It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is a beloved Christmas movie featuring an all-star cast. With the help of an angel, George Bailey gets his life back on track.
Today’s movie is a Christmas favorite features some great stars. The film is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)[i] [ii] starring the amazing James Stewart as George Bailey. Jimmy as I will refer to him from here on, was born in 1908. At prep school, Jimmy was an athlete, musician, and actor. He entered Princeton in 1929 and continued to act while studying. Following graduation, he toured with the University Players and was on Broadway in 1932. The Depression dried up any work for the young actor. In 1934, the lanky actor went to Hollywood and quickly found work in a short title Art Trouble (1934) and his first feature the next year The Murder Man (1935). His roles increased regularly and he hit it big in 1937 when the first of his three collaborations with Frank Capra was released. The movies You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) were big hits and made Stewart a star. But he was making other movies as well, such as Destry Rides Again (1939) co-starring with Marlene Dietrich, a movie that was spoofed in Blazing Saddles (1974), and The Philadelphia Story (1940) with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.
He was drafted into the Army in 1940 as a private but his education and flying experience helped him rise to the rank of colonel in the Army Air Corp. Stewart like Clark Gable actually flew combat missions over Europe during World War II. Stewart stayed in the reserves and retired in 1959 as a brigadier general.
The beloved, every-man, Stewart’s career picked right back up after the war. During his long career, he worked across virtually every genre of film. In westerns, there was Winchester ’73 (1950), Broken Arrow (1950), The Naked Spur (1953), The Man from Laramie (1955), Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with John Wayne, Cheyenne Autumn (1964) where he took the role of Wyatt Earp, The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), and The Shootist (1976) which was John Wayne’s last movie. He had a few film biopics such as The Stratton Story (1949), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), and Carbine Williams (1952) about a prisoner that invented the M-1 rifle used in World War II. Stewart starred in four Alfred Hitchcock thrillers. These films were Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo (1958). Other great movies by Stewart include Harvey (1950) where only he could see a giant rabbit, No Highway in the Sky (1951) again with Marlene Dietrich where Stewart’s character was predicting a plane crash, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) where he was a murderer on the run hiding as a circus clown, Strategic Air Command (1955), Anatomy of a Murder (1959) which shocked the public because the explicit topic, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) where he takes a family vacation way before the Grisswalds, Shenandoah (1965) playing a man of faith looking for his children during the Civil War, and finally The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) where Stewart is a down and out pilot marooned with crash survivors in the Libyan desert. Of course, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) may be his most beloved role. Stewart worked until near his death at the age of 89 in 1997.
Donna Reed played Mary Hatch. Reed was born in Iowa in 1921. She was a beauty queen and went she went to college in LA she was noticed by MGM talent scouts and received a contract. Her first film was The Getaway (1941). Through the 1940s Reed received increasingly better roles mostly as the wholesome, girl-next-door type. In 1953, she flipped this image on its head when she played hostess Alma, Reed prostitute, in From Here to Eternity (1953). For this role, she won the Oscar for best supporting actress. Showing her range she starred in The Caddy (1953), a comedy with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. She handled the role of Sacajawea in The Far Horizons (1955), with Charlton Heston and Fred MacMurray as Lewis and Clark.
In 1958, she began working on television in “The Donna Reed Show” 1958-1966. She continued to work but at a reduced rate through the 1970s and early 80s. In 1986, two weeks before her 65th birthday, Reed died of pancreatic cancer.
Lionel Barrymore played mean old rich man Mr. Potter. We covered Barrymore in Episode 40 – Key Largo.
Thomas Mitchell played the role of scatterbrained Uncle Billy. The child of Irish immigrants, Mitchell followed his father into the newspaper business. He expanded this into writing for theater and by 1913 decided to become a stage actor and debuted on Broadway in 1916. He was in his first film, a silent, in 1923. In 1937, Mitchell was cast in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), as an embezzler. The next year he worked with director John Ford in The Hurricane (1937). The year of Mitchell should be 1939. He had five films come out in the cinematically magical year. These films were John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and of course, Gone with the Wind (1939) in the role of Scarlet O’Hara’s father. Other great supporting roles include It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and High Noon (1952). He continued to work through 1961, passing away in 1962.
Henry Travers played the role of angel Clarence. English-born Travers emigrating to the U.S. in 1917. First, he worked on Broadway and then entering movies with his first film – Reunion in Vienna (1933). He had a lot of grandfather type roles in films such as High Sierra (1941), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). He played a doctor in The Invisible Man (1933). Travers retired from films in 1949 and died in 1965.
Beulah Bondi played George’s mother, Mrs. Bailey. Born in 1888, she was active on Broadway by 1925. She took her first movie role at the age of 43 in 1931. She was cast as mothers or grandmothers mostly and even played Jimmy Stewart’s mother four times. Some of her roles include The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) – love that title, Of Human Hearts (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Our Town (1940), The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) with John Wayne and Harry Carey, and Penny Serenade (1941). Many consider her best role to be the Depression-era Make Way for Tomorrow (1937).
Bondi worked in films until 1963 and on television until 1976. She died in 1981 after she suffered broken ribs from tripping over her cat. She was 92.
Frank Faylen played the taxi driver Ernie, the same business he was in Episode 38 – 99 River Street
Ward Bond played the role of Bert the cop. A gruff guy, Bond was born in Nebraska in 1903. Bond became friend with John Wayne while they were at the University of Southern California and Wayne helped him to get work as an extra. Bond was in John Ford’s Salute (1929) and became friends with him as well. Later he would be in almost every John Ford and John Wayne film. Some of his other films include Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Sergeant York (1941), and Gentleman Jim (1942).
Bond was a proponent of blacklisting in Hollywood during the 1950s. He had a television show, “Wagon Train” 1957-1961. In 1960, he traveled to Dallas for a football game and died of a heart attack in his hotel room.
Gloria Grahame played misunderstood sexpot Violet. Grahame was born in LA in 1923. Her mother was an actress and she was raised to do the same. She left Hollywood High School before graduation and joined a touring show. When she was in a Broadway play she was spotted by Louis B. Mayer and given an MGM contract in 1944. Her first film role was as Sally Murfin in Blonde Fever (1944). However, it was her role in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) that made her stand out from the other starlets. For some reason, MGM didn’t think she was right for them and sold her contract to RKO. Her RKO films include It Happened in Brooklyn (1947) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). However, Crossfire (1947) made her a bigger star. She was nominated for an Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and won the Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). In between these films she was fantastic in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). One of Grahame’s greatest role was as a b-girl in The Big Heat (1953) with Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin.
She made two important films in the 1950s – the musical Oklahoma! (1955) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Her roles began to slow during the 1960s and 1970s. Her last films were Melvin and Howard (1980) and The Nesting (1981). She died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 57.
H.B. Warner played the mean old pharmacist, Mr. Gower. Warner was born in England but made it to America in the early 1900s. After stage work he made his film debut in a short titled Harp of Tara (1914). He began working with Cecil B. DeMille in 1914 and was cast as Jesus in DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927). When talkies came in he was a popular supporting actor. His films include Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Topper Returns (1941), and of course It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). He played himself in Sunset Blvd. (1950) I assume as part of Norma’s crypt group. His last credit role was in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and he had an uncredited part in Darby’s Rangers (1958). Warner died in 1958 at the age of 83.
William Edmunds played Mr. Martini. Edmunds was born in Italy in 1885 with a different name. He was cast in roles of various ethnic types. His best-known roles are when he was cast as an Italian in films such as A Bell for Adano (1945), The Lost Moment (1947), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). He also had a role in House of Frankenstein (1944). He died in 1981.
Robert J. Anderson played young George Bailey. We mentioned Anderson briefly in Episode 52 – The Bishop’s Wife (1947).
Sheldon Leonard played the role of Bartender Nick. He was discussed in Episode 41 – Zombies on Broadway (1945).
Karolyn Grimes was the Bailey Child – Zuzu. We mentioned Grimes in Episode 52 –The Bishop’s Wife (1947).
The movie begins with prayers going up from the idealized town of Bedford Falls, New York. It then switches to a view of space galaxies talking to each other about a man on Earth who has lost his way. The man is named George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and he is about to commit suicide. The angel that is on deck is no Dudley. He is angel second class Clarence (Henry Travers) and he hasn’t earned his wings yet. They describe Clarence, a former clockmaker, as having the IQ of a rabbit and the faith of a child.
The deities summon Clarence and explain the problem. They decide that most of the time will be spent looking back at George Bailey’s life so they can understand how he arrived at the point of wanting to end his life.
The first time I ever saw this movie was on Christmas Eve when I was stationed in Germany. It was at the point that the signal went out and I had to wait almost another decade to find out what the story was about. This was way before the Internet.
The earth cam opens with young George Bailey (Robert J. Anderson) and some other kids sledding down a hill onto an ice pond. When George’s younger brother Harry (Georgie Nokes) comes down the hill he goes too far and breaks through the ice. George jumps in without hesitation to save his brother. As a result of the cold and a later infection, George loses all the hearing in his left ear.
Weeks later when George is well he goes back to his after-school job at old man Gower’s Drug Store. When the boys are walking George to work they see Mr. Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) riding in a black carriage that seems more like a hearse. They say he is the richest and meanest man in town. The character Mr. Monty Burns is at least partially based on Henry Potter.
The year is 1919 and the Great War has just ended but the Spanish flu is killing indiscriminately. Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) is drinking and yells at George for being late. Young Mary (Gene Gale) is waiting at the soda fountain for George. Young Violet (Jeanine Ann Roose) soon arrives. The two girls are vying for George’s attention. George just wants to travel and do things. After Gower yells again George sees a telegram that says Gower’s son died from influenza.
In the back, George sees that Mr. Gower has accidentally mixed poison in the medicine George is supposed to deliver. George goes to the Bailey Building and Loan to get advice from his father Peter (Samuel S. Hinds). Peter is in a meeting with Mr. Potter and George’s Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) won’t let him into the office. When Billy has to return a call to the bank examiner, George slips into the meeting. When Potter calls Peter a failure George screams that his pa is the biggest man in town and he is ushered out of the meeting.
George goes back to the pharmacy without delivering the medicine. When Mr. Gower finds out he starts slapping George and makes his bad ear bleed. Was this acceptable work practice. The young Violet watches the beating George takes. George tells Gower that he put poison in the medicine and excuses him because he was distraught. He then promises he will never tell as Gower begs for forgiveness.
The movie jumps forward in time and George (Jimmy Stewart) is getting ready to leave town. He is buying a large suitcase and when he picks it out he finds that Mr. Gower has already paid for it. Hush money I guess. George plans on leaving on a cattle boat for Europe. He goes through town saying farewell to his friends. He meets two of his friends Ernie (Frank Faylen) the cabbie and Bert (Ward Bond) the policeman. Update to date information is trending towards this not being the place where the Muppets of the same name got their moniker. Grown-up Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) comes by and all of the men are smitten.
At home, George and his brother Harry (Todd Karns) are getting ready to go to Harry’s the high-school dance. Dad Peter, mom (Beulah Bondi), and maid (Lillian Randolph) are trying to serve dinner. George refers to the Bailey boarding house and he says his father looks tired. Peter says it’s because of fighting with Potter. George has been working at the Building and Loan for four years and he plans to go to college after his trip. George wants to build bridges and see big cities. Although he respects his father he needs to leave. Peter explains that giving homes to people is just as important.
At the dance that night George sees his old friends including Sam Wainright (Frank Albertson). He is asked to dance with one of his friend’s little sister, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed). George and Mary are dancing away when someone pushes the button to open the gym floor and dumps them into the swimming pool. All the rest of the dancers jump in for fun. George and Mary walk home in borrowed dry clothes. George is getting a little twitterpated. Mary talks about she would like to live in the old Gandville House as George throws at the abandoned structure. A man on a porch watching the pair yells “why don’t kiss her instead of talking her to death.” Mary loses her robe and hides in flowers.
About this time Uncle Billy and Harry drive up and tell George that his father has had a stroke. His father dies and George does not go on his trip to Europe. He is ready to leave for college when Potter tries to dissolve the Building and Loan. After the board meets they say the only way they will not close the Building and Loan is if George takes over.
George agrees to run the Building and Loan. George gives his college money to his younger brother Harry so he can attend college first. The plan is that when Harry comes back from college he will take George’s place and George will go to college. Brother Harry was an All-American football player at college. Four years later when Harry returns he has married a girl from school Ruth Dakin (Virginia Patton). Harry is also taking a job from Ruth’s father and won’t be living in Bedford Falls. George’s plans are sunk again and he remains stuck in Bedford Falls.
George’s mother tells him that Mary Hatch is back from college. George thinks she plans on marrying Sam Wainwright. George heads downtown and runs into Violet. She is looking great as usual. George’s idea of a good time and hers are very different. He finally makes his way to Mary’s house. On the phone, Sam offers George a ground floor opportunity in plastics. George and Mary do a little fencing and then decide they are madly in love and will be married.
George has saved $2000 for their honeymoon trip. As near as I can figure it is around 1932. As Ernie is driving the couple through the town they see a mob at the bank and think there is being a “run on the bank.” This happens when people lose faith in the institution and the people want to withdraw more than the local reserves can supply. George runs to the Building and Loan to see what is happening there. When he gets to the business there is a mob there as well. Not knowing what to do Uncle Billy had locked the door. Earlier in the morning, the bank had called in the loan with the Building and Loan. Potter uses this to take control of the bank and offers .50 cents on the dollar for Building and Loan shares. George tries to explain that the money is not in the bank and that it’s in the homes of their neighbors. Some folks are heading to take Potter’s deal. Mary hands over the honeymoon money and George is able to settle the run and make it through the day.
While George was saving the day Ernie, Bert, and Mary have fixed up the old Grandville House for the honeymoon. (Ward Bond) the policeman arranges for them to have a cut-rate honeymoon at their house. They serenade the newlyweds from outside in the rain. I don’t know if they stole the house or just starting squatting there.
Now firmly trapped in Bedford Falls George gets busy making people’s lives better. He loans out money and builds a subdivision named “Bailey Park.” One of the people, that buys a house is immigrant Mr. Martini (William Edmunds), the owner of a local bar. Potter gets mad with how much business the Building and Loan is taking from his slums.
Potter calls in George and offers him a high paying job. George is tempted but then he remembers what he stands for and rejects Potter’s offer.
Over time, George and Mary have four children as they fix up the old house. When World War II breaks out Harry Bailey flies fighters for the Navy, Bert fought in North Africa, and Ernie parachuted into France. But George is left behind because he can’t hear out of one ear. Harry shoots down two enemy planes and saves a transport ship carrying a lot of men. For this action, he is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in a Washington ceremony.
On Christmas Eve day everyone is getting ready for a big homecoming party for war hero Harry. Uncle Billy is sent to make an $8,000 deposit while the bank examiner waited to examine the books of the Building and Loan. Uncle Billy taunts Potter with the paper and leaves the money inside. Potter finds the money and holds onto it.
Violet comes by to see George. She needs to make a fresh start so George loans her some of his own money. She kisses him on the cheek and the bank examiner is very suspicious. Billy tells George that he has lost the money. They retrace Billy steps while the bank examiner watches. Finally, George has a hissy fit. He says it means scandal, bankruptcy, and prison and he wasn’t taking the rap.
When George gets home he is in a foul mood. Mary tells the upset George that their youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) has a cold and the doctor has been by to see her. She won a flower at school and walked home with her coat open. I’m not sure that’s how it works. When George sees Zuzu he puts a few of the flower petals in his watch pocket.
The teacher calls to check on Zuzu but George takes the phone and berates the teacher. Then the teacher’s husband gets on and they have words as well. George starts raging and breaking things. He yells at the kids and has them all crying. When George leaves Mary says the kids should pray for their dad.
Mary spreads the word that George is in trouble. George goes to see Potter. Potter says the DA is looking for George and that George is worth more dead than alive. Potter accuses him of paying off Violet.
George goes to Martini’s bar and starts drinking. George prays for help. Bartender Nick (Sheldon Leonard) is very concerned about George as is Martini. When they say his name, the teacher’s husband is in the bar and socks George in the mouth making his lip bleed. George leaves the bar and drives his car into a tree. The owner of the tree is mad that the old tree was hit. George walks onto the bridge in preparation to kill himself.
Just before George drops into the frozen water Clarence jumps in and yells for help. He suspected George was the kind of man that would jump into to rescue a stranger. The bridge operator helps get them out and they are warming up in the shed. Clarence has a copy of Twain’s Tom Sawyer. George doesn’t believe Clarence is an angel. When George says he wishes he had never been born, Clarence gets an idea. He shows George an alternate timeline where he had never been born.
Now, this is where the false equivalence comes in. It was never about whether George was born but if he left Bedford falls. Everything he did up until he left would have still happened including saving Harry. He might have gone on to build great thing to help the world or bringing universal peace. The real question would be what would happen if George was able to leave town after high school.
Clarence changes the timeline. It stops snowing and George’s lip stops bleeding. They walk back to where George’s car was parked. The owner of the tree says the tree is the oldest tree in Potterville. The pair head on up to the bar which is now a rocking juke joint owned by Nick. Nick is an angry guy and when Clarence tries to order a flaming punch Nick gets pissy. When Nick opens the cash register and the bell rings Clarence says it means an angel just got their wings. Nick starts to throw them out. About this time Gower comes in and he is a full on drunk. Nick says Gower spent 20 years in prison for poisoning a kid. They throw George and Clarence out. Clarence says George was not there to stop Gower. False.
George heads home without Clarence and Pottersville has pawn shops, dance halls, strip clubs, and lots of bars. He sees Violet being arrested assumedly for soliciting. He flags down Ernie who doesn’t know him. He signals Bert the cop to follow them. George acts crazy in the abandoned house and Bert tries to arrest him. Clarence helps him escape by biting Bert’s arm.
Next George goes to his mother’s house which is now a boarding house. Harry would still be alive and George could still send money if he just left town after high school. She tells him Uncle Billy has been in a mental hospital for 20 years. Clarence and George go to Bailey Park and there are no house there.
George asks to see Mary. Clarence tells George that she is an old maid closing up the library. When he confronts her she screams and runs away. When Bert shows up George slugs him and Bert fires several shots at him. George runs to the bridge and begs to be back alive. It starts to snow. Bert pulls up and he knows George. It takes George some time to accept that he is back. Zuzu petals are back in his pocket. He runs through Bedford Falls and the quaint town is back.
When George gets home the DA and bank examiner are waiting to arrest him. He doesn’t care he only wants to see his family. The word that Mary and Billy had spread around town worked and people come pouring in with money, jewelry, and savings. The best is when Annie drops in some funds and says she was saving for a divorce if she ever got married. Violet decides to stay in Bedford Falls. Sam cables from London authorizing an advance for George up to $25,000. The bank examiner puts in a dollar and the warrant is tossed in as well. Harry shows up, having flow through a blizzard to get there. Harry gives a toast to his big brother “the richest man in town.” In the basket, George finds Clarence’s book, with a note that says “Remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love Clarence.
A bell on the Christmas tree rings. Zuzu says my teacher says when a bell rings an angel gets his wings. George says “That’s right. That’s right” as he looks up and says “Attaboy, Clarence.”
While George have to face the drunk driving charges? While this movie is beloved now it wasn’t always as popular. An FBI report titled “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry”1947 cited in I’m Dreaming of a Red Christmas[iii] [iv] stated that the way Potter was portrayed was an effort to undermine the upper class and promote distrust in the rich.
However, Frank Capra nor any of the screenwriters were ever blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
World-Famous Short Summary – Angel uses false equivalency to trick a man into accepting crappy life
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Beware the moors
[iii] It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946, Producer – Liberty Films