The richest man in town

Elizabeth Donald
7 min readDec 24, 2019

It’s hard to admit it, but I cry like a child every time.

Admit it: so do you.

Of course, I’m talking about the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. We’ve all seen it so many times that it’s a movie-length cliche. It’s the hokey ending that solves all the problems in one beautiful bow, the sort of thing that never happens in real life. From his barstool on Cheers, eternal grump Norm groused that during the many times in his life that he’s been in trouble, no one ever came to his door with a sackful of cash to bail him out.

It’s a Wonderful Life is certainly dated, if that is a crime. It has its flaws of logic and characterization. For all of Mary’s strength and self-assuredness in the original timeline, where is it in the alternate timeline? Are we to assume that her strength came only from her relationship with her husband, when she certainly showed it long before she became Mrs. George Bailey?

Is it entirely logical that all the good people of Bedford Falls would have become a seedy crowd of rabble-rousing drunkards without a Building and Loan? While loss, privation and grief would certainly change a person’s nature, is it likely that every single person would become angry and suspicious?

Perhaps, perhaps not. But I can live with this.

My main problem has always been Potter, of course. He gets away with the lost $8,000, essentially framing George Bailey for his own accidental embezzlement — remember, Mr. Potter is on the board of directors, so he is stealing from his own company, not just from George.

For the record, $8,000 in 1945 is the equivalent of $115,657 in 2020 dollars. We’re definitely in felony territory.

Saturday Night Live solved that one for us, of course. Five minutes after the movie ends, they say, Uncle Billy finally remembers where the money went and the whole crowd storms over to Potter’s mansion to beat the snot out of him. Catharsis.

But this movie is more than the standard Frank Capra Vaseline-on-the-camera-lens glorification of small-town American life — what they used to call “Capra-corn.”

The people of Bedford Falls are not perfect, and this is not Mayberry.

Elizabeth Donald

Journalist for more than 25 years, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author. Subscribe at or visit