film poster for It's a Wonderful Life

See how the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, hits the Save the Cat! story beats.

It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 American Christmas drama directed by Frank Capra, draws inspiration from Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story, “The Greatest Gift.” Starring James Stewart as George Bailey, the film tells the tale of a man who sacrifices his dreams to help his community.

Initially met with mixed reviews and financial disappointment, the film gained recognition as a Christmas classic after falling into the public domain in 1974. It is now regarded as one of Hollywood’s greatest films. Nominated for five Academy Awards® and preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry in 1990, It’s a Wonderful Life continues to inspire.

It’s a Wonderful Life falls into the Save the Cat! genre Out of the Bottle because it clearly contains the three elements of that genre: 1) The hero or another character expressing a wish accompanied by a visible desire to escape the ordinary. 2) The introduction of a spell, where adherence to logical rules is crucial for coherence. 3) A recurring lesson woven throughout these narratives: Be careful what you wish for, emphasizing the theme that life is satisfactory as it is.

Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling
Based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by: Frank Capra

Genre: Out of the Bottle (Surreal Bottle)

Cousins: Scrooged, The Truman Show, Heaven Can Wait, Field of Dreams, Groundhog Day, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Pleasantville, The Butterfly Effect, Primer, Sliding Doors, The Family Man, Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), American Splendor, Midnight in Paris, The Science of Sleep

Opening Image: The film unfolds in the quaint, snowy town of Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve, where the community voices are praying for the protagonist, George Bailey (James Stewart). The collective pleas hint at George’s influence on the town. In the heavens, two celestial beings discuss the need to send someone to prevent George from discarding “God’s greatest gift”: life. They call upon the simple but sincere Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), George’s guardian angel, who has yet to earn his wings.

Theme Stated: While his father, Peter Bailey (Samuel S. Hinds), sees significance in their family business, George desires a life beyond Bedford Falls, echoing his Wish: to break free from an ordinary life for grand, exotic adventures. Yet as with all Out of the Bottle stories, “be careful what you wish for… life is good as it is” is the theme.

Young George Bailey listens to his radio
Young George Bailey wishes to explore the world outside of his world.

Set-Up: The angelic observers witness pivotal moments in young George’s life: Saving his brother from a frozen death (while losing hearing in his left ear). Sharing his aspirations of traveling to places like Fiji with Mary Hatch at the drugstore. Preventing an accidental poisoning tragedy involving pharmacist Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner). Battling against the evil Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the richest yet cruelest man in town with shades of Ebenezer Scrooge. Expressing his Wish for a larger-than-life existence and a million dollars.

Mr. Gower and young George Bailey in Mr. Gower's pharmacy
Young George Bailey prevents Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a customer.

Catalyst: The year’s now 1928. George sets his sights on a global journey before starting his college education. He’s planning on making his Wish come true.

George Baily with his arms spread wide
George Bailey is the man who Clarence the Angel must save.

Debate: George goes to his brother Harry’s (Todd Karns) dance and reacquaints himself with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who has harbored feelings for him since their younger years. George and Mary dance the night away in the school auditorium until some pranksters open the floor and reveal a swimming pool. They make a splash.

George holds Mary's hand
George and Mary make a splash under the light of the moon.

Break into Two: Walking Mary home, George wants to make his Wish come true by throwing a rock through the derelict Granville House window which, according to local lore, makes it happen. He wishes to shake the dust of the crummy little town off his feet and see the world. After that and college, he plans to build things like bridges and skyscrapers.

George in the board room with men in suits.
George must decide what to do after his father passes away.

Fun and Games: Tragedy strikes—and the Spell following the Wish begins. George’s father passes away unexpectedly, compelling George to delay his travels to address the affairs of the family enterprise, Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. The greedy board member Henry Potter, who holds significant sway over the town’s dealings, attempts to shut down the institution. However, the board decides to continue its operations while George assumes leadership. Reluctantly, George steps in to manage the business with his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and selflessly hands over his college fund to his brother Harry, agreeing that Harry will take over the family business after graduation.

George Baily, Billy, and Harry Potter sit around an office table
Henry F. Potter wants to own the entire town—and everyone in it.

The year is 1932. George is waiting for Harry to return home to replace him so he can finally make good on his Wish. Unfortunately, after recently graduating, Harry shows up with a new wife and a job offer in Buffalo.

B Story: George’s mother encourages him to see Mary, who’s back in town from New York City. She’s as obsessed as ever with George, even though she’s been dating Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson), George’s childhood friend. George and Mary get into a spat, but that only fuels their passion, so they make up by getting married.

George watches Mary on the phone.
George and Mary don’t phone it in when it comes to love and marriage.

But, as fate seems to want to keep George in town, there’s a financial panic at the bank. The citizens of Bedford Falls who have loans at Bailey’s make a run on the bank. George must use his money for the honeymoon to get people by until the bank reopens. He has only $2 out of $10,000 of honeymoon money left. But his honeymoon isn’t entirely over. Mary, with the help of Bert, the cop, and Ernie, the cab driver, set up the abandoned Granville house as the “bridal suite.” George comes home to the rain-flooded house to consummate the marriage.

George, Mary, and Billy with a wad of cash at the bank
George and Mary use their honeymoon money to help the town.

Midpoint: (False Victory) With George at the helm, the firm creates Bailey Park, a residential project offering better living conditions than Potter’s expensive tenements at Potter’s Field. Mary is with him, tying A and B Stories together. This raises the stakes for George as he’s now more critical of Bedford Falls than ever. But the clock starts ticking—it’s only a matter of time before Potter makes his counter move.

the entrance to Bailey Park
Bailey Park gives the citizens of Bedford Falls a better place to live than Potter’s Field.

Bad Guys Close In: When the hero is victorious, the villain is always there to bring him back down to earth. Henry Potter tries to lure George with an attractive job offer, paying $20,000 annually. However, George discerns Potter’s underlying scheme to eliminate Bailey Brothers Building and Loan and decisively rejects the offer. But George keeps the complimentary cigar. He learns that Mary is pregnant, and they have had several more children. World War II begins, but George cannot fight for his country due to his bad ear. However, his brother Harry, who lives the life George wants, becomes a fighter pilot who wins the Congressional Medal of Honor.

George stands angrily in front of Potter, who is sitting behind a desk
George refutes Potter’s “generous” offer to buy him out.

All Is Lost: Uncle Billy misplaces the loan company’s $8,000 deposit, which pushes George to the brink—showing a dark side we haven’t seen. The stakes rise as his business could be shut down, and he could go to jail. He’s short with Mary and the children at home, yelling at them. There’s a whiff of death as George could lose everything he’s worked so hard for.

George faces Uncle Billy
George loses his temper after Uncle Billy loses the money.

Dark Night of the Soul: George goes to Henry Potter (who accidentally has the $8,000 Uncle Billy lost) for a loan to save his family business. The only thing George has as collateral is a $15,000 life insurance policy (with a $500 equity). Potter, who enjoys George prostrating to him, tells him that he’s worth more dead than alive. As a Bailey Brothers Building and Loan stockholder, Potter calls the sheriff on George.

George at the bar at Martini's
In Martini’s bar, George says a prayer that will soon be answered.

At Martini’s, George knocks back a few drinks and prays. He drives to the town bridge and is about to jump off—his business and family will be saved if he dies. Clarence shows up and leaps in, screaming for help. George jumps in to save him. Clarence reveals he’s an angel.

Clarence speaks to George
Clarence discloses what life in Bedford Falls without George would be like.

George says he wishes he was never born. And in true Dickensian and Capraesque fashion, Clarence shows George what Bedford Falls would be like if he hadn’t existed: The town is now Pottersville, with many angry people and plenty of neon lights. Mr. Gower spent 20 years in jail for poisoning a boy because George never stopped him. Harry drowned in the frozen pond as George wasn’t there to save him, and Mary is a spinster librarian. Bailey Park is the town cemetery. George doesn’t like any of it. He had a wonderful life when he was alive—and he prays for it back.

Break into Three: Clarence reverses the Spell, and George races through the streets of Bedford Falls, joyously proclaiming his appreciation for life, breaking free from the magic. He’s learned the Lesson.

George celebrating, arms uplifted in the snow
George is jubilant that Bedford Falls still exists after his troubled vision.

Finale: George returns home. He’s happy he still has one! The bank accountant is there with the ledger, and the sheriff is present to arrest him. George doesn’t care; he has everything he needs: his family and his town. Mary shows up. The town rallied around and took up a collection—a call back to when George helped them with his money. They bestow it on George and Mary. A message from Clarence in his copy of Tom Sawyer underscores the value of friendship, which makes you richer than money, reprising the Lesson.

George, Mary, and dozens of townspeople presenting them money
Bedford Falls opens up their coffers to save George Bailey and his family.

Final Image: George’s brother Harry returns home and toasts him as the wealthiest man in town, and we conclude with a celebratory rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” echoing the surreal triumph over the Wish’s curse.

Mary, George, their family and Uncle Billy in the Christmasy living room
George learns the Lesson of what makes a wonderful life.