AFI film school #3: It's a Wonderful Life — Earned wings


This is the third post where I discuss what creators and filmmakers can learn from a specific AFI top 100 movie(following along with the awesome podcast, Unspooled). The big news is this means I have surpassed the output of Sufjan Steven’s 50 State Album Project, a project where the musician was going to make a concept album about each of the U.S. states but stopped after two. Although I only surpassed him number-wise, not percentage-wise. I guess I’d have to get to the fifth post to claim that.

This week I’m doing the Christmas movie that most people think about when they think about Christmas moves (that is if A Christmas Story hasn’t taken that mantle).

Watching it this time, I had a lot of thoughts, like wondering with the amount of bells out there if an angel is really getting his wings every time time a charity Santa rings a bell or someone enters a 711.

But more of my thoughts were about how good of a movie this really is. It’s a lot more than just a nostalgic favorite that was added because the AFI feared the Spirit of Christmas Past would come after them if they didn’t. It’s a true great.

Here we are with It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra and written by him, Frances Goodrich, and Albert Hackett.

It’s an important life


“Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” -Clarence

A lot of people’s gut reaction of the central theme of this movie (the statement or question that everything in the movie points back to) would probably be something along the lines of “life is great.”

I mean, it makes sense. It’s basically the title of the movie. And it’s how George Bailey feels at the end.  

But it’s a little off the mark.

A much more apt central theme is “Your life is more important than you think.” And while this is a god-awful title, it does sum up what this film is getting at.

George spends his entire life doing things that are incredibly important to other people. He always tries to do the right thing. And I want to make the distinction that he’s not some sap who just gives to other people and has no desires of his own (I don’t know if we’d root for or relate to a character like that). This is evidenced by moments where he expresses what he truly wants, “I don’t want any plastics and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married-ever-to anyone. You understand that? I want to do what I want to do.”

What George wants is to do the right thing and to make a positive impact in the world (which definitely has shades of altruism, but it’s not entirely selfless).

The line that pushes George over the edge to suicide is when Mr. Potter says, “You’re worth more dead than alive.”

Clarence discovers this about George, which is why he doesn’t bother showing him how great he truly has it. Appreciation isn’t what he needs. He shows him what life would be without him, so George fully gets how important he is and what an impact he makes by being alive.

Our lives being important is not always easy to see, but for better or worse a lot of things would be different if any person didn’t exist. One can imagine an alternative movie where Mr. Potter is shown how different and better the world would have been without his crotchety ass.

Clarence himself gets to be important by saving George.Those wings are symbols of his value.

What you can learn


This movie is more than just a Christmas tradition. It does so many things that all filmmakers and creators can learn from.

Play with storytelling

One of the most fascinating aspects of this movie is how it plays around with traditional storytelling. Most people who haven’t seen it are at least aware that there’s some guardian angel that saves Jimmy Stewart. The most famous part comes only at the end.

The first two thirds of the film are played like a biopic. We see highlights of George Bailey’s life, with the interesting feature of getting two narrators having a conversation about it. This is a fascinating way to look at him, plus it lets us identify with Clarence since he is the witness and will often give his impressions of George.

The last third of the movie then turns into a completely different movie. It’s magical realism drama, but all the information that we learned before is important and gets paid-off here.

This subversion of traditional storytelling flies in the face of most screenwriting advice, and it’s part of the reason that this movie feels so unique and magical. When we find an original way to tell a story we are creating something special for audience. We get inspired choices like this when instead of thinking “how do I fit my story into the structure,” we think “in what way does my story want to unfold.”

What goes up must come down, but not in that order

This is one of the biggest feel good movies all-time, so it can be a bit weird to think that it’s filled with so many dark themes. Suicide! Corruption! Crushed dreams! Bank fraud! Poisoning of children! Imprisonment on Christmas!

But in order to have high moments, the movie has to go to these lower points.

If the movie didn’t get sad and dark, the happy moments wouldn’t feel as happy. If George’s entire life is fantastic, and a guardian angel comes down to reaffirm it on a random bad day it would--well, it would kinda suck.

Movies that are uplifting have to go to these sad places. We all experience sad moments in our life, so the movie, or at least some points of the movie, have to go down and meet us at those sad, dark moments.

That piece of ourselves that needs to be uplifted has to relate to what’s happening on screen to be affected.

The town as an antagonist

There’s a cliche about the city in a movie being its own character.

People have described New York as a character so many times, if it had its own IMDB page, it would have more credits that Christopher Lee.

With this movie Bedford Falls also could be considered a character, but it plays a character in such an engaging way. Through most of the movie it parallels Mr. Potter, being a constant foil for George every time he tries to leave it.

But when Clarence shows George what life would be like without him, we see Bedford Falls as more of a victim. It has fallen completely into the hands of Potter, even becoming named Pottersville. And it has also fallen apart and lost of all of its charm.

This causes George to see what an ally the town is and how important he has been to it, as important as he’s been to his mother, Mr. Gower, etc.

The town is a character, but a character treated in the same way as the other characters.


If we were to look at what a world would be like if this movie was never made, it would be a world where we likely wouldn’t have movies inspired by it like Back to the Future and Groundhog Day.

It would be a world where storytelling in movies might be more conventional and Christmas movies wouldn’t be as good.

Ultimately, whether or not you loved this movie, you can’t deny that it been such an inspiration to other filmmakers and movies.

So be happy this film has never thrown itself off of a bridge because it is undeniably an important one.

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