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

December 17th, 2012 by

Welcome to the GITS Script Reading & Analysis series, Volume 25. 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.

Some reviews of the movie:

Roger Ebert [January 1, 1999]

The Guardian [December 13, 2007]

New York Times [December 23, 1946]

Variety [December 18, 1946]

The original movie trailer:

Let’s use this post today for your general reactions to the script.

Did you enjoy it? What aspects about it made the most impact on you? Would you consider it a ‘good read’? What struck you most about the writing?

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 on Wednesday, 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.

A scene from the movie:

If you know of any great behind-the-scenes videos or interviews about It’s A Wonderful Life, please post them in comments.

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 and join us this week to analyze the script.

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


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

  1. Scott says:

    Like most of you, I have seen It’s a Wonderful Life a lot. At least 20 times [we almost always watch it every December in the Myers household]. However I have never read the script. Three general observations going from least significant to most.

    1. The script we read is 168 pages long. The movie itself is 130 minutes so definitely not in 1 page per screen time mode. Then again, the script is certainly not a scanned copy of the original, so who knows how long that was.

    2. Speaking of the script, it’s a confounding document. The dialogue is almost word for word verbatim, even down to stop-starts within sentences which suggests the script is a transcription of the movie. OTOH the scene description is not your typical transcription type description, rather goes into great detail throughout.

    For example:

    Gower comes to the entrance. He is bleary-eyed, unshaven, chewing on an old unlit cigar. His manner is gruff and mean. It is evident he has been drinking.

    Even some so-called unfilmables:

    George and his father, eating at the table. There is a great similarity and a great understanding between them.

    So it seems to me either the actors delivered the dialogue almost exactly as written from this script or the dialogue is a transcription and the scene description is from the original screenplay.

    3. The big revelation for me while I was reading the script is a connection I made between the story and Back to the Future. That may be a head-scratcher for you, but think about it: A Protagonist as an opportunity to see a parallel reality. In BTTF, it’s the past. In IAWL, it’s what if George had never been born.

    Also the actions or non-actions of the Protagonist in one reality deeply impact the other reality.

    Plus while Marty in BTTF has to set things right to make ‘real’ reality play out the way it’s supposed to, similarly George in IAWL has to live again in order to turn Bedford Falls back to it’s normal self.

    But the really big connector for me is all the set-ups and payoffs in IAWL. Perhaps no movie does that better than BTTF, but IAWL is close. Here are just a few of the set-ups and payoffs in IAWL:

    (1) “Wish I had a million dollars.” (2) Father says to Potter he needs time to come up with $5K. Presages George with Potter later. (3) George scooping ice cream talking about world travels. (4) Saving Harry’s life. (5) Bum ear. (6) Not telling on Gower. (7) Wish for the old house / breaking window. (8) Buffalo Gals. (9) Tom Sawyer book.

    There are plenty more.

    The most interesting aspect when reading IAWL was the structure. I’ll have some thoughts on that tomorrow.

    How about you? General reactions to It’s A Wonderful Life?

  2. I recall reading a discussion or article a few years ago that argued had this film been made in today’s Hollywood, the “hook” of Clarence showing him what Bedford Falls would be like without his existence would have happened a lot earlier, perhaps as the first act turn.

    While that’s a hypothetical approach, I think the story wouldn’t have been anywhere near as successful (even though it really wasn’t initially anyway) as it has become over the years.

    What makes the film work is how it lays out the details of the town and its occupants lives and their struggles to more or less have their own version of whatever a wonderful life may mean to them. It’s a very existential film in that regard as Frankl would say to live is to suffer and to survive is to find meaning in that suffering.

    In this context, it’s not that George is suffering, rather he harbors the perception that’s what is happening when the sacrifices he’s made through the years are at risk, not only for himself, but the town as well. It’s at this moment of despair, what the existentialists would call the realization one is not what one is capable or should be, that George contemplates throwing it all away.

    Had the story not meticulously built up the series of events leading to his moment of despair on the bridge, we wouldn’t have the series of payoffs in rapid succession to dramatize the fact that he has had a wonderful life when he witnesses “Pottersville”. It’s that contrast that allows George to find meaning in his suffering by realizing just how many lives he’s touched in immeasurable ways – a theme that resonates with audiences to this day because it’s something we can all relate to one some level or another.

    To harken back to your theology series, this is also a film that comprises many of those ideals: evil, congregation, faith, doubt, baptism, hell, (reverse?) incarnation, guilt, salvation, predestination… I’m probably missing several more, but they’re all there in one form or another.

    1. Scott says:

      Re your first point: I suspect you are quite right, how today development execs would insist the filmmakers get Clarence into the action much sooner. And agree 100% with your rationale why that is a bad idea, how it’s absolutely necessary to spend the time we do with George to set up all those individual details in his life and the community around him so that we – and eventually he – can see how much more valuable that is compared to his youthful fantasies about seeing the world and building big things. Yes, it would have been nice if George had had the opportunity to take that first trip, then head off to college as planned. But he has a lesson to learn and it’s more than just discovering “no man is a failure who has friends.” I’ll get into my thoughts on that when we discuss character.

      Re theological themes, both overt and metaphorical: Well, hard to miss, aren’t they, in aggregate. When we watch the movie Wednesday night, note the precise moments when the snow first stops [when George is praying about committing suicide] and when it starts again [when George is back at the bridge after he’s seen Pottersville]. Both happen at the mention of a certain word of religious import. We can dig into all that when we discuss themes.

      Thanks for your feedback, TBBB. Always stimulating.

  3. David Joyner says:

    In the Roger Ebert review, it is stated that the film is in the public domain. This is because the copyright for the film itself was not renewed properly. However, wikipedia says it is under copyright by virtue of the fact that it is a derivative work of another work the studio owned, as decided in a Supreme Court case in 1990. Apparently, before then the picture was shown frequently. This is, according to Ebert, what made the film as popular as it is.

  4. David Joyner says:

    I should add that I don’t mean to hint by this comment that I don’t love the film. Like Scott and a lot of people, I’ve seen it at least 20 times. I did not read the script page-for-page but on skimmng over it, it did seem like it could have been written after the film was made. I detected no differences with the actual film, based on the 30 minutes or so I spent on it. I like to think I know this film well but I’m sure I’ll learn lots of new facts about it. A perfect movie to analyze this season

  5. Scott – I think the script is not just a transcript but it may be a copy of what is read over the film for the blind.

    It just so happened that my dad was watching “Singin in the Rain” yesterday. I noticed the talking and he explained what it was. It immediately made sense what I was hearing.

    The speaker didn’t say:

    “He puts his arm around her waist and kisses her.”

    Instead the speaker said:

    “He delicately places his arm in the curve of her waist and gives her a powerful kiss.”

    You could feel(underlined) what was happening in every scene.

  6. a little lat, but better late than never, right?!
    Even though it wasn’t the spec script (oh boy, I’d love to read that!) I really liked reading the script and it didn’t took much time to do so – it was very detailed, but also kinda concisely written so you really get drawn into the story.
    I have to admit though that I was not that into the story in the beginning, when the angels talk. I was wondering where this is goin… (I guess I have to admit here as well that I’m one of the few who never watched the movie before…I know -SHAME ON ME- and you’re right. I missed a lot and try to catch up)
    anyways, the part where George and Mary meet again at the High School Gym – that was the part where the story finally got me. The first 30 pages were okay, fluently readable, but that connection between the two – I think that was beautifuly written.
    In the end, I can’t wait to watch the film for the first time, unfortunately though, I won’t be able to watch it together with u guys, cuz I’m from Germany and if I’m counting the right way – it’s about 4AM down here, when you press PLAY
    so I’ll wait until the end of this week and the analysis and then finally catch up with the rest of the world…

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