And now, presented as a public service: a complete chronology to Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Most of the movie, of course, doesn’t take place during the Christmas season. It’s a series of flashbacks spread over 15 years of the life of the hero, small-town businessman George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart).
Nowadays, the whole movie looks homey and old-fashioned, but audiences in 1946 would have been acutely aware of the little clues showing the passage of time: changing fashions, cars, phones, slang, etc. Nowadays, Sam Wainwright’s flashy car looks as old-timey to us as the Baileys’ jalopy, and historical events like the Spanish flu epidemic, the Great Depression, and World War II all seem to take place in the same murky chronological Bailey-wick, but remember that this was all recent history for 1946 audiences. Consider: a 2008 remake of It’s a Wonderful Life (my treatment is called This Life Is tha Shiznit!), starring Seth Rogen, would start around the time of the first Clinton presidency and move forward through the rise of the Internet, Monica, 9/11, Iraq, and Obama. The angel would be played by Don Cheadle, doing that British accent again. This would be the awesome-est movie ever made.
But I digress. Capra’s version doesn’t often spell out the passage of time, so you have to watch sort of carefully. The movie is broken down into eight different time periods.
First, early spring 1919: 12-year-old George saves his scare-baby brother from drowning in an icy river. The angelic “Joseph” narrator tells us what year we’re seeing, which is later corroborated by Harry’s tombstone in that alternate universe in which Violet Bick is a hooker and Spock has a beard. We can’t be sure of the month, but the river is melting and the next scene, conclusively late spring, is implied to be just “weeks” later.
Next, May/June 1919. George prevents a drunken Mr. Gower from feeding rat poison to sick children and gets the crap beat out of him while his future wife watches. (Wow, this is sort of a dark movie.) He also puts coconut on her ice cream even though she doesn’t want any. Don’t you know where coconuts come from, brainless?
You might be tempted to place this scene on May 3, 1919, which is the date on the telegram telling Mr. Gower that his son has died in the international flu epidemic, then winding down. But there are a couple problems with this: first, the Saturday Evening Post next to the drugstore entrance (the fishing cover, below the Rockwell one) is the May 24 issue. Second, the calendar in the Building & Loan has been turned to June already. Is it really possible Mr. Gower has been drinking for a full month before George discovers the telegram?
We jump to Harry Bailey’s high school graduation, also the night his father dies of a stroke. (A light-hearted Christmas romp!) The banner at the dance reads “Class of 1928”–but do we know the exact date? We do! Bert the cop is holding a newspaper reading “SMITH WINS NOMINATION”–a reference not to Capra’s Mr. Jefferson Smith, but to Al Smith, the Democratic nominee for U.S. president in 1928. He was nominated on June 29, but it’s possible that the Bedford Falls Sentinel didn’t get the headline until the next day. If Harry’s graduation party is Friday night, this is June 29. If it’s a Saturday, it’s the 30th. Let’s call it June 29, 1928, since Uncle Billy and company are shown working in the Building & Loan.
The next scene, in which George cancels college to keep the Building & Loan board from voting with Potter (good one, board!) is set in late September 1928. “Peter Bailey died three months ago,” drawls Potter, though old moss-back George is still wearing a black arm-band. The date is corroborated by the calendar on the wall–you can’t see the month clearly, but the 1st is a Sunday, which definitely makes it September.
Next, Harry comes back from college having decided to weasel out of the Building & Loan in order to work in glamorous Buffalo. (Harry may have shot down 15 planes and saved all the men on that transport, but he’s also a bit of a dick.) George is “four years older,” Joseph tells us, and Harry’s graduation was probably in late spring. Based on evidence in the next scene, I’d say this is May 1932.
Why not June? Because George first kisses Mary Hatch (instead of talkin’ her to death) the night of Harry’s homecoming, and they’re getting married in the very next scene–set in mid-June 1932. That was one short courtship! Maybe George Bailey should have lassoed some birth control.
And how do we know the date of the wedding? Because George skips his honeymoon to battle the Great Depression with that whole “Your money’s in Joe’s house” shtick. (We see Herbert Hoover’s picture has replaced Woodrow Wilson’s on the wall of the director’s office.) A newspaper on Eustace Bailey’s desk reads “SENATE DEFEATS BONUS,” a reference to the Bonus Army march of 1932. The Senate blocked the Bonus bill 62-18 on June 18–but that was a Saturday, and the bank and Building & Loan having to stay open until 6 is a plot point, so it can’t be June 18 or 19. The paper must be a couple days old; this is Monday, June 20, 1932.
The next scenes are never precisely dated. George has become a “nursemaid to a bunch of garlic-eaters” by plowing under the city cemetery to build low-income housing (nice!) and Potter tries to buy him off. Potter refers once to a meeting with “Congressman Black”–presumably Loring Black, of New York’s 5th (not Potter’s district, but whatever). This places the events before January 1935, but that’s not much help.
If we go by Potter’s assessment that George is 27 or 28 years old (George doesn’t disagree), it would place these events in 1933 or 1934. It looks warm enough in “Bailey Park” but Sam Wainwright is heading for Florida, so it’s probably spring or autumn, not summer. Mary also tells George she’s pregnant with their oldest son Pete in these scenes, and he will be cast as an eleven-year-old in the 1945 scenes. Best guess: this is spring 1934.
After a World War II montage (1941-1945), the movie ends on Christmas Eve. Wikipedia will tell you this is Christmas Eve 1946–making It’s a Wonderful Life a futuristic science-fiction tale, since it was released on December 20, 1946. No, these scenes are actually December 24, 1945. Harry is getting his World War II decoration from the president, for one thing, and those had mostly petered out by late 1946. Also, The Bells of St. Mary’s, a Christmas 1945 release, is showing at the Bijou. (Maybe it’s a stretch that a film would be showing in Bedford Falls just weeks after its New York premiere, but I don’t think it would still be showing in 1946 either.)
And does the movie end on Christmas Eve? Maybe and maybe not. The clock by the Baileys’ stairs reads 11:46 with less than five minutes to go in the movie…but then when Mr. Partridge gives Zuzu his gold watch two minutes later, it clearly reads five minutes after midnight. I like to think that the movie ends on the stroke of midnight. Maybe that’s why everyone’s singing “Auld Lang Syne”–not a Christmas carol, brainless!