It's a Wonderful Life

Critics Consensus

The holiday classic to define all holiday classics, It's a Wonderful Life is one of a handful of films worth an annual viewing.



Total Count: 76


Audience Score

User Ratings: 218,364
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This is director Frank Capra's classic bittersweet comedy/drama about George Bailey (James Stewart), the eternally-in-debt guiding force of a bank in the typical American small town of Bedford Falls. As the film opens, it's Christmas Eve, 1946, and George, who has long considered himself a failure, faces financial ruin and arrest and is seriously contemplating suicide. High above Bedford Falls, two celestial voices discuss Bailey's dilemma and decide to send down eternally bumbling angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), who after 200 years has yet to earn his wings, to help George out. But first, Clarence is given a crash course on George's life, and the multitude of selfless acts he has performed: rescuing his younger brother from drowning, losing the hearing in his left ear in the process; enduring a beating rather than allow a grieving druggist (H.B. Warner) to deliver poison by mistake to an ailing child; foregoing college and a long-planned trip to Europe to keep the Bailey Building and Loan from letting its Depression-era customers down; and, most important, preventing town despot Potter (Lionel Barrymore) from taking over Bedford Mills and reducing its inhabitants to penury. Along the way, George has married his childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed), who has stuck by him through thick and thin. But even the love of Mary and his children are insufficient when George, faced with an $8000 shortage in his books, becomes a likely candidate for prison thanks to the vengeful Potter. Bitterly, George declares that he wishes that he had never been born, and Clarence, hoping to teach George a lesson, shows him how different life would have been had he in fact never been born. After a nightmarish odyssey through a George Bailey-less Bedford Falls (now a glorified slum called Potterville), wherein none of his friends or family recognize him, George is made to realize how many lives he has touched, and helped, through his existence; and, just as Clarence had planned, George awakens to the fact that, despite all its deprivations, he has truly had a wonderful life. Capra's first production through his newly-formed Liberty Films, It's a Wonderful Life lost money in its original run, when it was percieved as a fairly downbeat view of small-town life. Only after it lapsed into the public domain in 1973 and became a Christmastime TV perennial did it don the mantle of a holiday classic. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi


James Stewart
as George Bailey
Donna Reed
as Mary Hatch
Lionel Barrymore
as Henry Potter
Thomas Mitchell
as Oncle Billy
Henry Travers
as Clarence Oddbody
Beulah Bondi
as Ma Bailey
Frank Faylen
as Ernie Bishop
Gloria Grahame
as Violet Bick
H.B. Warner
as Mr. Gower
Frank Albertson
as Sam Wainwright
Samuel S. Hinds
as Peter Bailey
Todd Karns
as Harry Bailey
Mary Treen
as Cousin Tilly
Sarah Edwards
as Mrs. Hatch
Virginia Patton
as Ruth Dakin Bailey
Charles Williams
as Cousin Eustace
William Edmunds
as Giuseppe Martini
Argentina Brunetti
as Mrs. Martini
Ronnie Ralph
as Sam Wainwright
Jean Gale
as Mary Hatch
Jeanine Anne Roose
as Violet Bick
Danny Mummert
as Marty Hatch
George Nokes
as Little Harry Bailey
Frank S. Hagney
as Potter's Bodyguard
Charles Lane
as Real Estate Salesman
Karolyn Grimes
as Zuzu Bailey
Harold Landon
as Marty Hatch
Harry Holman
as Mr. Partridge
Harry V. Cheshire
as Dr. Campbell
Charles Halton
as Mr. Carter
Eddie Featherston
as Bank Teller
Stanley Andrews
as Mr. Welch
Marian Carr
as Jane Wainwright
Garry Owen
as Bill poster
Ellen Corby
as Miss Davis
Almira Sessions
as Potter's secretary
Bert Moorhouse
as Man with Sheriff
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Critic Reviews for It's a Wonderful Life

All Critics (76) | Top Critics (15) | Fresh (71) | Rotten (5)

Audience Reviews for It's a Wonderful Life

  • Dec 25, 2017
    I have never been one to watch "old" movies. For me, this essentially means movies pre-dating the 1980's. On top of that, I have been refusing my dad's requests to watch It's a Wonderful Life, which is one of his favorite movies, for almost ten years now. So, I decided it was finally time for me to watch the 1946 Christmas classic. I was expecting to enjoy it, but I was not expecting to feel an urge to watch it again or to purchase the movie on Blu-Ray. However, my expectations were completely blown out of the water by the time the movie had ended. Did I enjoy it? No, I absolutely loved it. I immediately decided that this was one of my favorite films of all time, and possibly my favorite Christmas film. By the time the credits were rolling, I was looking at the possibility of buying the movie off Amazon. I wanted to watch it over and over again. I wanted to tell everyone who hasn't seen it yet to "Go watch it!". So, I decided to write a review to share some of my thoughts on the film. Before I begin, here is a warning to anyone reading: I am running under the assumption that most people have seen this film, so here is my official SPOILER WARNING for It's a Wonderful Life. The film begins in media res with a conversation between God and Joseph as they summon the angel Clarence, a second-class angel who is still trying to earn his wings. They inform Clarence that a man down on Earth, George Bailey (played excellently by James Stewart), is thinking of taking his own life, and task the angel with giving George the will to live again. In order for him to accomplish this mission, they show him what is essentially a recap of George's life, highlighting the key events of his childhood and early adulthood all the way to the present. This part of the film surprised me because I underestimated the amount of time that it would fill. When my dad described the movie to me, I assumed that the film would only devote about a half hour to this portion. However, this recap ends up taking about 1 hour and 30 minutes, which may sound like a long time (especially considering that the film's runtime is 2 hours and 10 minutes). Surprisingly, this part ends up being surprisingly entertaining and effectively adds hefty emotional weight to the film's climax and finale. The look at George's life does wonders in character development, and it makes the audience feel for the protagonist in such a way that is rare in modern film. It first presents two events from George's childhood, one where he saves his younger brother Harry from drowning and the other where he prevents his boss, a druggist, from accidentally adding poison into a child's medical prescription. This demonstrates that, even as a young boy, George was already doing things that altered the lives of those around him. The film then jumps into his life as a young adult. Here, he is a man planning to travel the world to see places that no one in his small town could ever dream of. However, his plans are interrupted when his father dies and he is forced to take charge of his father's company, Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan. This introduces us to the film's "villain," Mr. Henry Potter, a greedy and soulless businessman willing to do anything and hurt anyone to increase his net worth. It also acts as a tribute to George's selflessness, a tribute that continues when he stays to operate Building and Loan so that Harry can go off to college and build a career for himself. Once his brother returns from college with a wife, George reunites with his childhood crush Mary and eventually marries her. This was the one thing in the film that made me nervous, since I initially did not buy their relationship. Earlier in the film, George ran into her at his brother's high school graduation and was able to flirt with her, a scene that was cute and romantic. However, on the day that his brother returns, he visits her at her home and treats her poorly (taking out his anger about his current situation in life), and after a phone call with their old high school friend Sam, they realize their feelings for each other quickly. I did not feel their connection until the great scene that takes place during their wedding day where, in order to save George's business from the clutches of Mr. Potter, Mary offers up their honeymoon money without hesitation in order to appease the angry crowd attempting to withdraw deposits from the building. I loved this scene: it proves that the couple is equally selfless and share the same values, forming the foundation for a beautiful relationship. The film's climax arrives when George's Uncle Billy, who helps George run Building and Loan, accidentally hands $8,000 to Mr. Potter wrapped inside of a newspaper on Christmas Eve. Mr. Potter, realizing that Uncle Billy was trying to deposit that money on behalf of Building and Loan, decides to keep the money. He knows that this could be the downfall of George and his business, and due to his long-time, deep-seated grudge against him, the old man stays quiet. This provides the basis for my intense hate for the character, as he acts as a representation of all seven of the deadly sins. Lust is represented by his want for money, gluttony by how much he consumes others' wealth, greed by his unnecessary need for wealth, sloth by his unwillingness to earn money fairly, wrath by his anger towards George, envy by the jealousy he feels towards George's happy life, and pride by the feeling he gets for ruining Building and Loan. The man is despicable, and he is easier to hate than almost any movie villain. When Uncle Billy returns to Building and Loan, George realizes his predicament. He returns to his home, where he treats Mary and their four kids with anger and impatience. He ruins the family's evening, hurries to a nearby bar, and gets drunk. He then crashes his car and limps to a nearby bridge, considering giving his life, God's greatest gift, to the freezing, swirling waters below. This is when the story catches up to present events. Clarence, having learned all that he needs to know about George, appears before the broken man and jumps into the water, knowing that he is a selfless man who would save another person's life before taking his own. George claims that the world would be better off if he had never been born so, to prove him wrong, Clarence transports George to an alternate reality where, indeed, George Bailey was never born. This is when everything becomes clear to the audience. The seemingly pointless buildup that occurred for the majority of the film finally serves its purpose. Slowly, both George and the audience realize how his actions affected so many people in his past. Without him, Bedford Falls is run by Mr. Potter, and its residents are miserable. His brother died as a child, his wife works as a lonely librarian, Mr. Gower (George's boss from the drugstore) is in prison for manslaughter, and many of the people that George would have helped are either dead or living terrible lives. George recognizes every person he encounters, but no one recognizes him. George realizes that his life means something and begs Clarence to bring him back. After running from the police and returning to the bridge, the world becomes correct again. George then happily greets everyone that he encounters, loudly screaming "Merry Christmas!" and forgetting about his woes. He returns to his family, greeting them more enthusiastically than ever before, and learns that Uncle Billy and Mary have raised enough from the townsfolk (who we realize ALL love Mr. Bailey) to cover the missing $8,000. He then reads the heartwarming note left behind by Clarence, which reads "Remember no man is a failure who has friends." The film concludes happily with a shot of George and his wonderful life. This film still holds up as one of the greatest films ever created due to its resonant themes that still apply to our lives today and will always apply to our lives in the future. It reminds its viewers that every life, big or small, is worth something to the people that it touches. It also brings forward many, many tears, tears that I am not afraid to admit that I shed. On top of this, It's a Wonderful Life is funny, well-acted, well-scripted, and provides more than a few memorable scenes and quotable snippets of dialogue. It is also a very well-structured film, effectively utilizing its long set-up to make its audience care about its protagonist and his life. With memorable characters, a heartwarming story, and themes that are essential for every adult to comprehend, this film proves itself as one of the most important masterpieces of cinema. It's a Wonderful Life is fantastic, and it easily gets 5 out of 5 stars.
    Paul F Super Reviewer
  • Jun 16, 2016
    It's a Wonderful Life is not particularly complex, deep or stylistically marvelous. None of that is a criticism of the film it is, in fact, the very reason why this movie is so brilliant. I struggled for sometime to write a review of this film. I tried to pick apart the elements and pieces of the movie to find why it worked, and it does, but could never really place why. I started by assessed some of the usual parts of a film. Is the filmography great, fantastic or memorable? Not particularly, but it is certainly strong in a number of places. Usage of shadowing for mood changes and to emphasize the nature of the characters is tastefully done. I will add, please watch the black and white original, the color version does not do this movie justice and many elements are lost. Acting is the next major area to investigate. The answer again, strong, and well tailored to the film, but not stand out. James Stewart did a good job, but I would not rave about it. The setting is all solid, apple pie america, but not provocative or engrossing. Mr Potter, a passable villain. The mystery remained though. I cannot help but describe this film as anything other than a simply great movie. I think, perhaps, the simplicity is indeed the magic of this film. The message is profound, albeit sort of obvious, that what really matters is love and humanity for one another. The trick is in telling this sort of tale without resort to cheap ploys or weak story telling. It struck me that this is a truly accessible film in every way. The film has a quality of production, but it is not too flashy. There is a whimsical childlike approach to all of it, but it is not a kids movie. The love story is innocent and light, but not cheap or hallow. The villain is unlikable, but not a focal study in evil. Its not so much that you want to believe in the film's message to embrace idealism in a grand gesture, but you instead feel that warm sense of humanity for just a little bit. Given the subject of the film, that might be all that is really possible with this theme. Maybe it is fitting that such a universal message is so well captured in such a universally accessible movie.
    Shane S Super Reviewer
  • Dec 24, 2015
    The best Christmas film ever. Timeless.
    Ian W Super Reviewer
  • Oct 09, 2015
    A feel good American classic of the 1940s that will pierce even the most cynical modern moviegoer's heart. The lasting impact of the film is due more to its darkness than its soap, and the measure of both played against each other is in just the right amount that the film is nothing like a Hallmark card. This is the kind of movie that will make you strive a little harder towards being a nicer to your fellow man.
    Paris S Super Reviewer

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