Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
It's a Wonderful Life

US movie (1946). RKO/Liberty. Pr Frank Capra. Dir Capra. Spfx Russell A Cully. Screenplay Capra, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling. Based on The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale (1943 chap) by Philip Van Doren Stern (1900-1984). Starring Bobbie Anderson (Young George), Lionel Barrymore (Henry F Potter), Ward Bond (Bert), Beulah Bondi (Mrs Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Gloria Grahame (Violet), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Lillian Randolph (Annie), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch Bailey), James Stewart (George Bailey), Henry Travers (Clarence Oddbody). 129 mins. B/w.

Since childhood George Bailey has wanted to shake the dust of one-horse Bedford Falls from his shoes; circumstances have conspired to thwart him. But, locked in his seemingly humdrum life, he has done much good, notably helping the poor stay out of the clutches of local pre-Reaganite Potter. Although George wanted to stay single, he is married (to Mary) with children: further ties. Now, at Christmas, facing bankruptcy and prison, he contemplates suicide, convinced the world would have been better had he never lived. Just before he can throw himself into the river, however, scatterbrained Angel-Second-Class Clarence, sent from Heaven to try to talk George out of the notion and thus earn his own Wings, jumps in instead, so George must rescue him. Clarence takes George on a tour of vile Pottersville, which Bedford Falls would have been had George never existed; even his friends and family are sour. Returned to this Reality, now knowing he is far from insignificant, he finds the hundreds of people who love him have collaborated to save him from ruin.

IAWL received three Oscar nominations but vanished into obscurity, where it might have remained had not a clerical error in the 1970s led to its copyright lapsing; it was thus shown by countless tv stations, and has now become an established Cinema classic. Capra lays on sentimentality with a trowel, yet so adroitly that only the stoniest heart could fail to respond. No single component of the movie is original (e.g., George's tour of Pottersville with Clarence is much like Scrooge's journey with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol, complete with graveyard scene, and a late sequence in which George tries to barter his life-insurance policy for a loan from Potter is a classic rendition of a man making a Pact with the Devil), yet the amalgam is made fresh by fine direction, acting, cinematography and script.

Decades later Clarence (1990 tvm), a series pilot, formed a sort of sequel to IAWL: Oddbody is persuaded to come back to Earth to be guardian angel (see Patrons) to the bereaved Logan family (complete with cute moppet). This time Oddbody is youthful, and interestingly exhibits Shapeshifting powers. [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.