It’s a Wonderful Life was crowned the UK’s favourite Christmas movie, and it also tops my list of the best Christmas films. When I first watched it I liked it, but on repeat viewings I love it more and more!

George Bailey with family
Importance of family

The fact James Stewart is the main character and does a fantastic performance (one of his best?) obviously puts this film high on my list, but it’s the story and message of the film that I love the most. Whenever I start to question what I’m actually doing in life, I think of George Bailey and how he felt so desperate. I am definitely not as good as George or contribute as much to society, but it makes me remember that everybody has value.

It’s a Wonderful Life tops my list of favourite Christmas films, and there’s nothing better than settling down on Christmas Eve with a drink and nibbles with this film on the television.

Plot Summary

The start of It’s a Wonderful Life is a little bit strange as we see/hear heaven responding to prayers from the family and friends of George Bailey on Christmas Eve. Clarence (Henry Travers), an Angel 2nd class, is given the mission of saving George, and as preparation he (and the audience) are shown flashbacks of George’s life.

Young George and Mr Gower
Stopped just in time

We see George as a child (Bobby Anderson), saving his brother Harry from drowning (losing his hearing in one ear in the process); and intervening when the druggist Mr Gower (H. B. Warner) accidentally puts poison in a prescription. We then see adult George (James Stewart) is ready to go travelling before going to college, having worked some years in the family business: Building and Loans. As George joins Harry (Todd Karns) at the school graduation party, he meets with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who he remembered as a child. They walk home together and get on brilliantly, but their time is interrupted when George is told his father has died.

George and Mary
You want the moon?

George has to postpone his plans to sort out the business, but he ends up being there long term. Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the richest and meanest man around, wants to dissolve the business, but the board of directors vote to keep it open on condition George stays. George agrees as he believes the business should stay open, whilst Harry takes his place at college. However, when Harry returns from college, married and with a good job offer, George says Harry must take the opportunity and not take over at the Building and Loans. Of course, this means George never leaves Bedford Falls or the Building and Loans, and ends up married to Mary with four kids.

The business goes through trouble with the depression and comes out the other side, and George also establishes Bailey Park, which offers people the chance to own their own modest homes. As George and the Building and Loans are becoming increasingly problematic to Mr Potter, he tries to get George onside, but to no avail. However, when Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces the cash from the Building and Loans on his way to depositing it in the bank, Mr Potter finds and keeps it, without telling anyone. Losing the money tips George over the edge and he takes it out on his family, before eventually begging Mr Potter for help. As this comes to nothing, on Christmas Eve, George contemplates suicide, which is where Clarence comes into the story.

George and Clarence
Guardian angel

Clarence stops George committing suicide, but after George still stays he wishes he had never been born, Clarence sets out to show him what this would really mean. We see an alternate Bedford Falls (aka Pottersville) where we see the widespread effect of George’s actions that we saw in the beginning of the film. For example, Harry died as a child, Mr Gower was sent to prison, the family business was shut down, and Mary ended up alone and a librarian (not convinced by this bit!)

After seeing that his life does have worth, George begs for his real life back. His wish is granted and a much much happier George runs back to his house and family. Even though he faces arrest for losing the money from the business, he doesn’t care. As it turns out however, everything George did hadn’t gone unnoticed by the community as everyone chipped in to come up with the missing money themselves. Mary and Uncle Billy had told everyone what George was facing, and they all came around to support him. As Harry said, George was “the richest man in town”!

Harry propose toast
To my big brother George, the richest man in town!

Thoughts

For me, there is so much to love about It’s a Wonderful Life. Some of the lines/scenes may be over-sentimental and corny (lassoing the moon for one) but these fit in well with the story.

George Bailey is one of my favourite performances from James Stewart as he plays every emotion so well. Having come back from fighting in World War Two, this was the start of Stewart’s more serious and “darker” roles. George’s optimism and enthusiasm from when he was younger gets worn away, and you see him getting increasingly weary and beaten with each event.

George contemplates suicide
From the lowest of lows…

When the money is lost, James Stewart was incredible as you see him basically having a breakdown. You can see the desperation and the hopelessness which has been building up for years just explode, and it is such a raw performance. By contrast, the near hysteria of George by the end of the film when he is back in Bedford Falls was so infectious and emotional! When George sees how everyone has got behind him, I cry every time and that’s all credit to James Stewart. Basically, James Stewart is a God of acting.

George happy
To hysterical highs

Also I think the story and message of It’s a Wonderful Life is perfect. I read recently about how important and ground-breaking it was in showing mental health, particularly for males, and I think this is so true. It shows that even if your life isn’t going to plan or how you imagined, it still has a meaning and a purpose. Everyone can relate to George getting “trapped” with his dreams of travelling getting further and further out of reach, but it shows that you shouldn’t give up, even if you feel like you want to.

George, Mary and Zuzu
Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings

Overall, every time I watch this film I find new things to love about it. Some may find it a bit depressing for Christmas, but I can’t think of a better film to watch on Christmas Eve. It makes you appreciate your family and friends, which can be a big help when you have to deal with them all on Christmas Day!

Favourite Scene

It has to be the end scene as it makes me so emotional! I feel happy and sad at the same time and basically end up a mess. Having seen George’s journey, you are fully invested in his story. Seeing everyone appreciate all he’s done and getting behind him to get him out of the mess is so heart-warming and emotional. Also seeing how emotional Mary gets just contributes to the overall scene!

I also enjoyed the scene where George does a long speech in defence of his father and the Building and Loans business, after his father’s death and when Mr Potter mentions shutting it down. It is so heartfelt and passionate, and shows George really cares about all the people in Bedford Falls, unlike Potter. It is easy to see why the company directors wanted George to take over the firm after his father’s death!

Favourite Character

George and Mr Potter
George versus Potter

George Bailey, without a doubt! And I’m not even going to apologise for picking the most obvious character. He is absolute perfection! And not just as an adult/James Stewart. Bobby Anderson played George so well, particularly in his scenes with Mr Gower. You could already see his passion and drive to help people, and also to travel, which we saw when he grew up.

Honourable mentions to Mary and the four kids as I loved their scenes, although there weren’t many of them. When George was in such a mess and so angry after losing the money, seeing the reactions of Mary and the children was almost as upsetting as seeing George so unhappy.

George and Violet
Her knight in shining armour

I also liked Violet, played by Gloria Grahame, as she brought a bit of lightness and humour to the film! Although she too had some rough times, it was nice to see her and George stayed friends and could rely on each other.

Favourite Quote

Harry: A toast to my big brother George: the richest man in town!

Final Thoughts

Overall, It’s a Wonderful Life is a must-see film! Fantastic acting and a touching and heartfelt story make this movie one of my all-time favourites. It is certainly a rollercoaster of emotions, but you would have to be completely heartless not to feel anything when watching the film.

It is absolute perfection, apart from Mary becoming a timid, unmarried librarian who wears glasses in the alternate George Bailey-less world. Are we supposed to believe she couldn’t find another man to marry, even though she is pretty and intelligent? And that George had the power to affect her sight? Aside from this, It’s a Wonderful Life is certainly wonderful!

For another classic Christmas film from James Stewart, check out the brilliant The Shop Around the Corner.