GITS Script Reading & Analysis: “It’s A Wonderful Life” — Characters

December 19th, 2012 by

This week we will be analyzing the screenplay for the 1946 movie It’s A Wonderful Life, screenplay Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, story by Philip Van Doren Stern. The movie was nominated for 5 Academy Awards.

You may download a copy of the script here.

Today we discuss the script’s characters. Here is a list of the primary ones:

George Bailey

Mary Hatch

Henry F. Potter

Uncle Billy Bailey


Ma Bailey

Ernie Bishop


Violet Bick

Mr. Gower

Sam Wainwright

Harry Bailey

Peter Bailey

Our schedule for discussion:

Monday, December 17: General comments
Tuesday, December 18: Structure
Wednesday, December 19: Characters
Thursday, December 20: Themes
Friday, December 21: Dialogue

We will have another live TweetCast tonight, December 19 at 7PM Pacific. What’s a TweetCast? Everybody lines up a DVD, Netflix, or whatever of the movie, then hits play at precisely the top of the hour. So join me for that. Hashtag: #WONDERTC.

Here is the Wikipedia background information on the movie:

The original story “The Greatest Gift” was written by Philip Van Doren Stern in November 1939. After being unsuccessful in getting the story published, he decided to make it into a Christmas card, and mailed 200 copies to family and friends in December 1943.[18][N 5] The story came to the attention of RKO producer David Hempstead, who showed it to Cary Grant‘s Hollywood agent, and in April 1944, RKO Pictures bought the rights to the story for $10,000, hoping to turn the story into a vehicle for Grant.[20] RKO created three unsatisfactory scripts before shelving the planned movie, and Grant went on to make another Christmas movie staple, The Bishop’s Wife.[N 6][22]

At the suggestion of RKO studio chief Charles Koerner, Frank Capra read “The Greatest Gift” and immediately saw its potential. RKO, anxious to unload the project, in 1945 sold the rights to Capra’s production company, Liberty Films, which had a nine-film distribution agreement with RKO, for $10,000,[N 7] and threw in the three scripts for free.[18] Capra, along with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker brought in to “polish” the script,[24] turned the story and what was worth using from the three scripts into a screenplay that Capra would rename It’s a Wonderful Life.[18] The script underwent many revisions throughout pre-production and during filming.[25] Final screenplay credit went to Goodrich, Hackett and Capra, with “additional scenes” by Jo Swerling.

Seneca Falls, New York claims that when Frank Capra visited their town in 1945, he was inspired to model Bedford Falls after it. The town has an annual “It’s a Wonderful Life festival” in December.[26] In mid-2009, The Hotel Clarence opened in Seneca Falls, named for George Bailey’s guardian angel. On December 10, 2010, the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum opened in Seneca Falls, with Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the movie, cutting the ribbon.[27]

Both James Stewart, (from Indiana, Pennsylvania), and Donna Reed, (from Denison, Iowa), came from small towns. Stewart’s father ran a small hardware store where James worked for years. Reed demonstrated her rural roots by winning an impromptu bet with Lionel Barrymore when he challenged her to milk a cow on set.[28]

Remember: Reading scripts is one of the most important single things you can do to enhance your understanding of the craft of screenwriting. So download It’s A Wonderful Life, read it, and join in the conversation.

For Part 1, a general discussion of the script, go here.

For Part 2 on structure, go here.

For all of the other screenplays and commentary in the GITS Script Reading & Analysis series, go here.


Comment Archive

3 thoughts on “GITS Script Reading & Analysis: “It’s A Wonderful Life” — Characters

  1. We meet the main characters in “It’s A Wonderful Life” very quickly in ACT I:
    (in order of appearance):

    * Clarence Odbody – Mentor – a 293-year old Angel, Second Class. Appears first as a star in the heavens and receives his assignment; watches key events in George Bailey’s life; travels to earth at the All Is Lost Moment.
    * George Bailey – Protagonist
    * Harry Bailey – Trickster #1; Kid Brother
    * Henry F. Potter – Nemesis – “The richest and meanest man in the county”.
    * Mary Hatch – Attractor; she later becomes Mrs. George Bailey
    * Uncle Billy – Trickster #2

    Key dynamics of the Protagonist:

    Protagonist George Bailey’s Disunity:

    1a) Protagonist’s Want # 1 = to go exploring. To see the world.

    * Quote: “I want [a suitcase] for a thousand and one nights, with plenty of room for labels from Italy, and Baghdad, Samarkand . . . a great big one” (p.19).
    * Quote: “A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since the day he was born”(Mr. Potter, p. 91).

    1b) Protagonist’s Want # 2 = to become a builder.

    * Quote: “You know what I’ve always talked about – build things . . . design new buildings – plan modern cities – all that stuff I was talking about”(p.27).
    * Quote: “I’m going to build things. I’m gonna build air fields. I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m gonna build bridges a mile long . . .” (p.38).
    * Quote: “I want to do something big and something important”(p.28).

    2) Protagonist’s Need = to appreciate what he already has, all around him.

    3) Protagonist’s Biggest Fear = staying trapped in tiny Bedford Falls forever.

    * Quote: “Oh, now, Pop, I couldn’t. I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office”(p.28).
    * Quote: “ . . . Most of my friends have already finished college. I just feel like if I don’t get away, I’d bust”(p.28).

    4) Protagonist’s Flaws:

    * Flaw # 1 = Lost his hearing in his left ear (p.5). This hurts George (he’s declared 4-F by the draft board, and therefore can’t serve his country during wartime – while his younger brother Harry does serve, travels to a foreign country, and wins the Congressional Medal of Honor). Later, in ACT III, this problem/flaw helps George after he declares to Clarence (in the Toll House on the bridge): “I wish I’d never been born” (p.136). When he discovers that his hearing is perfect, George starts to realize that something is different.

    * Flaw # 2 = Has a heart of gold: George loans mortgage money to the community long-term, but he makes business decisions with his heart, not with his head. Sometimes doesn’t even ask for paperwork. This contributes to keeping the B&L company income very low, giving Mr. Potter (Nemesis) more power over the financially weak George.

    * Quote: “Here, Ed. You know, you remember last year when things weren’t going so well, and you couldn’t make your payments. You didn’t lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would have let you keep it?” (p.77).
    * Scene Description: He (George) pulls money from his pocket, and offers it to her (Violet). (p.109).
    * Quote: “What do you want to do, hock your furs, and that hat? Want to walk to New York?” (p.109).
    * Quote: “It’s a loan. That’s my business. Building and Loan. Besides, you’ll get a job. Good luck to you” (p.109).

    By the Dénouement, is Protagonist George Bailey in Unity? Or is he still in Disunity? Do his wants and needs come together?

    Sure, George initially “wants” to see the world and “wants” to build big things. But by sacrificing those goals so that he could serve others – his family; his community – he finally understands that he has lived the life he “needed” to live. It just took George several decades, and with the help of Clarence the Ancient Angel, to figure that all out.

    By the end of the story, George desperately wants to live, and the community desperately needs him there in Bedford Falls. He is a hero to every person living in that small town.

    That sure sounds like Unity to me.

    * Quote: “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?” (Clarence, p.152).

    John A.

    1. Scott says:

      Solid analysis, John, and I agree with your take on character archetypes:

      Protagonist – George Bailey
      Nemesis – Mr. Potter
      Attractor – Mary Hatch
      Mentor – Clarence
      Trickster – Almost every secondary character in Bedford Falls apart from George’s immediate family with the most pivotal Trickster being Uncle Billy whose loss of $8K creates a major test for George.

      To this, I would add the following:

      Attractor: George’s children
      Mentor – Peter Bailey

      The kids is pretty obvious. What about Peter? The way I determine a character’s archetype is to drill down and discover what their most fundamental narrative function is, and in the case of Peter Bailey, he is – I believe – a Mentor. Witness these two sides at the pivotal dinner scene, the final moments these two will spend together:

      “Of course, it’s just a hope, but you wouldn’t consider coming back to the Building and Loan, would you?”

      An invitation to George to follow in Peter’s footsteps at the Building and Loan.

      “You know, George, 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, and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.”

      This is the crux of Peter’s wisdom: A counterbalance to George’s grandiose schemes of doing “big” things, the recognition that one can be a hero in a meaningful way by taking small, but important actions.

      The ghost of his father looms over George throughout the story [we even see Peter’s photograph on the wall a couple of times to remind George — and us — of his ongoing presence in the story]. I contend that at least some, if not much of George’s impulse to see the world and build big things is an attempt to run away from his father’s presence, but that turns out to be an inauthentic way of living, and ultimately the lesson George needs to learn [more on that in the Theme post].

      In any event, Peter’s wisdom proves right in the end, the response of Bedford Fall’s citizens to the generosity and heroism of Peter, George and the Building and Loan in helping the “riff raff” to live a more decent, human life, how they literally dump money toward George to repay him for his loyalty all those years.

      Peter Bailey realizes the power of friendships born through a commitment to human decency is ‘bigger’ than any bridge or skyscraper that George can imagine. In the end, George realizes that, too.

  2. Want to know how powerful this movie is? How great a character George Bailey is?

    Everytime I read the script, “the voices” I hear in my head for the characters are my own. For example:

    * Mr. Gower = a generic male voice is speaking his lines.
    * Violet = a flirty female voice.
    * Mary = an unknown, sweet female voice.
    * Martini or Nick = yes, they have that businessman’s sense of urgency to them, but any actor could be cast to play them.
    * etc, etc, all down the line. Could be any talented actor or actress.

    BUT EVERY SINGLE TIME the dialogue is George Bailey’s, it’s Jimmy Stewart that appears, absolutely leaping off the page, with that aw-shucks, deliberate drawl, filled with honesty and earnestness; that distinctive, fabulous delivery that I hear. Every single time.

    Man – Stewart nailed that role perfectly :-) Jimmy Stewart is George Bailey.

    John A

    ps: Scott – re: the character of banker Henry F. Potter:

    It was apparently kind of an open secret in the 1930’s about President FDR having polio and being confined to a wheelchair. Do you think that the writers putting Potter in a wheelchair was intentional? (coming complete with “a goon”!). I can’t think of many film characters who were in a wheelchair (for their entire role, and not just during a brief hospital stay) . . .

    (Raymond Burr, on TV, with Ironsides, yes. There was Avatar, recently. And I believe that one of the many film versions of “The King and I” story featured a sedan chair – but that is different, of course).

    Interesting that here was the Powerful Nemesis, yet here he was, in a wheelchair. If nothing else, it helped to define his character, and showed his power, in another way. Fascinating choice by the writers.

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