It’s A Wonderful Script
Every time a bell rings, a writer gets residuals
Given that we’re sending this at 9am (UK time) on Christmas Eve you might have some questions about the editors of The Metropolitan right now: maybe ‘Don’t these people have families?’, or ‘Is this going to be 1500 words about a Pixies B-side?’. To which the answers, respectively, are ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
As you read this we will be in the aisles of the local Waitrose punching someone senseless over the last nine-pack of bog roll; but later - ah, later, like many of you, we will be watching It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). And like many of you, in some ways this is a pointless exercise because we could perform it verbatim, right now, without rehearsal. Because you see, George, it really is a wonderful script.
The film sprang from a tiny fable called The Greatest Gift, written by journalist and author Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943 and sent to his family and friends as Christmas cards. One of these made its way to an executive at RKO Studios, who sold it on to the director Frank Capra, who had just finished making anti-Nazi propaganda films - most notably Why We Fight - during the Second World War.
It’s A Wonderful Life was a flop on release and bankrupted Capra’s production company. It only became a popular Christmas classic in the late 1970s when it was endlessly repeated on American network TV as cheap filler. For British Generation X it’s most closely associated with Channel 4, which has shown it every Christmas Eve for the last 25 years.
It divides opinion (several people we know can’t stand it), and is problematic in parts, but we’re fans. In an attempt to work out why, we’ve isolated 25 illuminating moments from the script. (You can read the full thing here.)
Merry Christmas from everyone at The Metropolitan x
That's why I came to see you, sir. It's that clock-maker's turn again.
Oh – Clarence. Hasn't got his wings yet, has he? We've passed him up right along.
Because, you know, sir, he's got the I.Q. of a rabbit.
The script is full of nimble jokes with a bit of bite. After a painful-sounding development process in which three previous scripts had been binned, the final version was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who also wrote the riotous quasi-noir The Thin Man, the original Father of the Bride and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. They were a married couple (their nephew thought the wise-cracking, hard-drinking husband-and-wife team in The Thin Man was largely autobiography); Frances Goodrich was nine years her husband’s senior and had been divorced twice, and yes we are reading something into that, in a good way.
A man down on earth needs our help.
Splendid! Is he sick?
No, worse. He's discouraged.
The script’s religious fantasy elements have a wonderfully light touch, which means it works neatly as pure fantasy over 75 years later in a much less actively Christian culture.
VIOLET (to Mary)
I like him.
You like every boy.
What's wrong with that?
It’s the stage direction - ‘(happily)’ - that makes it. Violet is an absolute strumpet throughout, a glorious strutting flirt with a bust that goes like this and hips that go like that, and as she so rightly says: what’s wrong with that? The script, mostly, does not judge her for it. Gloria Grahame gives a gorgeous performance, and really enjoys herself playing a snarling drunk slapper in the parallel world of Pottersville.
Don't hurt my sore ear again!
Most of the film is so light that when it takes itself seriously it delivers quite a punch. Much as Mr Gower does in this visceral scene, all blood and burst eardrums.
Suddenly, in action, as George stands with his arms outstretched in illustration, the picture freezes and becomes a still. Over this hold-frame shot we hear the voices from Heaven:
What did you stop it for?
I want you to take a good look at that face.
Who is it?
It's a good face. I like it. I like George Bailey.
Well of course you like him; he’s Jimmy Stewart. Stewart’s inherent likeability is an enormous boon in this film. He’s also given plenty of space to play angry and unpleasant, and even menacing.
Want to come along, Bert? We'll show you the town!
Bert looks at his watch, then takes another look at Violet's retreating figure.
No, thanks. Think I'll go home and see what the wife's doing.
Another zinger throwaway line, as Violet lays waste to the town’s menfolk. It’s pleasing that Bert the cop and Ernie the taxi driver are friends even in Pottersville. Sadly, everybody associated with Jim Henson has said the friendship between two Muppets with the same names is a coincidence.
It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.
‘Deep in the race’. What does Pop mean by ‘race’? Does he just mean white people? That’s certainly the majority population of Bedford Falls. And then there’s…
Annie crosses the room, holding her broom. Harry reaches out for her.
If you lay a hand on me, I'll hit you with this broom.
Annie, I'm in love with you. There's a moon out tonight.
As he pushes her through the kitchen door, he slaps her fanny. She screams.
The coercively unpleasant relationship between the Bailey family and their Black maid Annie (played by veteran actor Lillian Randolph, who worked with Al Jolson and was the voice of ‘Mammy Two Shoes’ in Tom and Jerry) is extremely uncomfortable. The script clearly thinks it’s charming of the Bailey family to include Annie in their ‘banter’, which somehow makes it worse. (There is a more thorough discussion of what Annie’s treatment reveals about contemporary attitudes towards Black Americans in this Smithsonian Magazine article.)
Hey, this is my dance!
Oh, why don't you stop annoying people?
One of those lines you find yourself quoting several times a year.
Well, then you could swallow it and it'd all dissolve, see? And the moonbeams'd shoot out of your fingers and your toes, and the ends
of your hair.
Am I talking too much?
Yes!! Why don't you kiss her instead of talking her to death?
The man in the rocking chair is correct. And also, thank goodness for lines like this undercutting some of the more flowery parts of the script.
You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money. What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. [...]
[...] Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle.
Just a great speech, and a wonderful exposition of fundamental social values. Director Frank Capra was a libertarian and saw It’s A Wonderful Life as a successful expression of his politics, but in these moments it reads more like a straight-up description of social democracy.
You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?
Uh-huh. Breakfast is served; lunch is served, dinner…
No, no, no, no! Anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles.
Most of the film is spent watching one man having all the hope crushed out of him while being gaslit that he’s ‘doing the right thing’; this is what gives it its grit, and makes it a film for adults. But of course George Bailey does realise his dreams. He just doesn’t know it. He dreams of planning ‘modern cities’ and he goes on to build Bailey Park. His dreams focus on the form of infrastructure while his life’s work fulfills its purpose: improving lives.
There is a CRASH of cans and bottles, then:
UNCLE BILLY'S VOICE
I'm all right. I'm all right.
This tiny bit of knockabout comedy looks like nothing on the page, but Thomas Mitchell’s delivery makes it unforgettable: ‘I’m al-right! I’m al-right.’
”And dance by the light…”
What’s the matter? Oh yeah… yeah…
The film’s structure requires George and Mary to get from ‘school reunion’ to ‘married couple with kids’ in a flash. Faced with this problem Goodrich and Hackett could have used a simple childhood-sweethearts narrative, but instead, brilliantly, they make the romance awkward. In this scene Mary has a whole thing planned, but George is in a bad mood; he is sour, she is furious. It is comedy, character development and a believable love story, all tied up in a bow in a few minutes. It's a beautiful piece of work, and Stewart and Donna Reed - whose part was originally intended for Olivia de Havilland - nail it. The sequence on the phone with Sam Wainwright was the first and only take.
Come on, we got to get this up. He's coming.
The groom, idiot. This is their honeymoon.
What are they – ducks?
Just another great joke.
Don't look now, but there's something funny going on over there at the bank, George, I've never really seen one, but that's got all the earmarks of a run.
It’s A Wonderful Life is a little capsule history lesson, like The Crown without tiaras. We get the 1919 influenza pandemic in Mr Gower’s telegram about his son’s death, and here we get the Wall St Crash of 1929. Both are shown in exactly the way many ordinary people would have experienced them: sudden personal impacts. In both cases there is absolutely zero exposition, because the script is busy showing rather than telling.
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No, but you... you... you're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money's not here. Your money's in Joe's house...
(to one of the men)
...right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others.
Again we see the curious tension between Capra’s idea of the film’s politics and its actual, revealed politics. Capra said It’s A Wonderful Life ‘sums up my philosophy of film-making… to exalt the worth of the individual… to dramatize the viability of the individual.’ And yet you could not devise a better dramatization of humanity’s fundamental inter-reliance than this scene.
George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He's an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man — who hates his job – who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. A young man who's been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man... the smartest one of the crowd, mind you, a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he's trapped.
Potter has recognised the part of George Bailey that regrets not being Potter. Like so many Christmas stories - A Christmas Carol most notably - the plot is heavy with regret.
Where's that money, you stupid, silly old fool? Where's the money? Do you realise what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal, and prison! That's what it means! One of us is going to jail! Well, it's not going to be me!
Ye gods, Uncle Billy is irritating. It’s a huge choice on the part of the writers to place such narrative weight on a character who is foolish, self-pitying and wildly incompetent. The genius of Goodrich and Hackett - this wasn’t in any earlier drafts or in the original story - was to make George’s strength also his weakness. His kindness and generosity make him give up his ambitions, and give jobs to his idiot cousins, but they also bring him the warm relationships that save and define him.
Clarence Odbody, A-S-2.
Odbody... A-S-2. What's that A-S-2?
Angel, Second Class.
It’s interesting how similar this is to the Heaven portrayed in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (also 1946): all ranks, serial numbers and military bureaucracy. But then, it’s perhaps not so surprising: like Clarence, American armed forces had recently dropped out of the skies to save people.
Hey, look mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast. And we don't need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere.
Sheldon Leonard, who does such a great job of the two Nicks (‘Are you alright George?’/’Get me, I’m giving out wings!’), played many gangsters and had previously appeared in the Bogart/Bacall movie To Have and Have Not. This era was the peak of film noir, the genre best suited to Pottersville.
Aiming his gun at a fleeing George, Bert the Cop shoots out the illuminated ‘V’ in the town sign, so that it reads ‘POTTERS ILLE’. Lionel Barrymore, who played Potter, used a wheelchair, compounding the constant implication that Potter has been disabled by selfishness and greed: ‘sick in his mind, sick in his soul’.
You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?
He said the title! Clarence shows up 100 minutes into the film’s 130-minute running time; the most famous sequences all happen right at the end. Van Doren Stern’s short story begins with George considering suicide. The build up and character development - all the ways in which George really did have a wonderful life - were written for the film. Without them the redemption falls a bit flat; the original story is more eerie than emotional.
Where is she?
She's an old maid. She never married.
Where's Mary? Where is she?
Where is she?
She's just about to close up the library!
Henry Travers’s delivery of this line - his last in the film - is absolutely hysterical, and is matched by the kind of instrumental music that usually signals a shark attack. The implication - that there is no worse fate for a woman than staying single and reading - sits oddly with the little sparks of feminism elsewhere. (In the original story George discovers that Mary is married to a violent brute; this was a narrative complication too far for the film.) Pottersville has a diverse population, cocktails, jazz, and spinsters furtling around in the shelves; Bedford Falls has busybodies and good manners. You can see why George wanted to get out, frankly.
A toast... to my big brother, George. The richest man in town!
Despite the infernally adenoidal Zuzu, and all the film’s faults, if you can get through the end without crying you’re made of less sentimental stuff than we are. Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!
Our sister newsletter Christmas Stories has now reached its seasonal conclusion. You can read (or listen to) all of this year’s story, The Elf Service, here: