It’s Christmas Eve. A desperate man is suicidal, certain that his entire life has been worthless, and he’s facing a ruinous scandal. But heaven has better things in store for George Bailey. So begins Frank Capra’s classic film.
George Bailey (James Stewart) stands in a snowstorm on a bridge in Bedford Falls poised to jump into the raging waters. Suddenly, someone else leaps off the bridge, screaming for help as he hits the freezing water. George, distracted from his own purpose, vaults in to save him. Unknown to George, the man is Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), Angel Second Class, sent by heaven in answer to the prayers of George’s worried family. While both are drying off, George angrily tells Clarence “I wish I had never been born.”
Clarence must save George to earn his Angel First Class wings, and opts to show George what Bedford Falls would be like if he’d been granted that wish.
Through George’s frantic eyes, we see the town as it would have been without him. His war hero brother, Harry (Todd Karns) wouldn’t be alive to save 1500 sailors because George wouldn’t have been around to save Harry from drowning when they were kids. Smalltown flirt, Violet (Gloria Grahame) wouldn’t have become a hooker because she would’ve used money George loaned her to improve her life. Emil the pharmacist (H.B. Warner) wouldn’t be the town lush because George would’ve prevented a child’s prescription being accidentally filled with arsenic. George’s wife, Mary (Donna Reed) wouldn’t be the spinster librarian because she would’ve married George. Bedford Falls would be Pottersville, because old man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) wouldn’t have George interfering when he rode roughshod over everyone.
After realizing no one knows him, George returns to the bridge crying out to God to let him live again.
Frank Capra called It’s a Wonderful Life “the favorite of all my films.” His previous films were so sentimental, they were called Capra-corn by critics. Nobody predicted It’s a Wonderful Life taking the Number One spot on AFI’s list of Most Inspirational Films of All Time and 11th Greatest Film of All Time.
No hit when it opened, IAWL became a classic in the 70s due to a copyright goof allowing its showing on television, and creating millions of new fans.
It began as a Christmas card. In 1943, Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a short story, The Greatest Gift, and had 200 copies printed as Christmas cards for friends. RKO bought the story for $10,000. Three scripts were written, but the project was shelved when Cary Grant turned it down. RKO sold it to Capra for what they paid and threw in the scripts free.
Capra had only James Stewart in mind for George Bailey. Both Capra and Stewart had just returned from military duty in WW II and this was to be their post-war comeback picture. Capra took the best parts of the RKO scripts, added his own whimsical touches, like the character of Old Man Potter (almost played by W.C. Fields), and hired two writers, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with polishing by Dorothy Parker.
The all-powerful Motion Picture Code forced Capra to remove censored words (impotent, jerk, lousy), but he got revenge. The Code insisted criminals be dealt retributive justice, but Potter was never punished for stealing a crucial $8,000 from George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy.
Years later, SNL’s skit, “The Lost Ending,” had Old Man Potter (Jon Lovitz) finally getting comeuppance in a smackdown by George (Dana Carvey), Mary (Jan Hooks) Harry (Dennis Miller) and Uncle Billy (Phil Hartman). [Transcript]
A great Christmas family feel-good event. Not for diabetics.