The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel Clarence. Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and the contributions he has made to his community.
George's dream has been to see the world. However, he repeatedly sacrifices his ambition for others. He spends his life running the Bailey Building and Loan Association, that his father started and vital to the people of Bedford Falls because without it they would be at the mercy of Henry Potter, a heartless slumlord and majority shareholder in the Building and Loan, who also owns the bank and most of the rest of the town. Without George, the people of Bedford Falls would have little hope of ever owning a home or improving their lives.
George forgets this and Clarence is sent from heaven to help him remember. If Clarence succeeds, he will earn his wings.
There are many great scenes, let me share one of my favorites.
On Harry's (George's younger brother) graduation night in 1928, George discusses his future with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who has had a crush on him since she was a little girl. Later that evening, George's absent-minded Uncle Billy and Harry break the news to George his father has had a stroke, which proves fatal. A few months later, Mr. Potter tries to persuade the board of directors to stop providing home loans for the working poor. George talks them into rejecting Potter's proposal, but they agree only on the condition that George himself run the Building and Loan. He gives his college money to his brother with the understanding that when Harry returns from college, he will take over the Building and Loan, which of course, doesn't happen.
This scene shows George's passionate speech before the board on why the Building and Loan must continue. It speaks to the idea that love is more important than greed, an idea George forgets for a time until Clarence helps him remember and realize that though he may not have the most money he is indeed "the richest man in the world"!