A structural analysis of Frank Capra’s “It’s a wonderful life”

Essay 2011 23 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Other



1. Introduction

2. Significance today

3. Storyline

4. Reception

5. The movie in sequences
5.1 General Overview
5.2 George Bailey’s youth
5.3 George stuck in Bedford Falls
5.4 George in trouble
5.5 Clarence’s appearance
5.6 A parallel universe
5.7 Everything back to normal and a happy ending

6. Conclusion

List of Illustrations

Illustration 1: George in despair

Illustration 2: George about to commit suicide

Illustration 3: Family Bailey united

1. Introduction

This essay performs multiple tasks. On the one hand the narrative structure of Frank Capra’s “It’s a wonderful life”, directed in 1947 shall be worked out. It’s intended to show how meaning is created in this movie through an understanding of its specific narrative structure.

On the other hand, this essay will include several central ideas from contemporary texts in narrative theory, like William Simon for example. Comparable to his analysis of the Godfather Part One the purpose here is not to apply a certain model of analysis. Similar to Simon’s analysis it is intended to structure the movie into different chapters. Furthermore the various themes of the movie shall be worked out. These themes will be analyzed in two ways. At first each chapter of “It’s an wonderful life” will be explored separately. This approach shall guarantee that a specific narrative structure will be worked out. Secondly general themes which are not applied exclusively in only one chapter shall be developed further.[1]Another aim will be to analyze the character traits of the movie’s hero, George Bailey, in contrasting situations. Additionally the supporting cast will be dealt with if necessary for the examination of the movie’s narrative structure. Along the lines of Stuart Kaminsky’s text “Narrative time in Sergio Leone’s Once upon a time in America”, the structure of “It’s a wonderful life” in separate scenes will be worked out.[2]

Finally the role of the viewer will be examined. The viewer takes different positions through the course of the movie. The audience functions like a reader of the story presented by Frank Capra.

2. Significance today

Both director Frank Capra and the movie’s main star, James Stewart consider “It’s a wonderful life” their favorite piece of art. Minor American TV stations were using the movie as counter-programming against the usual expensive network specials during the holiday season.[3]This elevated Capra’s work into a Christmas tradition similar to “The little Lord Fauntleroy” in Germany or like “Dinner for One” starring Freddie Frinton and May Warden which has become an integral part of the New Year’s Eve schedule.

The audience kept growing over the years. Now many families make the movie an established annual event.

Roger Ebert describes the movie as “one of those ageless movies, like "Casablanca" or "The Third Man," that improves with age. Some movies, even good ones, should only be seen once. When we know how they turn out, they've surrendered their mystery and appeal. Other movies can be viewed an indefinite number of times. Like great music, they improve with familiarity. "It's a Wonderful Life" falls in the second category.”[4]The movie is in some ways similar to Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”. In both stories the main character is in despair. Dickens’s Scrooge experiences visions presented by three different angels, showing his life in the past, the present and a possible future if he doesn’t change his attitude and way of life. Capra’s George Bailey experiences his life if he had never been born. On the one hand there is the unlikable miser, Scrooge and on the other hand the warm-hearted, generous family man and popular friend George Bailey. Both characters share a similar fate and are in despair at Christmas Eve and both movies end happily with both main characters enjoying the gift of life.

Interestingly the black and white version of the movie fell out of copyright protection and any television station can play it without any further costs being charged. There is a colorized version on the market which is shown by TV stations preferably. Critics and fans seem to prefer the familiar black and white version. Even Jimmy Stewart stated once: “I tried to look at the colorized version, but I had to switch it off—it made me feel sick.’[5]

3. Storyline

The hero and main character of the story is George Bailey, played by James Stewart. He is a man who never gets out of his birthplace Bedford Falls. As a young man and already as a boy he is dreaming about adventures abroad. Once he nearly made it but shortly before his departure his father died. After that he had to take over the family’s loan association and was responsible for the family’s business. His brother went to the army leaving George and their uncle (played by Thomas Mitchell) in charge of Bailey’s building and loan association. The movie’s villain, Mr. Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore) is a rival local banker who wants to control whole Bedford Falls.[6]George is shown as a school boy, later as a teenager (when he first meets his high school sweetheart (Donna Reed)) and finally as a family father. Bailey’s loan association has a different policy like Potter’s. The Baileys support the less wealthy folks of Bedford Falls with appropriate loans so that they can build houses on their own, too.

But one day George’s uncle misplaces bank funds (8,000 $) and the bank inspector is expected for the annual books’ examination. A frantic search for the lost money is started. In his despair George even asks Potter for a loan to save his father’s company but Potter turns him down and wants to have George arrested for bank fraud.[7]

When George comes home he takes his frustrations out on his family before getting drunk in a local bar during Christmas Eve. After that he drives drunk and crashes his car into a tree. Then he staggers to the nearby bridge obviously intending to commit suicide. His life insurance is worth 15,000 $ and as Potter said, George is “dead worth more than alive”. Just before he jumps, Clarence appears, jumps in the river himself and George drags him out of the water. Later Clarence reveals himself as his guardian angel intending to rescue him.

Bitterly George wishes that he had never been born. Clarence fulfills that wish and lets George experience how life would have been if he had not been around. In this alternate reality or parallel universe Bedford Falls is now called Potterville (after the evil banker Potter who took the town over). Everything else changed too, but not for the better. George’s wife Mary is spinster librarian, George’s mother is a bitter widow, his uncle Billy is in a mental institution and his brother Harry is dead because George was not around to save his life this time.[8]A lot of minor characters had bad luck as well without George Bailey there to help them. The pharmacist Gower went to prison, Georg’s friend the barkeeper Martini does not own his bar any longer and Violet, George’s childhood sweetheart gets arrested for stealing.[9] Shocked by these experiences George begs God to let him life again and to give him his old life back again. His prayer is answered. Just before the police and the bank inspector can arrest him all his friends arrive with donations mounting up to 25,000 $. George is saved and the whole community sings “Auld Lang Syne”, a famous Christmas carol.

4. Reception

The movie premiered on December 20, 1947.[10] The reviews were mixed. Some critics complained about the sentimentality of the movie. The movie is definitely not set in an average daily reality. The characters tend to be one­dimensional - either extremely nice, like nearly everybody or totally evil, like the movie’s villain Mr. Potter. The journalist Crowther Bosley, writing for The New York Times, was impressed with some of the actors, like Stewart and Reed, but concluded that "the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer's point of view, is the sentimentality of it—its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra's nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realitiesT[11] This contrast can be seen especially when George experiences with Clarence a possible life in Bedford Falls without his existence. Martini turns from a good-humored, friendly bar-keeper to a bad-tempered, rude fellow or George’s mother turns from a warm-hearted, caring person to a bitter widow running a boarding house. Additionally the ongoing pattern for solving problems in general is criticized for being too optimistic and easy.[12] In 1947 the movie earned 3,300,000 $ in box office revenues.[13] So the financial success can be seen as mediocre, or even slightly disappointing because of the budget mounting up to 3,200,000 $.[14] The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards (winning none). Nonetheless the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) currently ranks „It’s a wonderful life“ 29th on its list of the “250 best movies ever made”.[15]In 1946 the director Capra described the movie as "the individual's belief in himself," and that he made it to "combat a modern trend toward atheism.”[16]

5. The movie in sequences

The following chapters will examine the movie’s narrative structure. Each sequence is analyzed separately. The content is described, the location mentioned and a start and ending point is fixed in order to get the duration of every scene. Additionally the 38 different scenes are grouped to 7 different themes. The movie’s total length is 124 minutes and 30 seconds. In the first 72 seconds the opening titles are shown.

Illustration not visible in this excerpt

The music played in the opening title’s background is “Buffalo Gal (Won't You Come Out Tonight)”. This is a happy, relaxed song which will be used again during the party where George and Mary are dancing for the first time.[17]

5.1 General Overview

Scenes 2 and 3 serve as an introduction to the movie’s plot. In scene 2 many characters pray for George who must obviously be in despair. The voices of George’s friends, his mother, his wife Mary and his children can be identified. The movie is established with an aerial shot of Bedford Falls. The camera slowly moves through the snow-covered city. The prayers can be heard but no faces are shown. The basic course of the story is anticipated then.

The “reader” of the movie knows there is a character named George Bailey who is in deep trouble. Furthermore it is clear that he is good-hearted popular human being otherwise not so many people would pray for him.

Illustration not visible in this excerpt

After that scene 3 shows the universe with its uncountable stars. The biggest and brightest star symbolizes God talking to a smaller star, standing for Joseph. They discuss George Bailey who is ready to commit suicide and decide to call for Clarence, George’s guardian angel.

The introduction in total is just 2min 33 sec but the reader can anticipate the next 93 minutes of the story.

5.2 George Bailey’s youth

The theme about “George Bailey’s youth” is described with Joseph and Clarence as voice-over. Joseph tries to give Clarence an impression about his new charge. Clarence is frequently asking questions. So the reader/viewer of the movie has the same perspective like Clarence.

Illustration not visible in this excerpt


[1]Simon (1989), p.101 - 102

[2]Kaminsky (1989)

[3]Ebert (1999)

[4]Ebert (1999)

[5]Ebert (1999)

[6]IMDb (2011)

[7]IMDb (2011)

[8]Ebert (1999)

[9]IMDb (2011)

[10]Weems (2011)

[11]Bosley (1946)

[12]Bosley (1946)

[13]Cox (2003), p. 27

[14]Cox (2003), p. 27

[15]IMDb (2011)

[16]Cox (2003) p.11

[17]IMDb (2011)


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Title: A structural analysis of Frank Capra’s “It’s a wonderful life”