The Timeless Legacy of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’: A Testament to Life’s Invaluable Meaning by Natalie Civadelic; Journalism and Media Studies Student at Rutgers University–New Brunswick

The magic of old movies often overcomes me. It’s a nostalgia that comes not from TCM’s re-runs or my Grandmother’s VHS tapes or anything physical but from within myself as I share in the joy these films have brought to generations. As a sophomore at Rutgers University who’s far from her living room television, my naive perception of the past has transformed into something all the more real. The chain linking generation to generation seems more robust than ever in the basement of Murray Hall. In this place, creative writing students like myself can feel challenged and supported to turn their dreams into works of art. A subtle but invincible conviction knits together our dreams, joys, sorrows, aspirations, illusions, hopes, and fears, which bind the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.

While Phillip Van Doren Stern will have graduated from Rutgers, over 100 years before I will, his short story The Greatest Gift has not just inspired me as a writer but the greatest gift to American cinema, It’s a Wonderful Life (1947.) Not long after his time at college, Stern stared at the reflection in the mirror as he shaved, blade and soap in hand, an unshakable idea for a story fully formed in his mind. He was to write about an everyday man who rejects suicide and embraces life after a mysterious stranger allows him to see the world would he never have been born.

Stern was already an author and publishing executive by this time, but he struggled to write the story down on paper. By 1943, he had developed a draft and shared the piece with his agent. After no success with the work, Stern decided to self-publish The Greatest Gift. That Christmas, Stern sent 200 copies as a holiday greeting. To his surprise, Stern’s short story landed on an executive’s desk at RKO Radio Pictures, who pictured the copyright. But this Rutgers alumni made history when director Capra’s Liberty Films acquired the rights in 1945 to Stern’s story.

It’s a Wonderful Life was released to theaters on January 7th, 1947. The film, starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Henry Travers, may not have been a box office hit, but the now iconic film has become a Christmas classic. Like its inspiration, The Greatest Gift, It’s a Wonderful Life follows George Bailey (Stewart,) a compassionate man who sacrifices his dreams for the town of Bedford Falls by inheriting his late father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan. His enduring love for his childhood acquaintance Mary (Reed) and their expanding family anchor George amidst financial struggles caused by the cunning Mr. Potter (Barrymore,) a ruthless businessman and landlord in Bedford Falls. When faced with potential ruin, George, overwhelmed by despair, considers ending his life on Christmas Eve. An angel named Clarence (Travers) intervenes, revealing the profound impact of George’s existence. By witnessing a world where he never lived, George gains a renewed appreciation for his life and the people in it. Gratefully back in a world in which he does exist, he finds immense support from his family and the people of Bedford Falls, emphasizing timeless themes of community, love, and the holiday spirit.

It’s a Wonderful Life received five Academy Award nominations in 1947, including Best Picture, Best Director for Capra, Best Actor for Stewart, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Recording. It’s considered a classic and has received numerous honors, including being selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

In all of its glory, It’s a Wonderful Life is truly a goldmine for creative writers; offering a masterclass in character development through George’s profound journey. The success of It’s a Wonderful Life in storytelling lies in its gripping hook, meticulous character development, strategic plot points, and heartwarming resolution, which seamlessly intertwine to engage audiences in a truly unforgettable manner.

Heartfelt prayers from the townspeople of Bedford Falls overlay the charming opening scene of It’s a Wonderful Life as the panoramic opening shots showcase the serene, snow-covered town. The music, composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, simultaneously adds a layer of emotional resonance, evoking a sense of warmth, which contrasts greatly to George’s grave circumstance. The sudden appearance of a trio of angels, cleverly manifested as illustrated blinking constellations alludes to the film’s climax, at the peak of George’s troubles as he contemplates ending his wasted existence. Introducing an unexpected and unconventional subplot, Clarence asks that if he convinces George to live, “Might I perhaps win my wings? I’ve been waiting for over 200 years now, sir, and people are beginning to talk.” With one man’s Earthly existence and another’s celestial being on the line, Capra affirms the gravity of the impending conflict and stakes, leaving the audience with several compelling questions that fuel their engagement with the unfolding narrative.

The angels show Clarence, and in turn, the audience, all the prominent moments in George’s young life. We first see him as a child, sledding near a frozen pond. Harry, George’s little brother, accidentally falls through the ice, and without hesitation, George springs into action. He rushes onto the ice, risking his safety, and manages to pull Harry out of the freezing water, saving his life. However, in the process, George sustains an injury to his left ear, which results in complete hearing loss. This heroic act not only demonstrates George’s selflessness and bravery at a young age but also foreshadows his lifelong commitment to sacrificing his dreams for the well-being of others, setting the tone for his character’s development throughout the film. Later, George, working as a delivery boy for Mr. Gower’s pharmacy, witnesses Mr. Gower, consumed by grief over the loss of his son, mistakenly preparing a lethal prescription due to his impaired state. Unaware of the mistake, George notices Mr. Gower’s distress and intervenes quickly, preventing him from sending the poisoned medicine. Despite Mr. Gower’s display of physical anger towards George for interfering, he later discovers this child’s actions saved a life and is profoundly grateful. While the rescue of Harry demonstrates George’s physical courage and protective instincts, the episode with Mr. Gower reveals his emotional intelligence, empathy, and ethical fortitude, providing a more nuanced understanding of George’s character beyond mere bravery. While these flashbacks may seem like a sparknotes of George’s core values, these moments demonstrate Capra’s unparalleled dedication to characterization. Without these early displays of selflessness and sacrifice, the rising action, climax, and eventual resolution would not be as impactful.

When George’s father dies of a stroke, his plans of leaving Bedford Falls to explore Europe and attend college are destroyed. With this event, Capra delicately demonstrates that this story is no longer about a carefree young man freewheeling around town. From here on out, this is a story about a man forced to take responsibility and put others before himself, as he has always done. Despite George’s dreams, his father explains that he feels “in a small way, we’re doing something important.” George is blind to the actual family business- the business of making dreams come true. One person at a time, they’re helping the people of Bedford Falls achieve their goals from the “shabby little office” George detests. But when Mr. Potter attempts to close down Bailey Building & Loan, George agrees to stay in Bedford Falls to take his father’s place. He realizes that he must prioritize the dreams of others rather than his own. While this transition represents the classic heroic journey where the protagonist is called to sacrifice personal ambitions for the greater good, Capra utilizes George’s realization of the importance of the family business as a vehicle for further the climax’s impact.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, Mary emerges as George’s unwavering anchor, intricately woven into the fabric of his life and the film’s thematic tapestry. Her character significantly influences the narrative’s emotional depth and thematic resonance. Their relationship traces back to their childhood in Bedford Falls, where Mary greatly admired George. This childhood fondness is evident during a high school dance when Mary expresses her feelings for George despite his plans to travel abroad and attend college. After he assumes responsibility for the Bailey Building & Loan with his father’s passing, Mary’s love for George becomes a cornerstone, fostering his selflessness and motivating his pivotal choice to remain in Bedford Falls. Capra utilizes Mary to embody constancy and devotion in George’s life, relying on her character to shape his decisions and moral compass. Beyond the iconic “George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die,” Mary symbolizes the broader themes of sacrifice, community, and you guessed it, love, woven throughout the film. Her steadfastness and loyalty reflect traditional values of familial bonds and enduring commitment, echoing the film’s exploration of interconnectedness and the enduring power of love in the face of adversity. Mary’s character enriches George’s journey and acts as a guiding light, reinforcing the film’s overarching message of the transformative strength found in selfless devotion and enduring affection.

Capra ends George’s reaction period when Mr. Potter summons him to his office and offers him a job. This entirely unexpected and unprecedented move on the antagonist’s part sends George’s head spinning with the possibilities. Suddenly, the life he’s always dreamed of is within his grasp. Within seconds of accepting the offer, he realizes what the audience has believed all along– that he would be a fool to accept. Capra utilizes this rejection to emphasize that George has complete control of his life. The director cleverly breezes through the next phases of life– George and Mary go on to have four children, George remains at home during World War II (“4F on account of his ear”), yet he “fights the battle of Bedford Falls,” by continuing to protect the townspeople from Potter’s manipulation. Despite the growth of Bailey Building & Loan, financial pressure leaves George discontent. Capra fashions this intensely relatable and timeless resentment towards one’s situation in life to connect with the film’s audience, until an additional conflict is placed front and center. Uncle Billy, George’s kind-hearted and well-meaning but somewhat absent-minded uncle, misplaces $8,000 worth of deposits. This mistake becomes a pivotal plot point in the film, leading to a crisis for George Bailey and the institution. The misplaced money puts the Building & Loan at risk of collapse and George in danger of financial ruin and even arrest. In most stories, that plot point would be dramatic enough to open the third act. But in It’s a Wonderful Life, the “third act,” comprising eighteen unforgettable minutes, is unlike anything in cinema.

Just eighteen minutes in the over two-hour film passes between the moment George famously wishes that “I’d never been born” and when he professes to the heavens that he wants to live, “Show me the way, God. Please.” These eighteen minutes have garnered countless references, homages, and parodies in the media; people who haven’t seen the film can reasonably assume that this portion of the film is the entire plot. From a strictly narrative perspective, it’s not entirely necessary. As explained, the viewer experiences the birth of George’s hopes and dreams and their death. He constantly and consistently sacrifices his hopes for happiness out of a moral obligation. After years and years of generosity, everyone George has helped comes together to pool the misplaced $8,000– which is approximately $130,000 today. This is why, strictly from a narrative perspective, these eighteen minutes are entirely unnecessary because George’s character arc already exists, which could make for an excellent Christmas film. However, what makes this film a classic is that these eighteen minutes take into account another factor of this film that is rarely talked about, which is that George Bailey is not a saint. Throughout the film, he is not acting out of the kindness of his heart but rather out of a sense of moral duty. While George believes he is doing what is required, he resents himself. He’s angry that the life he wanted has been stolen from him. Without those eighteen minutes, the film’s message would be: do good things, and one day, you will be rewarded. George learns not to resent his actions and feels he has wasted his life because those actions eventually lead to him being saved. That’s not the message Capra or Stern was interested in. In those eighteen minutes, we get to see a world in which George had never been born, and more crucially, we get to see George experience it. We watch as he realizes he has not wasted his time on Earth. All of his actions were worth it, not because one day it would lead to him being saved, but even though it would one day lead to him being condemned. When those eighteen minutes end, George doesn’t know that the town has rallied behind him; he doesn’t know that he is no longer in danger. He declares to the angels that he wants to live and runs home, fully expecting to be arrested. By taking just eighteen minutes to show the character changing internally before being rewarded externally, the entire message of the film changes: it doesn’t matter whether George becomes fiscally prosperous at the end or if he rots in prison; what matters is that he thinks his life issues. Everything he has experienced has been worth it and is worth continuing.

With those eighteen minutes, It’s a Wonderful Life stands as a testament to the enduring power of storytelling and its ability to resonate across generations. Stern’s initial idea, transformed into a film by Capra, captivates audiences with its portrayal of George’s profound journey. The film’s success lies in its artistic merit and its ability to intertwine gripping storytelling, meticulous character development, and timeless themes of community, love, and resilience. As I reflect on the intricate layers of this classic during my time at Rutgers University, I’m reminded that, like George, each of us, writers or whatever else, have the power to shape our lives through our actions and choices. The film’s message, encapsulated within those transformative eighteen minutes, isn’t about external rewards or consequences. It’s about the internal realization that our lives have meaning, regardless of the circumstances. Much like the townspeople of Bedford Falls, we have no choice but to navigate the trials and triumphs of our existence, to realize that our actions and connections define our legacy. Stern’s vision, brought to life on the silver screen, continues to echo the sentiment that our lives hold immeasurable value regardless of the time we live. This sentiment transcends the confines of celluloid and speaks to the essence of human experience.


Natalie Civadelic

Professor David Orr

The Art of Review

27 December 2023

NATALIE CIVADELIC: Journalism and Media Studies Student at Rutgers University–New Brunswick


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