It's A Wonderful Life: An Extensive Look

Updated June 23, 2021
It's a Wonderful Life Christmas Movie

For many people, the Christmas festivities would not be complete without viewing It's a Wonderful Life. Some films, like great music, improve with familiarity. This movie is one of them. Overview the premise and cast of It's a Wonderful Life, along with some interesting facts.

Overview of It's a Wonderful Life

Have you ever thought the world would be better without you in it? Frustrated businessman George Bailey did. After misplacing $8,000, George is down on his luck and contemplating his life. However, the heavens have a different view. Determined to get his wings, George's guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, steps onto the scene. He shows George what the life of those around him would look like if he'd never been born. In those glimpses, George begins to realize all the different lives he touches. Per Clarence's famous words, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" In the end, all the wrongs are righted, and George realizes how precious life truly is.

Famous Themes and Lessons

It's a Wonderful Life is a Christmas classic that makes its way into family's hearts and homes. One of the reasons this film has stood the test of time is due to its shining themes of sacrifice, kindness, faith, and importance.

  • Sacrifice: George continually sacrifices his dreams to help his community.
  • Kindness: Giving away savings to help the town during the Great Depression.
  • Faith: When George loses his faith, Clarence helps him find it by showing how life would change without George.
  • Importance: Every life is important. This can be seen in the way lives would change if George was never born.
It's a Wonderful Life Movie

History of the Film

It's a Wonderful Life was the first film that Frank Capra made after returning from service in World War II. However, he never intended it to be pigeonholed as a "Christmas picture." He thought of it as a celebration of the lives of ordinary citizens, people trying their best to do right. This was in the tradition of films he had made in the 1930s that were populist fables celebrating the common person.

Capra found the story in the RKO Pictures archives. Writer Philip Van Doren Stern had written a short story titled "The Greatest Gift" in 1939. In 1943, he made it into a narrative Christmas Card. RKO purchased the rights to the story shortly afterward, intending to produce a film starring Cary Grant. That project was shelved.

In 1946, Capra's newly-formed production company purchased the rights. Capra added some of his own elements to the story, including the character Mr. Potter. The film premiered in New York on December 20, 1946, at the New Globe Theater on Governors Island. The general release date was January 7, 1947.

Cast of It's a Wonderful Life

One of the most well-known and loved characters of It's a Wonderful Life was James Stewart as George Bailey. However, he was by far the only cast member in this Christmas classic. Just a few cast members include:

  • Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey
  • Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter
  • Henry Travers as the angel Clarence Oddbody, AS2
  • Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy
  • Ward Bond as Bert
  • Frank Faylen as Ernie Bishop
  • Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Bailey
  • Gloria Grahame as Violet Bick

Fun Facts About It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life is a well-loved Christmas favorite of many homes around the world. However, it does have a few fun and interesting facts you might not know.

It's a Wonderful Life Cast

James Stewart's First Role After War

George Bailey was James Stewart's first role after WWII. Like many other successful actors of the 1930s, he found post-war Hollywood different from the industry he remembered.

Donna Reed's First Movie

It might be hard to imagine that a classic still enjoyed over 70 years later could be the first film for an actress, but it was. Mary Hatch Bailey was Donna Reed's first starring role.

Real Opening Gym Floor

The high school dance contest was shot at the newly-opened Beverly Hills High School, where the gym floor really did split apart to reveal a swimming pool underneath.

New Snow

Capra wanted one scene to be filmed with falling snow, but painted cornflakes were too crunchy. So, Capra covered the set with 3,000 tons of shaved ice, 300 tons of plaster, 300 tons of gypsum, and 6,000 gallons of a fomite-soap-water mixture to get the effect he wanted. This actually helped others create a new snow blend for their movies.

National Treasure

The United States National Film Registry has included the movie on its list of films selected for preservation. Additionally, The American Film Institute has called it "one of the best films ever made."


The Motion Picture Association of America had a strict production code in 1946. It censored words and phrases such as "nuts to you," "dang," "impotent," "jerk," and "lousy" from the script.

Elaborate Set

It's a Wonderful Life was an elaborate set for the time. It four acres at the RKO ranch in Encino, California. It included a main street that stretched 300 yards, three city blocks, and 75 stores.

Communist Propaganda

In 1947, a memo sent to the FBI Director indicated that "some sources" viewed the film as subversive and pro-Communist. The film's negative portrayal of the capitalist banker Potter and its glowing portrait of the common person Bailey were the basis for those allegations.

Copyright Issues

A clerical error in 1974 at National Telefilm Associates prevented the copyright for It's a Wonderful Life from being renewed properly. The film was still formally protected under copyright law because it was a derivative work of all the other copyrighted material used in production--such as the script and music--whose copyrights were renewed.

Due to the copyright error, television stations assumed the film was in the public domain and aired it freely. In 1993, Republic Pictures (the successor to NTA) enforced its claim of copyright, relying on the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court that involved a similar situation with the movie Rear Window. As a result, the film is seldom shown on television today. NBC is currently licensed to broadcast the film. The colorized versions have been withdrawn.

It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life Remakes

Given the success of It's a Wonderful Life, several movies have borrowed elements from It's a Wonderful Life. Check out a few of these titles to see if they sound familiar.

It Happened One Christmas

Created in 1977, It Happened One Christmas follows the character of Mary Bailey Hatch. Rather than George, Mary meets her guardian angel to see what life would be like if she were gone.


This 1990 made-for-TV sequel follows the doings of Clarence Odbody. After successfully helping George and getting his wings, Clarence needs to go to earth again to help another human.

Merry Christmas, George Bailey

Airing in 1997, Merry Christmas, George Bailey was a made-for-TV adaption of the original It's a Wonderful Life. This remake was filmed live.

The Christmas Spirit

Made in 2013 for TV, this Christmas special follows the life of Charlotte Hart. While in a coma from a car accident, her spirit works to convince a town not to sell out to a real estate investment.

A Christmas Classic

Since its release in 1946, It's a Wonderful Life has become a staple in many homes during the Christmas season. Therefore, if you've never watched it, you might just want to check out this Christmas movie.

Trending on LoveToKnow
It's A Wonderful Life: An Extensive Look