The best part of Christmas is watching the same beloved holiday movies again and again, and we’re paying tribute to our favorites by examining everything that makes them an annual must-watch. In this Classic Christmas Movie Breakdown we’re looking at arguably the most famous Christmas movie ever, It’s A Wonderful Life.
It almost doesn’t seem possible the most beloved holiday film of all time is about a man who wants to kill himself on Christmas Eve, but George Bailey’s life story is one of hope, of love, and of generosity. While we might not be rich, and our lives might not go the way we planned, if we are good, honest people, and we look out for one another and sacrifice for the greater good, we will never be a failure. On Christmas, or any other day. We watch It’s A Wonderful Life every holiday season because it’s a reminder of the people we should be all year.
Now let’s see wha-wha-wha-what makes this movie so good, now, ya hear?
Does Santa make an appearance? (And is he real?)
No, not even a mention of him to the kids.
Do any magical creatures talk?
A literal angel from Heaven would seem to count as “magical.”
Are there any religious components?
The movie opens with an entire town praying for George Bailey, which leads St. Joseph in the cosmos to ask capital “G” God for help. The Almighty then sends an angel to Earth, and his plan to help involves God completely rewriting the history of the world to teach George why he shouldn’t kill himself.
So, yeah, kinda.
How lovable is the main character?
George spends his entire life sacrificing his dreams so that he can do right by others, whether it’s his family, friends, neighbors, or customers. And he keeps doing that even though he feels more and more like a failure, until life finally gives him too much.
But even at his lowest moment he’s protecting Uncle Billy, the man who really “lost” the money. And when he goes to the bridge, it’s because his life insurance would save his family from financial ruin and rid them of the “failure” they depend on. George Bailey was the most lovable kind of person: someone who put others above himself. And that’s why everyone came to his aid at his greatest time of need.
How evil is the villain?
Mr. Potter is ruthless, conniving, greedy, and heartless. Even worse/better is that he revels in all of that. He knows everyone hates him and that’s fine because he hates them too. His only goal in life is to conquer, and conquering means owning everything. He’s a truly despicable villain, and then when he steals the $8,000 so he can finally beat that thorn-in-his-side George Bailey, he goes to a whole other level of evil. Every great hero needs a great villain, and there have been few in history as terrible as Old Man Potter.
How sincere or cynical is the movie about Christmas?
Some argue this isn’t really a Christmas movie because it could take place any time of the year. Even though it technically all takes place on Christmas Eve, most of the movie is flashbacks through George’s life. But the entire point of the movie is intimately tied to Christmas.
Because George is such a beloved member of the community everyone thinks of him as family. That’s why on Christmas Eve they abandon all of their own plans so they can help him, the same way they would their own son or husband or brother. That final scene wouldn’t be as effective on Easter, or the 4th of July, or any other day. This is a sincere Christmas story in all the best ways, a true celebration of the spirit of the season.
Does anyone sing? Is there a big group sing along?
Only the most famous singalong in Christmas movie history, when the whole town sings “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” before breaking out into the most iconic version of “Auld Lang Syne” ever.
What are the most prominent Christmas themes?
Family, friendship, community, redemption, kindness, sacrifice, and generosity. There are just so many great lessons here, a real testament to the beauty of the story.
Most memorable quote?
With so many amazing ones we’re going to list the best-of-the-best.
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?
George’s entire speech to Mr. Potter, ending with: Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about—they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!
I wanna live again!
Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!
Hey! Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!
A happy new year to you—in jail!
There’s no contest for the most famous of them all:
Look, Daddy, teacher says, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”
However, the single best line isn’t a line of dialogue at all. It’s the note Clarence writes in the Tom Sawyer book, summing up the movie’s greatest message:
The right answer is the final scene at the house. But since we’re going to talk about that next we can use this space to talk about George’s first date with Mary, when they go home from the dance after falling in the pool. It’s sweet, charming, funny, and beautiful. The truth is though this could apply to any scene between them, because their love is the anchor for the entire story.
Most emotional moment?
The saddest is when George goes home after the money has gone missing. The entire weight of his perceived lifetime of failures hits him all at once. He’s a broken man, a disappointment who takes his anger out on the people he’s most sorry for letting down—his wife and children. It’s hard to watch a good person hit so low.
But that fall is what makes everything about the ending so powerful. Watching George realize his life in Bedford Falls meant so much to so many, and that his life has truly mattered, is inspiring and hopeful. And we can distill those feelings down to one single moment: when his little brother Harry proposes a toast and says, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town!”
Rich in friends and rich in family. That’s what makes It’s a Wonderful Life the ultimate Christmas movie. There’s no better, more uplifting lesson to end our year with.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.