Thanks to the long-standing tradition of airing Frank Capra’s 1946 festive fantasy drama every December, It’s A Wonderful Life has become a popular culture touchstone, and for many, re-watching the film is a Christmas tradition. The film’s story of a small town family man facing financial ruin being coaxed back from suicide by an angel who shows him how important he is to the world is now as festive as overspending and overeating.
Its ubiquity means that It’s A Wonderful Life is one of the first ports of call when shows and movies want to inject a festive feel into their fictional worlds, hence it having been subject to more on-screen references, quotes, parodies and homages than you can shake a jingle bell at. The Muppets, The Simpsons, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, The Big Bang Theory, Warehouse 13, Laverne And Shirley, Beavis And Butthead, and countless others have borrowed the film’s fantasy premise for their holiday specials.
But more still are those that quote from it directly. If an episode needs to quickly establish that it’s Christmas Eve, it’s as easy as inserting a few seconds of Clarence and George into a scene. If a film wants to evoke cynicism around the festive period, then its characters need simply complain, Al Bundy-style, that there’s never anything else on TV. When creatives want to piggyback on some ready-made sentiment or create unlikely juxtapositions then, copyright permitting, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are their guys.
Clips of It’s A Wonderful Life have appeared all over TV and movies, some routine Christmas fare, and a few others you might not expect…
Beverly Hills 90210
It’s A Totally Happening Life (season 3, 1992)
Which clip is it? George Bailey turns down Mr Potter’s job offer calling him “nothing but a scurvy little spider!”
What’s its purpose? As well as showing the Walsh family doing regular American Christmas stuff, the clip is mostly there for a couple of jokes, the first being that ditzy Kelly thinks Jimmy Stewart is Cary Grant. The second rests on the whole episode being part homage to the film, with angel Miriam narrating the Brenda/Dylan/Kelly love triangle to senior angel Clarence and trying to stop the whole gang being killed in a nasty bus crash. The clip, as far as we can see, is there for the ironic joke of angel Clarence, one of the film’s main characters, telling Miriam that he’s never heard of It’s A Wonderful Life.
Is it festive? Well, they don’t all die a horrible bus crash death (a higher power intervenes to stop the carnage) and Tori Spelling’s Donna saves the day with a rousing Christmas speech, so on balance, yes.
Bruce Almighty (2003)
Which clip is it? George asks Mary “You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.”
What’s its purpose? Bruce uses his divine powers to get the dog to change channels on the television so Grace will see the romantic scene (referenced earlier in the film when Jim Carrey’s character literally does pull the moon down using an invisible lasso) and change her mind about coming to his promotion party. When she does, it all goes a bit wrong, but at least George Bailey did the trick.
Is it festive? No. It’s George and Mary’s romance being played on here, not It’s A Wonderful Life’s Christmas setting.
Christmas Cheers (season 6, 1987)
Which clip is it? Mary returning home to find George safe and sound, followed by the townspeople singing Auld Lang Syne.
What’s its purpose? To prove that while they might protest otherwise, the Cheers gang are old softies at heart. When they see it showing on TV, Norm, Sam and Carla make all the regular complaints about the “golden mouldy’s” ubiquity and saccharine nature before bursting into tears when it gets to Auld Lang Syne. The pre-credits gag proves that It’s A Wonderful Life is so lovely it melts even the most hardened cynics.
Is it festive? Big yes. It’s set on Christmas Eve and even features a cameo from a mysterious man named Kris Kringle.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Which clip is it? George and Mary’s first passionate kiss as newlyweds on their “honeymoon.”
What’s its purpose? To make us weep buckets. When film director Salvatore watches the film reel he inherited from former projectionist and childhood friend Alfredo, he finds a wonderful surprise. Every kiss and embrace the village priest ordered cut from classic films when Salvatore was a boy is collected here and edited together in one beautiful celebration of romance, a final gift from Alfredo.
Is it festive? No, (and this may well be the first time these two have been in the same sentence) like Bruce Almighty, Cinema Paradiso uses It’s A Wonderful Life’s romantic, and not its festive, side.
Dark Angel/I Come In Peace (1990)
Which clip is it? The whole town sings Auld Lang Syne at the Bailey house and Zuzu says her famous “Look, Daddy. Teacher says ‘Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings’” line.
What’s its purpose? Ironic juxtaposition. The film’s being watched by a drunken attendant at the Bail Bond Office in this Dolph Lundgren-starring, Texas-set sci-fi crime flick. Disturbed by a noise outside, the bondsman breaks off his viewing to investigate, letting loose a volley of swearing about pinko commie asshole burglar shitheads as he does so. Next, an intergalactic drug dealer shoots him full of heroin then murders him by draining his brain of fluid to sell back to junkies on his home planet. Combining the cutest line in Christmas cinema with that horrible series of events is evidently someone’s idea of a joke.
Is it festive? It’s set at Christmas, but there’s no goodwill to all men in this one.
Full Metal Duck (1989)
Which clip is it? An audio clip of George excitedly greeting the bank examiner and sheriff waiting for him at home with the line, “I bet it’s a warrant for my arrest, isn’t it wonderful?”
What’s its purpose? We simply can’t say. It’s a very short audio quote from the film, heard while Fenton Crackshell’s mother is watching television in the series of episodes in which Fenton wears the Ironman-style Gizmoduck super suit. Unless it’s foreshadowing Scrooge McDuck’s trip to jail in the next episode (unlikely), we can only think it was put there on a whim.
Is it festive? Nope.
Elmo Saves Christmas (1996)
Which clip is it? There are a few in this one, including Zuzu’s bell/wings line, but the best is the scene of a life-erased George telling Bedford Fall’s cop and cab driver Bert and Ernie “Bert! Ernie! What’s the matter with you two guys? You were here on my wedding night.”
What’s its purpose? This one’s meta. A long-standing rumour exists that Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie were named for the bickering policeman and taxi driver in It’s A Wonderful Life, who serenaded George and Mary on their “honeymoon” at the old Granville place, later the Bailey house. The official word from the Jim Henson Company is that the names are merely a coincidence, but one that’s referenced in this scene when puppet Bert and Ernie walk past a skip in which a TV is playing the above scene from It’s A Wonderful Life and do a double take.
Is it festive? Well, Elmo does save Christmas, so that’s a yes.
Which clip is it? If memory serves, it’s when George Bailey is running through ‘Pottersville’.
What’s its purpose? Scene-setting. Gremlins takes place at Christmas, so it follows that Billy’s mother is watching the movie on a small TV in her kitchen. When Billy asks why she’s upset, she nods to the television, explaining that “it’s a sad film.” Those onions she’s chopping probably don’t help.
There’s also a bit of homage going on here, what with Gremlins being set in Kingston (not Bedford) Falls, and director Joe Dante famously describing his Christmas critter picture as “It’s A Wonderful Life meets The Birds.”
Is it festive? Are you kidding? It’s one of the greatest Christmas-set films out there.
Home Alone (1990)
Which clip is it? Once again, the scene in which George turns down Mr Potter’s job offer, telling him he doesn’t need 24 hours to think about it (but this time in French).
What’s its purpose? To show the McAllister family in a different country from young Kevin, experiencing the uncanny feeling of watching a beloved American classic in a different language thousands of miles from home.
Is it festive? It’s Home Alone. Big yes.
Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)
Which clip is it? A pre-Clarence George is shouting at Zuzu’s teacher, Mrs Welch, on the phone for sending his daughter home with a cold (but in Spanish).
What’s its purpose? As above, although the McAllisters are separated by state, not continent this time around, Kevin having flown to New York while the rest of the gang are in Florida (presumably hence the Spanish-language version due to Florida’s colonial past?).
Is it festive? You bet. Central Park, snow, pigeons, a toy shop robbery, the whole festive enchilada.
Which clip is it? George at his lowest ebb, praying for God to show him the way in Martini’s Bar.
What’s its purpose? Charity. Since 2006, US band The Killers have released nine Christmas-themed songs and music videos in aid of Bono’s Product Red campaign, which raises money to combat AIDS in Africa. Their 2010 festive single, Boots, is about feeling desperate at Christmas and having memories of a happy traditional family holiday watching It’s A Wonderful Life on the television. The video shows a homeless man (played by ‘Super Bad’ Brad Prowly) busking to earn enough money to visit his estranged family at Christmas.
Is it festive? In a sentimental charity sort of way, absolutely.
Which clip is it? George and Clarence drying off after their jump in the river, when George tells Clarence “I don’t know whether I like it very much being seen with an angel without any wings,” to which he replies “I’ve got to earn them, and you’ll help me won’t you?”
What’s its purpose? The clip plays on a TV with bad reception in the Paradise Falls diner in the Mojave Desert, where the future mother of mankind’s saviour works as a waitress. It’s contextually appropriate in Legion, a story about the archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) coming to earth to protect humanity from a murderous celestial army. In an earlier scene, Michael cut off his wings, hence all the wing chat.
Is it festive? Not particularly. Nor is it much cop, if we’re honest.
Menace II Society (1993)
Which clip is it? George greets his children after he chooses to live again and Janie tells him Zuzu doesn’t have “a smidge of temperature.”
What’s its purpose? Contrast. The film is playing at Caine’s grandparents’ house before his grandfather asks him if he cares whether he lives or dies. It perhaps represents Caine’s grandparents’ traditional moral values, which are at odds with the crime and violence in his own life. In his grandfather’s question, parallels are drawn between Caine and George Bailey, though Menace II Society’s portrayal of South Central Los Angeles couldn’t be more different from Capra’s idealistic vision of Bedford Falls, and both stories wind up in very different places.
Is it festive? It is not.
Muppets Not Included (season five, 1988)
Which clip is it? A clip of George saying “This is a very interesting situation” about Mary being nude in the hydrangea bush on the way home from their unexpected dip in the high school pool.
What’s its purpose? Fun and japes. The clip is one of many featured old film and TV segments featured in the episode’s Miss Piggy-hosted ‘Celebrity Circles’ gameshow. Miss Piggy is seen interacting with a heap of famous Hollywood faces in the segment, Jimmy Stewart being just one of them.
Is it festive? Nah, it’s just for fun.
My So-Called Life
Which clip is it? A volume-muted clip of George pretending to paste back the petals that have dropped off his daughter Zuzu’s prize flower.
What’s its purpose? Thematically, it has parent/child parallels with the scene of Claire Danes’ Angela making up with her mother after a fight in the My So-Called Life pilot, but this one’s really here because the show’s creators loved Capra’s movie to the extent that their production company was called Bedford Fall Productions, its logo was the Bailey house, and its theme music was a line taken from “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight.”
More nods to the film come in the pilot when Angela’s neighbour Brian Krakow wears a George Bailey-style number 3 American football jersey, and Angela changes clothes in a bush, à la Donna Reed after the high school dance, cementing My So-Called Life‘s makers’ love of It’s A Wonderful Life.
Is it festive? No. This homage isn’t about Christmas, it’s more showing adoration for the film.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Which clip is it? The Auld Lang Syne finale.
What’s its purpose? Apart from being a Christmas movie, the assistant director on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was Frank Capra III, the grandson of It’s A Wonderful Life’s director, hence the homage. You’ll see Rusty (Johnny Galecki) watching the film before the Griswold family’s relatives arrive. (Incidentally, this isn’t the only time young Johnny Galecki watches Capra’s film on-screen.)
Is it festive? Oh yes.
One Tree Hill
Songs To Love And Die By (season four, 2006)
Which clip is it? A couple play in the hospital, one being an audio clip of Clarence telling George, outside the Old Granville house that “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole doesn’t he?”.
What’s its purpose? The whole episode is an homage to the film, with Lucas’ dead Uncle Keith popping up to ‘do a Clarence’ on him after things unravel after a car accident and pregnancy complication.
Is it festive? It’s sort of miserable, so judging by Eastenders standards, yes, it’s festive.
No Place Like Home For The Holidays (season five, 1992)
Which clip is it? There are a few: George and Mary singing “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” George telling Mary he needs her, and the “Attaboy Clarence” line from the final scene.
What’s its purpose? It’s the backdrop to a Christmas Eve scene in which David (Johnny Galecki) tries to pressure Darlene (Sara Gilbert) into sex, and features all the usual complaints about Capra’s movie’s omnipresence on TV.
As mentioned above, this marks Johnny Galecki’s second appearance on this list. He also appears in The Big Bang Theory episode “The Cooper Extraction,” which pays homage to, but doesn’t show any actual clips from, It’s A Wonderful Life.
Is it festive? Yup. It’s a typically cynical on top but affecting underneath Roseanne-style festive episode.
To Save Us All From Satan’s Power (season 3, 2001)
Which clip is it? George Bailey running through Bedford Falls shouting Merry Christmas to everyone and everything.
What’s its purpose? It’s a cynical gag. The festive season is weighing heavily on Tony Soprano, whose to-do list doesn’t just run to picking up presents for the kids but also to whacking Russians and coping with his daughter’s wannabe wiseguy boyfriend and his sister’s narcoleptic partner. When he gets into bed, switches on the TV and sees It’s A Wonderful Life on, his weary reaction is simple: “Ah Jesus. Enough already”, before switching it straight off.
Is it festive? There’s an impressive tree, Santa, and novelty gifts, but it’s not exactly fuzzy stuff in the Soprano household.
Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen (2009)
Which clip is it? An audio clip from George’s impassioned Building and Loan speech in which he tells the people of Bedford Falls, “We… we gotta stick together” against Mr Potter when there’s a run on the bank.
What’s its purpose? Transformer Bumblebee can only talk through audio clips, and this one conveys his particular message. It joins clips by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 and Thomas Mitchell in High Noon used in the same way in Revenge Of The Fallen.
Is it festive? Not one iota.
Which clip is it? Mary calling George on the phone at the Building and Loan to come home to 320 Sycamore, which has been transformed for the occasion of their wedding night.
What’s its purpose? We couldn’t say. Italian director Dario Argento’s 1993 giallo thriller is about a serial murderer who garrottes people when it’s rainy out. Just after a woman is murdered in just such a way, another character is glimpsed watching this clip from the Capra film.
Well, we did call this feature ‘the odd places It’s A Wonderful Life has turned up’…
Is it festive? Definitely not.
Which clip is it? George and Mary singing “Buffalo Gals” (the song later sung by killer Ryan Weaver as he’s tormenting an air stewardess).
What’s its purpose? Dark comedy. Ray Liotta plays a crazed killer in this airplane-set thriller, which takes place at Christmas. The in-flight movie on the doomed plane is none other than It’s A Wonderful Life, presumably chosen for its ironic counterpart to the devastation caused by Liotta’s character. A planeful of corpses propped up and watching the Capra favourite? That’s a hard image to shake off.
Is it festive? Er, no.
Honorable mentions (but not featuring actual clips):
The Exorcist III (Blatty, 1990) It’s playing in a cinema and later, its (misspelled) title appears on a wall written in blood.
Batman: The Animated Series – Christmas With The Joker Robin makes a deal with Batman that they’ll watch It’s A Wonderful Life if their Gotham patrol is quiet. Batman says, “You know, I’ve never seen that. I could never get past the title.”
Red Dwarf – Better Than Life (Novel) Lister goes to live inside his favourite film in a virtual reality game.
Friends – The One Where Old Yeller Dies Phoebe stops watching before the end and says it should have been called “It’s a sucky life and just when you think it can’t suck any more it does”.
How I Met Your Mother – False Positive Ted waits for the gang outside the cinema they all planned to watch the film in.
Beavis And Butthead – It’s A Miserable Life An angel visits the pair, showing them how much better off the world would be without them.
Laverne And Shirley – Laverne’s Broken Leg Laverne, with a broken leg, falls asleep in front of the film on TV and dreams about an angel visiting her.
Men Behaving Badly (US) – Gift Of Jami Brenda and the guys are watching the film on TV.
Warehouse 13 – The Greatest Gift Pete has a George Bailey experience, then the gang watch It’s A Wonderful Life (not Rocky) at the end of the episode. Incidentally, The Greatest Gift is the name of the short story from which Capra’s film was adapted.