It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, is considered one of the best Christmas film. And all good movies start with a strong script. Let’s analyze it.
Note: Screenwriter Jo Swerling is uncredited on the film, but is billed in the draft I read.
- Draft Read: Unknown
- Type: Shooting
- Page Count: 168
- Reading Speed: Medium
- Setting(s): Bedford Falls, New York
- Plot Structure: Linear, Spanning multiple years
- Genre(s): Love, Comedy, Fantasy
- Theme(s): Love, Marriage, Good vs Evil, Friendship, Loyalty, Religion
- Protagonist Change: Significant
On a sociocultural level, if Network (1976) feels like a great leap forward from The Apartment (1960); It’s A Wonderful Life feels about five steps in the backward direction. It’s a slow-moving plot. Hee haw indeed.
The positive always-evolving inter-dynamic between Mary and George is fantastic. A scene worth mentioning is when George and Mary miss their Honeymoon but Mary, with the help of friends, does her best to turn their home into a romantic retreat (Page 83). This strong relationship makes it that much sadder when George turns sour toward the climax.
There are some pretty funny comedic moments. For example, when George speaks to Clarence, an angel, he says (Page 145):
Look, who are you?
I told you, George. I’m your guardian angel?
George still looking at him, goes up to him an pokes his arm. It’s flesh.
Yeah, yeah, I know. You told me that. What else are you? What… are you a hypnotist?
No, of course not.
The screenplay relies heavily on the power of religion to save the day; so much so that the real hero, all of George’s friends’ generosity (arguably the stronger emotional point), could almost be considered secondary to the workings of Clarence. Of course, Clarence, essentially the writer’s vehicle to pass on his message through dialogue, has some great lines (Page 153):
Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?
The two-act structure makes for a slow, simmering and oftentimes boring read. Back in the day, I’m sure this was fine, but it is relatively slow.
The actual misplacing on the money (Page 105) reads rather awkwardly:
Uncle Billy folds Potters paper over the envelope containing his money, and flings his final taunt at the old man.
Now I don’t go walking around with $8,000 cash (probably equivalent to $50,000 today) all that often, but if I did, that envelope stays glued in my hand until it’s in the bank.
The climax is spread out. One particularly intense point is when George is shot at (Page 158), but his friends bailing him out is perhaps the actual climax? The ending probably could have been consolidated for a stronger impact. It’s minor, but I feel worth noting.
Like Schindler’s List (1993) and Life Is Beautiful (1997) (two random other examples), It’s A Wonderful Life doesn’t really have three clear acts. It’s more so a two-act story: George’s early life, and the most important point in his adult one. Why’s it the most important? Well, because everything comes to a head: His friends, money, dignity, and so forth. And just when we think he’s lost it all, he’s redeemed.
The lead, George Bailey, is of course a fantastic character: He’s flawed, nice, respectful, professional and caring. The villain, Potter, is particularly cold. Worth noting is his confinement to a wheelchair, and the focus of the screenwriters to portray him as a bitter and cynical person.
But perhaps the best aspect of the characters were the strong female ones; Mary and Violet. Both were dynamic and given ample screentime and in the case of Mary; a clear character arc.
Dialogue & Pacing
As old-school as the dialogue is, there are some funny jokes. For example, after throwing rocks at windows of an old house (somehow this is romantic), an old man sitting there says (Page 39):
Yes!! Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?
There are also some particularly intense scenes as well, so as George’s Monologue toward Potter (Page 45):
Just a minute – just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character…
People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!
As noted, pacing was rather slow. As with many old films, there were long stretches of walking, talking and overall just not much going on, at least visually. That seems to be about the norm for this time period, where many screenplays could have doubled as stage plays.
The script has a strong religious undertone. George isn’t saved until he prays to the good lord. If you’re a believer, there’s good odds you will feel the emotional impact here. But even if you are not, the themes of friendship, loyalty, self-compassion and self-worth (just to name a few), are so strong that this screenplay is sure to have some level of impact.
Best Part of The Script
- George’s speech at the Saving and Loan Board Meeting (Start on Page 42).
- The bank run (Start on Page 74).