Now celebrating its 70th anniversary, It’s A Wonderful Life has endured as a cherished Christmas classic. Nominated for five Academy Awards and cited by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, the film is often billed as Christmas/fantasy/drama, yet its feel-great ending is only reached after dozens of grim looks at the struggles of everyday life that are still relatable today. The 1946 film deftly balances subjects like love, family, friendship, fleeting youth, war, death, financial scandal, poverty, and whether a higher power exists.
In fact, there are plenty of moments where the movie makes a direct nod to film noir—that dark crime-drama genre that showcases femme fatales, good heroes gone bad, and protagonists fallen from grace, and it’s these moments that are the most powerful in It’s A Wonderful Life.
Here are the 12 darkest scenes from It’s A Wonderful Life, the lows that lend power to its ultimate uplifting conclusion.
One running thread through the movie involves drug store owner Mr. Gower. Drunk, heartbroken and grieving over the death of his son to the flu, Gower almost ends up poisoning a child because he was so distracted he didn’t pay attention to the medication he prepares for a child with diphtheria. But Young George, who delivered medications for Mr. Gower, takes note of the poison in the jar and brings it up with Mr. Gower. Gower simply sends him away so he can be alone to grieve. When Gower finds out George didn’t do his job, he slaps him until he bleeds. George explains the danger they avoided, Gower finally realizes what happened, and together the two keep it a secret.
Shortly after his father dies and the business is in limbo, George tells off Mr. Potter in a board meeting, calling him a “warped, frustrated old man.” He’s also just about to catch a train to start traveling the world, something he’s always wanted to do. Just then the rest of the board votes to keep the Bailey Building and Loan running, but only if George Bailey runs it. In a tight freeze frame that conveys a nod to film noir, Bailey looks off to the side, hat cocked. His expression is a mix of fear, sadness, and helplessness. After all, George was too good a person to let the only good business in town die, so he sacrificed his dreams because that’s what his father would have done.
It’s four years later, and George has kept the business running, in an agreement with his brother that Harry would take over after he returned from school. But Harry and his new fiancée, Ruth, had other plans. Ruth tells George her father offered Harry a job in the research business. While Harry says nothing’s set in stone yet, it hits George that his dreams really are turning to dust. James Stewart’s expression here turns from hopelessness to panic to horror (all while no one can see,) and shifts his eyes to shake himself out of that nightmare in time to show happiness for his brother. It’s another noirish turn that often gets overshadowed by the more famous scenes of George jumping into the water and singing “Auld Lang Syne” around the Christmas tree.
Years later, George goes to see Uncle Billy at his house, who’s devastated he lost $8,000 of the business’ money but is gobsmacked as to how it happened. Billy says he’s checked every room in the house, even the rooms he’s kept locked since his wife Laura died. It’s one of the most revealing aspects of Uncle Billy’s character that cries out for further development. Uncle Billy is already down for the count at this point, but George drives the nail in deeper, telling him what’s could very well happen. “It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison. One of us is going to jail. Well it’s not gonna be me,” George says, making it clear he’d send Billy up the river if the money doesn’t turn up. George Bailey is not an ethically bad person, but if his family is in jeopardy, he’s going to do whatever he can to save himself. Later, he tells Potter he lost the money, because deep down he couldn’t fault Billy for being absent-minded.
When he goes home after confronting Uncle Billy, Christmas preparation is fully under way at the Bailey home, but George manages to sabotage the entire thing. He insults Zuzu’s teacher, Mrs. Welch and threatens to assault her husband, then snaps at his son who needs spelling help, tells his kids to shut up, and insists that Janie stop playing the piano. Amid the stony silence he’s singlehandedly caused, he notices the full-scale models of suspension bridges and skyscrapers that he’s built and wrecks them all. Any scene that involves children and domestic unrest (not violence here) can pull at most people’s heartstrings.
George then realizes he’s gone too far, and tries to apologize to his family. It becomes pretty clear that whatever struggle George is going through is more than the usual “bad day at work.” Daughter Janie bursts into tears, and Mary gathers up the children. As Mary tells him to leave, George realizes he’s no good for his family anymore and walks toward the door, an image that becomes outright disturbing. It’s unclear whether James Stewart was too close to the camera for it to focus on his face, or whether it was intentionally left out of focus, but it’s a moment that signals to the viewer that darker pieces of the movie lay ahead.
At this point, George is still missing $8,000, has threatened his child’s teacher, yelled at his wife and kids and faces fraud charges and jail time. He’s full of emotion, but it would have been out of character for George to cry and be desperate in front of his wife, so he drowns his sorrows at the bar. That’s when he begins to pray. “Show me the way, I’m at the end of my rope,” he says quietly, roughly wiping at his face. He happens to be sitting next to Mr. Welch (also at the bar since his wife was insulted), who promptly decks him, leaving him with a bloody lip. His prayer unanswered, he leaves Martini’s.
George, still drunk, makes his way to the bridge and looks down at the frothy, churning water. It was Mr. Potter who had planted the seed in George’s head when he earlier begged Mr. Potter for a loan to replace the missing money. “You’re worth more dead than alive,” Potter says, when George tells him he only has a $15,000 life insurance policy. So ditching this world so that his kids and wife get $15,000 doesn’t seem so bad in his mind. But Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, jumps in first, leading to George’s wish he’d never been born.
George takes Clarence to the bar in an effort to prove to him that he had been born. George doesn’t really understand what’s going on until Mr. Gower walks in. In this alternate reality, Mr. Gower did go to jail because he had poisoned that child years ago. Since George hadn’t been born, there was nothing to stop Gower from putting poison into the pills. Gower is now a bum, a “rumhead,” and the laughingstock of the town. Nick sprays seltzer onto Gower and everyone in the bar laughs at him. Gower is so out of it he doesn’t seem to care, and George is beside himself when he sees what he’s done.
At this point, George has exhausted almost every option to prove he lived. Bedford Falls has become seedy Pottersville, Violet Bick appears to be an exotic dancer or a prostitute (it’s hard to tell exactly what happened to her), Martini’s is now Nick’s, Uncle Billy went insane, and George’s house is abandoned and empty yet again. None of his friends or family, including Ma Bailey, recognizes him. Even Zuzu’s delicate petals are gone. The blood drains from his face in a powerful full-frame shot of Bailey’s face, wide eyes, and sweat coming off his face. George feels truly alone now—and viewers feel miles away from any happiness they might have experienced earlier in the film.
George then heads to Bailey Park, where he thinks he can get answers from Martini, but he ends up at the local cemetery. Clarence shows George his brother’s cemetery plot, which claims Harry he died when he was eight. All the good that Harry had done in the war and in life had been wiped away because George wasn’t there to save his brother from drowning in the weak ice. But George refuses to believe this alternate reality.
This no doubt is the darkest scene of the movie. George goes to see Mary, who never married and works at the library. She sizes him up and walks away but George goes after her. “Mary. It’s George. Don’t ya know me? What’s happened to us? Please Mary, help me,” he pleads. Mary flees into a bar to get away from George, who is tackled by friends who don’t know him anymore. Mary faints from panic. George cries out for Clarence again, who has mysteriously disappeared. George is officially alone. When Bert tries to arrest him, George decks him and runs as Bert shoots at him. He makes his way to the bridge where he first began, and his wish to live is granted.