It's A Wonderful Life Ending Explained: No Man Is A Failure Who Has Friends

Hee-haw! Frank Capra's classic "It's a Wonderful Life" is a holiday viewing staple for many Christmas-celebrating households. Nothing promotes Yuletide cheer like the sound of Jimmy Stewart screaming, "Merry Christmas, you old Building & Loan!" throughout the streets of Bedford Falls.

After all, it's a story in the spirit of the season. James Stewart's idealistic George Bailey is a man for whom helping others comes reflexively, to the point of putting his own ambitions on the back burner. Dreams of seeing the world are constantly delayed as life happens, and one terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day is all it takes to break poor George. His suicidal thoughts are interrupted by a literal guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who takes George on a scenic tour of the lives he impacted and teaches him the film's lesson, summed up in the final lines, "No man is a failure who has friends."

The long journey from a short story on Christmas cards to one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time was a long one. Original author Philip Van Doren Stern wrote his tale "The Greatest Gift" in 1939 and, failing to get attention from publishers, distributed the story to family and friends in booklet form for the holidays in 1943. RKO got their hands on the film rights, and finally, Frank Capra would agree to helm what would be the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" director's first post-war film, after having created a slew of war information films for the U.S. Army throughout WWII. Despite being "scared to death" to get behind the camera again, his adaptation of Van Doren Stern's booklet would come to be considered one of the most inspirational American movies of all time.

Doomed to be ordinary

The prayers of George's loved ones summon the wingless angel Clarence to his side. Mr. Gower, the pharmacist whom a young George saved from accidentally poisoning a customer, pleads in the film's opening lines, "I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father." Giuseppe Martini, a homeowner thanks to the Bailey family-backed Bailey Park, pleads on his friend's behalf. This is how an angel is assigned to show George just how rich he's always been, and earn his wings in the process.

Just enough of George's childhood and major milestones are shown to prove to Clarence (and the audience) that, as a friend vouches in prayer, "he never thinks of himself," and constantly pays a price for doing what's right. He saves his little brother Harry's life, at the cost of his hearing. He alerts a grieving Mr. Gower that he absent-mindedly filled a prescription with poison, and catches a beating. By postponing college and then his honeymoon in service of the family business, Bailey Building & Loan, many Bedford Falls residents are kept from destitution under the thumb of the Scrooge-esque Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). But George feels trapped, unable to reconcile his desire for adventure with ordinary domestic life.

When Potter takes advantage of the absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and steals a tidy sum of Building & Loan funds, it's George who feels its burden the heaviest — but the prayers were heard, and Clarence is on the case. With the DNA of the Charles Dickens literary classic "A Christmas Carol" running through his veins, Clarence acts in a capacity similar to the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet-to-come — that is, he shows George what the community of Bedford would look like had he never existed.

The worst timeline

The holidays are hard on people. If Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn't get you down, the immense pressure to spend and provide picture-perfect experiences for everyone might. The depression that hits George Bailey isn't winter-borne; in fact, he tells his angel point-blank that $8,000 would "come in real handy down here, bud!" Clarence is a little light — angels don't need currency — but the money would come later after the lesson had already been learned.

Because George assumes aloud that the world would be better off if he had never been born, Clarence indulges him and shows the broken man a highlight reel of horrors. Wholesome everytown Bedford Falls has grown unsightly warts in the form of sleazy dance halls and shady gambling dens, now called Pottersville. Without George there to catch the mistake, Mr. Gower's poisoned prescription was delivered to some poor patient and the old man is convicted of manslaughter.

The ripple effect deepens; both George's wife and his mother look at him like a stranger. Forgetful Uncle Billy is committed to a mental institution, while the Building & Loan went under. What was once Bailey Park, full of affordable housing, is now a town cemetery that houses — to George's shock — his brother's grave. Clarence is given the job of explaining that because Harry didn't have his big brother there to save him from the icy waters, Harry Bailey drowned as a child. The ripple effect has horrifying implications — not only does Harry die young, but so do all of the troops he would have saved in combat. 

Without touching any money and without any sort of accountability from Mr. Potter, Clarence gifts George the greatest present a desperate person can receive — the gift of perspective.

The best timeline

The ending that Frank Capra offers in "It's A Wonderful Life" is one of hope. Having seen enough, George begs Clarence to take him out of the alternate reality, screaming, "I want to live again!" Clarence obliges, and George runs through the town and back home with the zeal of a renewed man, grateful for everything right down to his busted, bleeding lip. With the added context of having seen a world untouched by him, he's no longer distressed over the missing money, or the warrant for his arrest. 

While the community's prayers brought divine help, secular relief got an assist; word of his financial trouble spread, and everyone — from Mr. Martini to the bank examiner — came through with generous donations to cover the missing funds. Harry arrives and toasts his brother as "the richest man in town. Finally, George is rewarded for a lifetime of doing the right thing. Watch the scene unfold here:

It's nearly impossible not to get sentimental at the sight of so many people coming through for a man who directly helped each of them throughout his life. His reality hasn't changed; the Building & Loan will continue to struggle, and Potter is still $8,000 richer and a free man, but because his outlook shifts, Bedford Falls is no longer a trap. Early in the film, George tells his father about his dreams of world travel, claiming, "I want to do something big and something important." The final moments of "It's A Wonderful Life" offer the warm counterargument that he's already succeeded on both counts. With a little bit of perspective, George understands the value of being ordinary, and that "no man is a failure who has friends."