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Scene Breakdown: The Ending of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

Still from It's A Wonderful Life
©RKO Radio Pictures
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It’s A Wonderful Life isn’t just close to perfect—it is perfect. And how do you put words to the only perfect film in the history of cinema? Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is indescribable. Ask anyone who’s a fan, and they’ll tell you that the way the film makes them feel is unparalleled. Its ending doesn’t require an explanation or a breakdown because we all get the stunning, purely wholesome message the film leaves us with, but it deserves endless praise, nonetheless. 

It’s magic—it’s a masterpiece, and for a moment, it’s the ending that makes everything in the world feel less dark. It’s a reminder of the detail that little things can make a tremendous impact on one person, but more than that, it’s the ultimate showcase of how a single person can leave a monumental mark through kindness. The entire town of Bedford Falls shows up for George Bailey because he’s the type of person who deserves it. The ending is a reminder that what we do matters, and how we behave leaves footprints on the paths we cross and into the lives of the people we love.

There’s a reason this film is so often the paradigm of a masterclass in both plot and performances. There’s a reason it’s used in copious films and shows, including Ted Lasso (Season 2, Episode 4: “Carol of the Bells”) because it’s the sharp reminder of the fact that every person’s place in the world matters. The thing about It’s A Wonderful Life is that it encapsulates both the magic of film and the beauty of life so brilliantly, words escape me.

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I wish I could remember the first time I ever watched It’s A Wonderful Life. I’m a little envious of people who somehow watch the film much later in life because I could imagine the impact it has then. For me, while I don’t remember the first time, I think about the fact that every time I watch the film, it manages to stitch up all the parts of me I didn’t realize were ripping apart. It tends to be the beacon of hope and a reminder that reiterates just how much we need this film every year. How much we need the faith that it instills—the joy and the pure, beautiful reminder of the fact that good deeds never go unnoticed and kindness is a strength we could all use. 

The joy in this ending—the unbridled, pure hope and the detail that the Bailey’s will always welcome everyone to their home in the same way that they’re his speaks of the familiarity in hope. When we think of Christianity and Christmas and the ways in which the two tie together, It’s A Wonderful Life is the only film that truly gets it right. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 8:10). The film paints the very picture of loving one’s neighbor beautifully. This is what it looks like. This is what it feels like. The end of It’s A Wonderful Life is the very exhibition of what loving God and all people feels like. It’s home. 

Clarence’s message is clear as day: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” And at that moment, when the camera pans closer to the words, allowing us to read the note from Clarence, all is right in the world with the potent reminder that failure is nearly impossible in a world where love surrounds a person.

You can’t put the ending of It’s A Wonderful Life to words properly because it means something special for so many of us. For me, it’s about the detail that what we do and how we choose to live our lives is important for the bigger picture. It’s a reminder of the fact that the one thing you maybe didn’t think twice about, the one small act of kindness, changed someone’s life. It’s about the fact that giving love is always more rewarding than receiving it because the impact is more than our little human minds can even dare to grasp.

The sound of the bell, the sounds of the infectious laughter from everyone in the room—It’s A Wonderful Life touches every part of me that needs hope. And hope is something we all need. No matter how happy or what kind of a good year we’re having, there are always shadows and moments of darkness that strike hard. Still, in every way that matters, in every way that I somehow miraculously always need, It’s A Wonderful Life leaves me with the kind of liberating cry that’s healing.

I think a lot about the fact that somehow, throughout the years, this is still the only film to have somewhat of a universal effect on society no matter how different our takeaways from it. I think about the fact that it does something tremendous for all of us. It effortlessly tugs on our heartstrings to exhibit vulnerability, to show more of our heart, and to allow ourselves to believe with the kind of childlike wonder that’s necessary for angels. What other film has had that impact? It’s perfect, simply perfect, and this ending scene is just right.

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One thought on “Scene Breakdown: The Ending of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Leave a comment

  1. I’m so glad this post popped up in my Reader! 🙂 You shared so many beautiful thoughts here – “it’s the ending that makes everything else in the world feel less dark”, “it manages to stitch up all the parts of me I didn’t know were ripping apart”, how it’s an example that loving God and all people feels like home (Ohhh, my heart. <3 That’s good!), and “the kind of childlike wonder that’s necessary for angels” (which fits Clarence to a T!). 🙂 Simply beautiful. <3

    By the way, I can’t remember the first time I watched It’s a Wonderful Life either. It simply always has been a part of my life, and it works its way deeper into my heart over time. And my “liberating cry” moment is always the look on Harry’s face AFTER his toast. It gets me every time. 🙂 <3

    Since you like Ted Lasso, I am so excited to tell you about my latest post. 😀 It’s a review of December 5th’s live all-star virtual table read of the film’s script (a benefit for The Ed Asner Family Center) starring – are you ready for this? – Jason Sudeikis as George Bailey! 😀 My blog is called The Classic Film Connection, and the post is titled, “A 21st Century Take on a Timeless Tale”. I would love for you to check it out!

    *Actually, I cover the ending scene (which I take it is your favorite part 😉 – and it’s mine, too) in my previous post, “It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart, and George Bailey”, from back in December. You may enjoy that one, too.* I hope you can visit soon! 🙂

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