On Christmas Eve, 1946, small-town banker George Bailey (Stewart) finds himself embroiled in a scandal, and overwhelmed by the feeling that he is a personal failure. Stopped from leaping to his death by awkward guardian angel Clarence (Travers), Bailey recounts his eventful life on the road to ruin, from his marriage to high-school sweetheart Mary (Reed) to his final showdown with town tyrant Mr. Potter (Barrymore).
The quintessential Frank Capra film and a heartwarming holiday treat year in and year out, "Life" is the ultimate optimistic statement on the value of love, life, and community. Capra's masterful handling of the bittersweet storyline — in which Bailey sacrifices his own dreams to run the family savings-and-loan business and keep his hometown of Bedford Falls out of Potter's greedy paws — is pure Hollywood magic. Reed and Barrymore give exceptional performances, but Stewart, in one of his all-time great roles (and a personal favorite), is the dynamic, all-too-human force holding it all together. Revived in the '70s after languishing in copyright limbo, "Life" is nostalgic and achingly sentimental, but doesn't shrink from portraying the dark side of American life. If "Zuzu's petals" don't put a lump in your throat, wait till a revivified George finds a special surprise waiting for him back home. Let those tear ducts flow, because "It's a Wonderful Life."