living, Uncle Billy is the best candidate.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Henry Potter, one of the most notable examples in film.
- Crapsack World: Pottersville, from Capra's wholesome, conservative Catholic perspective. The main part of town is a swinging place packed with bars, dance halls, strip clubs and gambling dens blasting jazz music. Just in case you might think that sounds pretty awesome, the rest of the town is a depressing, dreary slum full of abandoned houses, where the people George knows are all miserable.
- George spends most of the Pottersville sequence trying to find the last friend he saw, bar owner Martini. A deleted scene exists of George finds Martini's grave near Harry's, and that Martini and his family died in a fire because they couldn't move out of Potter's slums.
- Crucified Hero Shot: If you're looking for it, it's so obvious: when the angels 'pause' George's life, he's standing with his arms held up and out in the pose.
- Daddy's Girl: Zuzu seems to be this.
- Dead Guy, Junior: George and Mary's first son is named Peter, after George's late father.
- Deadpan Snarker: Mary, of all people, has moments of this.
- When she sees George walking back and forth in front of her house scraping her wooden fence with a stick, she yells out her window, "What are you doing? Picketing?"
- George was a notorious snarker in his youth.
Clarence: We don't need money in heaven.
- Decoy Damsel: Inverted with Clarence, who screams like a girl after intentionally jumping in the river.
- Despair Event Horizon: George's entire life is a spiral of quiet desperation which is slowly winding him up... until he finally snaps. And it is terrifying.
- Deus Ex Machina: Technically. But it takes half the movie to work, and George still has to make the important decision himself in the end.
- Distracted by the Sexy: At one point a nameless background male character turns his head to watch Violet walk and nearly gets hit by a car as a result.
- The Ditz: Uncle Billy.
- Dramatic Wind: Lampshaded by Clarence, who is irritated at the unwanted special effects.
- Drink Order: George orders a bourbon while Clarence deliberates what to get, which only makes the barman angrier.
Nick: Look, mister, I'm standin' here waitin' for you to make up your mind...
- Driven to Suicide: George contemplating jumping off the bridge.
- Drowning My Sorrows: George gets drunk in the bar before attempting suicide.
- George's boss in the past, Mr. Gower, gets smashed after receiving a telegram informing him of his son's death.
- The Dutiful Son: George stays in Bedford Falls to take over his dying father's business.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Well, sort of it. It still has a bittersweet feeling.
- Egopolis: Pottersville.
- Ernie lives "in a shack in Potter's Field", the bizarro version of Bailey Park.
- Ironically, the ego getting stroked is George's. He's being shown a Crapsack World that exists because he didn't. The real world even has a housing complex called Bailey Park.
- Pottersville is not such a terrible place. It depends on the viewers opinion of good living conditions. Exept the fact that most people in Pottersvillle are miserable, of course.
- Empathic Environment: The snow ceases to fall when Pottersville takes over.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Mr. Potter is this trope. Seriously, almost every scene and every fifth line of his dialouge features a gross miscalculation of one of the Baileys, or human nature in general. To elaborate ...
- Potter doesn't understand Peter Bailey's motivation for creating the Building & Loan, or George's motivation for (permanently) postponing his vacation and college education to keep the B&L going... even after George spells it out for him in his "The Reason You Suck" Speech. The notion that providing decent housing for the townspeople might be rewarding simply does not click with Potter.
- Potter assumes that the crowd that runs on the B&L is violent lynch mob rather then the frightened, desperate - but quite well behaved crowd it actualy is.
- Still not sure who or what he's dealing with, Potter wonders aloud to his real estate flunky how Bailey commands public respect despite the fact that he doesn't make a great deal of money off of his (potentially lucrative) housing projects.
- Potter attempts to bribe George with a lucrative job -- provided that George dissolve the B&L and hand it over to Potter. Potter makes a good sales pitch ... but George is only tempted for a grand total of thirty seconds (time it), before the revulsion hits him.
- Potter's final swing-and-a-miss is easy to overlook, though the climax hinges on it. While gloating over George's downfall, Potter taunts him asking "why doesn't he ask the rabble" for the money, predicting that the "rabble" would run him out of town. Of course, this is exactly what Mary and Uncle Billy do and the townspeople rally in support en-masse around George. Potter is a poor student of the human creature...
- Evil Cripple: Mr. Potter's wheelchair looks like a throne.
- Evil Old Folks: Potter.
- Evil Is Petty: Potter never forgets George's insult to him at a board meeting, even twenty years later.
- Evilly Affable: Mr. Potter
- Failed a Spot Check: George and Mary are the only couple who don't realize they're dancing over a swimming pool.
- For Want of a Nail: The entire meaning of the alternate world.
Clarence: Harry Bailey, fell through the ice and drowned at the age of nine.
- A Friend in Need
- Friend to All Living Things: Uncle Billy has a bizarre assortment of animals living with him.
- Get Out!: SLAM. "That's it. Out you two pixies go, though the door or out the window!"
- Getting Crap Past the Radar:
- After loaning out his own money and having only two dollars left.
George: Let's put them in the vault and see what happens.
- Violet is as promiscuous as a female character is allowed to be in 1940's cinema, culminating in her clearly implied fate as a hooker in Potterville, making this Foreshadowing gag in the childhood flashback scene all the harsher:
- Potter very strongly implies that some folk think that George is having an affair with Violet, due to his loaning her money.
- Not to mention Pottersville, who has a brothel with a drawing of a seminude woman, wearing only underwear, from the back.
- Gondor Calls for Aid: The entire town turns out to help raise the money for George.
- The Great Depression: George and Mary's wedding day was the day of a bank run on the Building and Loan.
- Happily Married: George and Mary. George's parents are also implied to have been this, and in a single throwaway line midway through the movie, it's implied that Uncle Billy is in perpetual mourning for his own late wife.
- Have a Gay Old Time: "He's making violent love to me, mother!"
- Hello, Nurse!: Violet Bick.
- Heroic BSOD: George suffers this when he's on verge of bankruptcy.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Not in the normal sense, but George and Mary give their honeymoon money to the people who need money to make it through the week that the local bank is closed.
- Hobos: As George wasn't there to stop him from mixing up a prescription, Pottersville's Mr. Gower is a homeless ex-con.
- Honor Before Reason: A lot of things George does, especially refusing the job Mr. Potter offers him.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Violet
- Hot Librarian / Cute Glasses Girl: While "Pottersville" Mary isn't really meant to be this, she's still Donna Reed in glasses. They had to apply a mask of concealer just to make her seem average.
- Hot Mom: Mary.
- How We Got Here
- I Coulda Been a Contender: George had big dreams of seeing the world, all of them dashed.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: In Pottersville, George convinces himself that a stiff one will clear him right up.
- Ernie says this after he witnesses Clarence teleport.
- Iconic Item: Zuzu's Petals.
- Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Pottersville's Bert finally has enough of George and fires a wayward shot at him. Probably Justified, since God is unlikely to let George get seriously hurt.
- Fridge Brilliance: Bert went to war in the original timeline, but presumably was needed more in Pottersville afterwards, and so didn't get advanced training.
- Incessant Music Madness: When George returns home after discovering that Billy misplaced the deposit money, he begins to mentally unravel while Janie can be heard practicing Hark the Herald Angels Sing on the piano. Eventually, he snaps and shouts, "Haven't you learned that silly tune yet? You've been playing it over and over! Now stop it! Stop it!!"
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: George Bailey.
- Inferred Holocaust: The tropes of Straw Man Has a Point and Inferred Holocaust overlap.
- 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.
- 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. , , , , , , 
- Pottersville being a gigantic Egopolis for Mister Potter is economically depressed to any obvious viewer. The fact that alcohol and hookers are freely available doesn't mean the town is Las Vegas, it just means it's people are trying to find some relief. Plenty of towns have died after going through something similar. Likewise, George is possessed of a beautiful family and numerous friends. George is mostly just wondering if he could have done more if he'd had different circumstances, a situation many people suffer from.
- Ironic Echo: Potter relishes George groveling before him. His brow is twisted with rage as he recalls George calling him a "frustrated old man."
- It Got Worse: Potter holding the money mistakenly handed to him by Uncle Billy.
- Jacob Marley Apparel: Clarence is still wearing the undershirt he wore when he kicked it. "I didn't have time to get changed."
- Jerkass: Honestly, if you didn't want to just smash Potter in the face before this movie, after viewing it, you will.
- Jerkass Has a Point: George employs an incompetent relative in a position of trust and gives home loans to people with bad credit. Sound familiar?
- Karma Houdini: Potter, in a time where Karma Houdinis were banned in the film industry. He was supposed to die of a heart attack, but the scene was cut because Clarence's narration over the scene made him seem too macabre.
- To be fair, Potter didn't actively do anything, he just took unfair advantage of the situation by not speaking up about the $8000.
- Large Ham: Actually a World of Ham, expecially George thanks to Jimmy Stewart whenever he's happy or depressed.
- Law of Conservation of Detail: Much of the first hour sets up what will be changed by George not existing.
- Leitmotif: Some of Clarence's scenes have an instrumental of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" playing in the background.
- The Load: Uncle Billy.
- Maiden Aunt: When George gets the chance to find out how the world would have turned out if he'd never been born, he finds that his wife Mary had become a bitter, unhappy Maiden Aunt.
- Mathematician's Answer: When George asks Mary whether she is having a boy or a girl, she just nods and says "Mmm-hmmm!"
- Meaningful Name: "Pottersville". In the Bible, the potter's field refers to a place where foreigners (or strangers) are buried. In George's alternate reality, the town is a graveyard where he finds his brother's tombstone.
- There's a more overt reference than that. In the first act, the neighborhood Potter built (that the Martini family moves out of) is actually called "Potter's Field".
- There is also the Biblical reference as 'The Potter's Field' was the place where suicides were also buried.
- Morally-Bankrupt Banker: Averted and played straight.
- Mysterious Middle Initial: Henry F. Potter.
- Naked People Trapped Outside: In 1946!
- Never Recycle a Building: George and Mary move into an old abandoned mansion which, until then, had been used for the local teens to throw rocks at.
- Nice Hat: Clarence's fedora hat.
- Number One Dime: Clarence's copy of Tom Sawyer.
- Older Than They Look: "Seven hundred and ninety-three, ahh......next May."
- Our Angels Are Different: This is where the whole 'every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings' concept was born.
- The Power of Friendship
- Pretty in Mink: A few furs in the backgrounds of some scenes, and it's mentioned Violet has a few.
- Prophetic Name: Methinks Mr. Martini's path in life was set from birth.
- There's also Freddie Othello, Donna's would-be jealous suitor at the high school dance.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: See the Alumninum Christmas Tree entry. The scene was called "Movie fakery at it's worst" despite there being a real one, since the real one was in Beverly Hills, Calif. Swimming pools under the floorboards were rare then. A small town in New York State which is being kept respectable by creative refinancing is not likely to have one back in the late 1920s. Who paid for that?
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Well, what are you but a warped frustrated young man?
- Which is a call-back to one George gives Potter near the beginning of the film...and he gives him another one mid-way through.
- Refuge in Audacity: George at the dance after he cuts in-between Mary and her date to dance with her. Her date protests and George tells him to stop being annoying, and he actually apologizes to George before he realizes what he did.
- The Remake: The 1977 Made for TV Movie It Happened One Christmas, featuring a Gender Flipped version of the story with Mary (played by Marlo Thomas) as the central character.
- Ret-Gone and Unperson: Combined in the definitive scene, where George gets to see what life would be like in Bedford Falls – check that, Potterville – if he never existed. Indeed, none of the townspeople George holds dear – Bert, Ernie, Mary, Uncle Billy, Giuseppe, Harry and his mother – know who he is, and think that this strange fellow is some kind of kook who is out to cause trouble. Worse, Mr. Potter has a vice grip on Bedford Falls, which becomes Pottersville (because George's nullifying influence that always foils Potter isn't there). In the end, George sees that he is needed in Bedford Falls and wants to become a person again. Clarence obliges.
- The Roaring Twenties
- Rule of Three : George pulls the head off the wooden railing three times. See Running Gag bellow.
- Running Gag: George climbing the stairs of his house and yanking the head off of the wooden railing.
- Screaming Woman: Mary as an old maid. She even faints in the arms of some burly men!
- The Scrooge: Potter, obviously.
- Scully Syndrome: George is slow to believe Clarence is really an angel who has altered reality, and keeps waving off the clues that something is wrong, like his restored hearing. "Musta been that jump in that cold water..."
- Servile Snarker: Annie, who works as maid for George's parents.
- Shaming the Mob: When a bank run threatens to put the Building and Loan under.
- Shipper on Deck: A middle-aged man who is tired of waiting for George and Mary to kiss.
- Single-Malt Vision: A snarky old man to George, who insists he drove into the man's tree. "You must mean two other trees."
- Smug Snake: Mr. Potter
- Snow Means Love: It stops snowing after George wishes he'd never been born, and only starts up again after he decides he wants to live again.
- Stealing From the Till: What George is accused of after Potter takes the money.
- Super Multi-Purpose Room: The high school gym, which opens up into a swimming pool.
- Talking Down the Suicidal: The whole reason for the plot. The angels have decided to respond to the many people praying for George Bailey by having Clarence do whatever he can to persuade George to not commit suicide. He does this by granting George's wish to have never been born and showing him the resulting state of affairs, demonsrating what a positive force George has been in the lives of his friends and family.
- Take It to the Bridge: George almost take a highdive leap from one.
- Telegraph Gag STOP: Sam Wainwright sends a telegram from London when he hears George is in trouble. Ernie reads it aloud, including the stops.
Mr. Gower cabled you need cash, stop. My office instructed to advance you up to twenty-five thousand dollars, stop. Hee Haw and Merry Christmas! Sam Wainwright.
Clarence: You really had a wonderful life.
- Trigger Happy: All George has done is drive his car into a tree and punch a guy at a bar but Bert the cop feels free to whip out his sidearm and take some shots as George runs away down a Pottersville Main Street filled with people.
- This is the Pottersville version of Bert. He's most likely mean and nasty as the rest of the mirror-universe residents. Considering the kind of folks that Pottersville attracts, Bert Prime assumes the worst of a mysterious and mentally-unstable visitor.
- Vice City: Pottersville seems to be full of less than reputable establishments.
- The Voice: Angels Franklin and Joseph, who only "appear" as stars in the night sky during the opening scene.
- The Voiceless: Potter's aide.
- We Can Rule Together: Potter attempts to bribe George into giving up the Building & Loan.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Ruth Dakin Bailey. And for that matter, the potential job Harry was offered by her father/his father-in-law that would have allowed him to leave Bedford Falls.
- World War II: Mentioned in the first act. George was exempt from military service because of his bad ear, but organized his community's efforts and served in civil roles. Harry Bailey served in the Navy, and received the (Congressional) Medal of Honor for saving a transport full of soldiers.
- Writers Cannot Do Math: Harry Bailey's grave reading "1911 - 1919," despite Clarence saying he died at the age of nine. For those that don't understand, that's eight, not nine.
- Although, it might not be. A lot of people round up near their birthday. More than 8yrs, 8 mo. would be rounded roughly to 9. It could have been "'roughly' nine".
- You Are Not Alone
- Younger Than They Look: In the Alternate Universe, Clarence says that Mary is an "old maid", yet when we see her, she looks a bit younger when she is closing the library. Maybe it must be due to that makeup.
- We're also talking about a culture where women typically married quite young. Many married straight out of high school or even quit high school to get married. You were an "old maid" much sooner than we would think of someone being an old maid now.
- Not quite out of high school - she was 18 at the time of Peter Bailey's death, so she was 22 when she married George in the original timeline. Which makes her 35 when she's an "old maid".
- We're also talking about a culture where women typically married quite young. Many married straight out of high school or even quit high school to get married. You were an "old maid" much sooner than we would think of someone being an old maid now.
- Youngest Child Wins: Appears to be in full force, with George's younger brother Harry becoming a war hero. Averted in the end, as Harry leads the toast for George Bailey, the most popular man in Bedford Falls.
"To my big brother George, the richest man in town."
- We see in the backstory that Harry only won because George stepped aside for him. George looked out for his brother and made several sacrifices for him, including staying behind and looking after the Building & Loan so Harry could go to college (even paying for it with his own tuition). In the alternate Bedford Falls, Harry never lived to see his tenth birthday without George to save his life.
'Ding Ding! Atta boy, Clarence!
- "Pixie" was almost certainly meant as slang for hobo or drunk (i.e. pixilated). Or just Nick making fun of Clarence's claims to being an angel.