The story behind It’s a Wonderful Life

By Erika Weisensee
Milwaukie Writing Mom

“It’s A Wonderful Life,” the 1946 Christmas film starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, has become a holiday classic. And, many of us know much of it by heart. “Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” Now 63 years old, the enduring film is dated in many ways—shot in black and white, simple sets, and delightful dialogue that reminds one of a bygone era. Yet, the universal themes and lessons of this movie are timeless, as relevant in 2009 as they must have been a half-century ago.

At the time of its release, “It’s A Wonderful Life” did not do well in the box office, yet audiences over the years grew to love the film and it was eventually named one of the 100 best American films ever made. The story centers around the character of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a frustrated businessman in the fictional town of Bedford Falls, just after World War II. On Christmas Eve, George is drunk and suicidal after $8,000 goes missing at his family’s building and loan.

He considers jumping off a bridge, but his guardian angel, Clarence, intervenes and shows George what life would have been like for his friends and family if he had never existed. Without him, George’s wife Mary (Donna Reed), is an old maid. His brother Harry drowned as a child because George wasn’t there to save him. His mother is a bitter old woman running a boarding house. The town is named Pottersville after greedy Mr. Potter because George wasn’t there to be a presence in the community.

At the end of the film, with Clarence’s help, George sees that his life has meaning. He runs home to find his family, with a new appreciation for, well, everything. He hugs his wife and kids. His family and friends arrive in a steady stream to replace the missing money. Harry, his brother and a war hero, shows up and calls George “the richest man in town,” and with this statement the lesson is clear: George is rich not because of the dollars piled on the table in front of him but because of the love of his family and friends. Within his little corner of the world, George has touched many lives.

It’s A Wonderful Life reminds us of the importance of the relationships closest to us—our family, friends and neighbors, and the positive difference that one person can make in other people’s lives. It is a tearjerker for sure, but worth it every time.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

— Erika Weisensee lives in Milwaukie and teaches journalism and communication courses at the University of Portland.

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