wisdom to win

 Wisdom to Win
search bar left
search bar right

It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and EthicsIt’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics


It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)


Famous for...

  • Voted the most inspirational film ever by the American Film Institute, despite being relatively unsuccessful at the box office.
  • Being America's favourite Christmas film.


Set in...

The fictional American town of Bedford Falls in the years leading up to 1946.

 It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics


Frank Capra (pictured right) whose feel good films portray the ordinary good guy (like James Stewart in this film) triumphing over evil.



None but five nominations including:

  • best director.
  • best actor (James Stewart).


Key characters

George Bailey (James Stewart), house mortgage lender (pictured right).It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

Mary Bailey (Donna Reed), his wife and sweetheart.

Clarence (Henry Travers), his guardian angel.

Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), his business rival.

Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), his uncle and employee.

The story

It is Christmas Eve, 1946, in Bedford Falls, USA, and George Bailey is on the point of suicide.It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

The prayers of his family and friends inform Heaven of his plight. Clarence Oddbody (pictured right), an Angel Second Class, is given the job of saving George and so earning his wings after 200 years of trying.

The head angel, Joseph, tells him all the good that George has done.

George saved:

  • his younger brother, Harry in a tobogganing accident (making George deaf in one ear).
  • the local pharmacist, Mr. Gower (stopping him poisoning a child with the wrong drugs). It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

At Harry’s school graduation party, George dances with his childhood sweetheart, Mary Hatch (pictured right). They fantasize about their future in front of an old, dilapidated house, when George hears that his father has died suddenly.

Despite his lifelong ambition to travel the world and become an architect, he takes over his father’s business, the Building and Loan Association that uses people’s savings to give poorer people home loans. This stops Mr. Potter seizing control of it.

Potter is greedy and heartless, and owns most of the town.

George’s ambitions are dashed again, when Harry can’t run the business because he gets a job with his new wife’s father.

Mary emotionally agrees to marry George during a telephone call with another suitor, Sam Wainwright, an old school friend and successful businessman.

On their wedding day, people:

  • lose confidence in the Building and Loan.
  • want to withdraw their savings. It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

Refusing Potter’s miserly takeover bid, George:

  • urges people not to withdraw (pictured right).
  • just manages to pay back everyone (using his honeymoon money).

Mary sets up a romantic honeymoon dinner in the old house which:

  • becomes their home.
  • is gradually renovated. It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

Just before the birth of the first of their four children, George refuses Potter’s job offer with a much bigger salary.

During World War Two, he stays at home (due to his deaf ear), but Harry becomes a war hero as a Naval pilot.

On Christmas Eve, 1946, Uncle Billy (George’s uncle and employee) loses $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s savings, unaware that Potter has taken it .

This loss would ruin the business (Billy is pictured right above with an angry George)


George:It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

  • returns home (devastated).
  • shouts at his children and one of their teachers on the phone.

After Potter refuses him a loan, he prays for help at a bar, where he has a fight with the insulted teacher’s husband (pictured to George's left) who cuts his lip.

In a snow storm, he drives into a tree and runs to the nearby bridge, intending to kill himself. But, before he can jump in, Clarence (his guardian angel, remember):

  • jumps in first. It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics
  • is saved by George (who says he wishes he’d never been born) - pictured right.

Clarence makes his wish come true, and George sees Bedford Falls, as if he had never been there

It is now called Pottersville, mostly a slum and full of pawn shops and sleazy bars. His friends or family  either don't recognize him, or are destroyed by his absence:

  • Mary is a lonely librarian.
  • Harry is dead (from the tobogganing accident).
  • Mr. Gower, the pharmacist, is convicted of poisoning the child. It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

George (pictured right) returns to the bridge, praying to Clarence and God to let him live again. They duly oblige and Bert, the policeman, tells him the whole town is looking for him.

Noticing his cut lip, he ecstatically realizes that his life has returned to normal on Christmas Eve. Screaming his delight to everyone (including Potter), he:

  • rushes home.
  • discovers that the town has raised a huge amount of money from carol singing to save George and the Building and Loan.

Sam Wainwright has also lent him $25,000.It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

During the festive celebrations (pictured right), Harry arrives and proposes a toast: “To my big brother George, the richest man in town”, prompting everyone to cheer and sing Auld Lang Syne.

George finally receives a book from Clarence with his inscription:

“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings!”


Lessons for success and ethics

 It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

1. People and the individual first

In 1982 Frank Capra said his films were based upon three ideals:

  • the love of people.
  • the equal importance of each individual.
  • the freedom of each individual.

 It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

2. Count your blessings

Despite his problems and his lost dream of becoming an architect, George realizes that he has a wonderful life after his meeting with Clarence.


3. Family and friends are fabulous

The love of George’s family and friends makes him “the richest man in town” according to his brother, Harry.

 It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

4. Money isn’t everything

Potter (pictured right) is rich, but his greed and meanness have made him unpopular and miserable. George is poorer but much happier because of his love for others.


5. Go for it!It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

George was an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things through his:

  • compassion and charisma.
  • competence and conscientiousness.


6. Be socially responsible

Like his father and unlike Potter, George:

  • puts people before profit.
  • provides good quality housing to ordinary people.

 It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

7. Community counts

Following George’s example, Bedford Falls is a community in which everybody helps each other.


8. Don’t lose your ideals

George passionately believes in his father’s ideals of helping ordinary people despite Potter’s unprincipled attacks.

 It’s A Wonderful Life - Success and Ethics

9. Integrity inspires

People help George, because he’s a good man who helps them.


10. Give and you will receive

George is so kind to the people of Bedford Falls that they raise thousands of dollars to save his business.


Key quotes on relationships

No man is a failure who has friends, Clarence.

Why don't you kiss her instead of talking her to death?, a neighbour (seeing George and Mary).


Key quote on happiness

You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?, Clarence


Key quote on business ethics

I feel that in a small way, we are doing something important, satisfying a fundamental urge. It's deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, George's father talking to him about the Building and Loan Association.

People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they’re cattle... he died a much richer man than you'll ever be, George (talking about his father to Potter).


Key quote on workers

This rabble you're talking about [working people], they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to ask to have them work, pay, live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?, George (to Potter).


Key quote on ethics

Ideals without common sense can ruin this town, Potter


Key quote on influence

Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?, Clarence (to George)


Two film websites to recommend

1. filmsite.org (run by Tim Dirks).

2. aveleyman.com (run by Tony Sullivan)


Free Newsletter
Enter your name and e-mail address to receive our free newsletter with analysis of business issues and new business books