It’s a Wonderful Life

Hook: Capra begins with a framing device that hooks viewers with a sneak peek of the Climax. The movie opens at the height of the main character’s troubles and has us wondering why George Bailey is in such a fix that the whole town is praying for him. Next thing we know, we’re staring at an unlikely trio of angels, manifested as blinking constellations. The presentation is not only unexpec

First Act: Under the guise of explaining George Bailey to novice angel Clarence, the senior angels show us the prominent moments in George’s young life. We see him as a child, saving his little brother from drowning, going deaf in one ear, and preventing old Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a customer. We glimpse him as a young man, planning his escape from “crummy” Bedford Falls, even as he becomes smitten with the lovely Mary Hatch. By the time the Inciting Event strikes, we know George Bailey inside out. We’ve been introduced to Bedford Falls and its colorful array of denizens. And we’ve learned of the stakes from George’s father, who explains the importance of the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan in giving the people a financial haven from evil Old Man Potter.

Inciting Event: This classic movie uses the entirety of its First Act to leisurely introduce and build its characters. Its gentle Inciting Event occurs on the night of the high school dance when George’s father asks him if he would be willing to stay in Bedford Falls to help run the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan. George promptly refuses his father’s request. This sets up the central throughline and George’s central conflict between his need to stay and help contrasted with his burning desire to leave Bedford Falls.

First Plot Point: Throughout the first quarter of the story, George Bailey’s plans for his life have progressed uninterrupted. Despite his misadventures in Bedford Falls, he’s headed for a European vacation and a college education. Then the First Plot Point hits. When his father dies of a stroke, George’s plans are dashed. This moment forever changes George’s life, setting the subsequent plot points in motion. As in Pride & Prejudice, the standards that have been established in the story are dramatically altered. This is no longer a story about a carefree young man freewheeling around town. From here, this is a story about a man forced to assume responsibility by taking over his father’s beloved business.

First Half of the Second Act: Even after the First Plot Point in which his father dies of a stroke, George’s life could have progressed exactly as he wanted it to. But when he reacts to Mr. Potter’s attempts to close down the Building & Loan by agreeing to stay in Bedford Falls and take his father’s place, his life is forever changed. For the next quarter of the movie, we find George adjusting to life in Bedford Falls. When his brother Harry (who was supposed to take George’s place in the Building & Loan) gets married and takes another job, George is again forced to react. He accepts he must stay in Bedford Falls, and he marries Mary Hatch—reactions that build upon his initial decision to preserve the Building & Loan.

Midpoint: George Bailey’s period of reaction ends when he fully commits to the Building & Loan during the run on the bank after his wedding. In this dramatic centerpiece scene, he confronts the threat of Mr. Potter taking advantage of the panic and buying all the Building & Loan’s shares. When his bride offers up their honeymoon money to pay off their desperate shareholders, he doesn’t hesitate. From this point on, George is no longer simply reacting to being stuck in Bedford Falls. He fully accepts leadership of the Building & Loan and begins fighting back against Mr. Potter.

Second Half of the Second Act: After spurning Old Man Potter’s attempts to hire him, George comes to grips with his life in Bedford Falls and moves forward. He and Mary have four children, and he remains home during World War II (“4F on account of his ear”) where he continues to protect his town from Potter’s avarice and manipulation. Thanks to his renewed commitment to the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan in the aftermath of Potter’s failed attempts to buy him off, George puts his life into good order during the second half of the story.

Third Act: The Second Act ends with Uncle Billy losing the Building & Loan’s $8,000 and George frantically attempting to recover it. This dramatic event is followed by the appearance of the angel Clarence and his granting of George’s wish to “never be born.” The Third Act is made up almost entirely of George’s exploration of the tragedies that would have filled Bedford Falls without his presence and influence. The main antagonist isn’t present in the unborn sequence that comprises most of the Third Act, although his presence looms large. The focus here is on George’s inner journey and transformation.

Third Plot Point: After looking everywhere for the money Uncle Billy lost, George is forced to his lowest point when he approaches his nemesis Mr. Potter for a loan. When he offers his life insurance policy as collateral, Potter scoffs, “Why, you’re worth more dead than alive!” George sinks into soul-wrenching desperation as he drives to the river and contemplates killing himself so the policy can be cashed to repay the money.

Climax: After receiving the gift of seeing the world without himself in it, George races back to the bridge and fervently prays, “I want to live again!” This moment is both his personal revelation and a bit of a faux climax. It properly caps the unborn sequence (which follows a mini plot and structure of its own) and leads into the true Climax in which the town rallies to help George make up the lost $8,000 before he can be arrested.

Resolution: The closing scene of this classic has viewers crying all over the place every Christmas. The movie wastes no time moving on from the Climax, in which George’s friends bring him above and beyond the $8,000 he needs to replace what was stolen by Mr. Potter. The Resolution immediately fills in the remaining plot holes by bringing the entire cast (sans the antagonist) back for one last round of “Auld Lang Syne” and hinting that the angel Clarence has finally earned his wings. This tour de force of an emotionally resonant closing scene leaves readers wanting more while fulfilling their every desire for the characters.

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