Planet Money Movie Club: economics in 'It's a Wonderful Life' : Planet Money Welcome to the Planet Money Movie Club, a regular series from Planet Money+ in which we watch an economics-related movie and discuss! On today's episode, Kenny Malone, Wailin Wong, and Willa Rubin talk about Frank Capra's 1946 classic 'It's A Wonderful Life.' They discuss CPI adjustments, how a copyright lapse helped make the film more popular, and what exactly a 'Building and Loan' is.

Subscribe to Planet Money+ in Apple Podcasts or at

Planet Money Movie Club: It's a Wonderful Life

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript




Remember how horrible first period history class was?


MALONE: Ugh, 8:27 a.m., fluorescent lights - we shamble into class. But wait. What is this at the front of the classroom? It's the television cart - substitute teacher day, movie for class - the best.

Well, hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I am not a substitute teacher. I'm Kenny Malone. But this is our version of school movie day because today, we're going to share a very film-centric bonus episode from PLANET MONEY+. Now, PLANET MONEY+ is a way to get access to regular episodes of our show sponsor-free, to support NPR, and also to get bonus episodes twice a month - bonus episodes like this one that you're about to hear today, part of our PLANET MONEY Movie Club.

Now, if you're a PLANET MONEY+ listener, you may have already heard this, but we are so excited to share it with the rest of the class. So I guess, you know, imagine me now inserting a videocassette into a VCR.


MALONE: I thought about doing a Jimmy Stewart impression here.


MALONE: (Imitating Jimmy Stewart) Here with another edition of the PLANET MONEY+ Movie Club.

It's more Dr. Evil than Jimmy Stewart. Anyway...


MALONE: Here we are with another edition of the PLANET MONEY+ Movie Club, where we watch a movie related to finance or the economy, and then, we talk about it. And there is an argument to be made that our latest pick is the most economy-y (ph) movie - more on that in a bit. But we are talking, of course, about the 1946 classic "It's A Wonderful Life."


JAMES STEWART: (As George Bailey) Merry Christmas, you wonderful, old Building and Loan.

MALONE: That movie, of course, stars Jimmy Stewart. It's directed by Frank Capra. "It's A Wonderful Life" is a movie released 76 years ago with some economic themes that still really do ring true today. And joining me to talk about all of this is Indicator host Wailin Wong. Hi, Wailin.


MALONE: Oh, that's good. You didn't do the hand gesture.

WONG: Is it like thumb on the nose?

MALONE: It's on the ear.

WONG: Thumb on the, like...

MALONE: It's on the ear.

WONG: Thumb on the ear - so, like, thumb against my headphones waving.

MALONE: Yup. That's right. Also joining us here - PLANET MONEY producer Willa Rubin. Hello, Willa.

WILLA RUBIN, BYLINE: Hi. I don't have as exciting of a greeting as you, Wailin (laughter).

WONG: I got to go first, so I had the advantage.

MALONE: So, you know, this movie is on our radar because it was just the Christmas season. But I will say, I mostly wanted to do this because I came across a recent 2016 paper in the American Economist Journal that surveyed economics instructors and asked the question, what movies do you use in class? And would you like to guess what the No. 1 movie was? Anyone?

WONG: "Mary Poppins."

RUBIN: (Laughter).

MALONE: Wrong. "It's A Wonderful Life."

WONG: Do you want to hear a piece of supporting anecdata about this?

MALONE: Sure. Fire.

WONG: I just talked to an economist this morning who told me that when he was in school, the University of Chicago, Douglas Diamond, who just won the Nobel - shared it with Ben Bernanke - taught "It's A Wonderful Life."

RUBIN: Oh, no way.

WONG: So he watched it in that class.

MALONE: I suspect it was being taught and watched for its famous scene regarding bank runs. We're going to get to that in a bit. But let me just ask both of you. What was your experience with this movie? Had you each seen this before? Willa, why don't you start?

RUBIN: I think I'd never actually seen it from start to finish. Like, it was one of those movies where maybe around the holidays, I'd, like, be with my family - we'd flick on the TV and then watch, like, 20 minutes of it. And it was really interesting and delightful to watch it now in its entirety. It was a very different viewing experience from watching a random 20-minute segment from somewhere in the middle of it.

MALONE: I have to imagine that the beginning with angels helps explain a lot if you haven't seen the beginning before.

RUBIN: It was very clarifying.

WONG: Clarence-ifying (ph).

MALONE: Clarence-ifying.

WONG: Oh, jinx, jinx.

MALONE: There it is.

RUBIN: Oh. There you go.

MALONE: Wailin, how about you?

WONG: So I saw this movie a lot when I was little because in high school, my really good friend got obsessed with it. And she kept inviting everyone over to watch this movie. And I used to spend a lot of time at her house. So I think I watched it many, many times in high school. And then, I forgot all about it. And so it was awesome to watch it again. It hit very different as an adult, I will say. It reads a lot darker...


RUBIN: Yeah.

WONG: ...A lot grimmer.

RUBIN: Yeah, yeah.


WONG: Yeah, a lot darker.

RUBIN: Totally.

MALONE: Now, one of our goals here is to give you, dear PLANET MONEY+ listeners, the tools to explain as much economics about this movie to your family as possible - dare we say? - annoy them with all of your economic takes over the two-hour-and - what? - 10-minute runtime of this film. And, you know, I think we have to start with the most obvious thing that we're going to need to talk about, which is, of course, this famous bank run scene.


FRANK FAYLEN: (As Ernie) Don't look now, but there's something funny going on over there at the bank, George. I've never really seen one, but that's got all the earmarks of being a run.

MALONE: All right. So just to sum this scene up, we're in a time period that's around the Great Depression. And our protagonist, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart...


STEWART: (As George Bailey) Wow. Hello, everybody. Mrs. Thompson, how are you?

MALONE: He's in charge of a banklike association called Building and Loan. And the town is kind of crashing economically. And suddenly, a crowd of customers shows up at George's Building and Loan. And all at once, they're asking to take their cash out of the entity.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) My husband hasn't worked in over a year, and I need money.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) How am I going to live until the bank opens?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I got doctor bills to pay.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I need cash.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I can't feed my kids on faith.

MALONE: And George Bailey has to explain, functionally, fractional reserve banking to them.


STEWART: (As George Bailey) You're thinking of this place all wrong, as if I had the money back in a safe. The money's not here. Well, your money's in Joe's house - that's right next to yours - and in the Kennedy house and Mrs. Maitland's house and 100 others. You're lending them the money to build, and then they're going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now, what are you going to do, foreclose on them?

MALONE: Now, here's the thing that I think we should talk about first, Wailin. This is not a bank. It's a confusing entity called Building and Loan. And I gather that you have been looking into what is going on here? Like, what is this place? Why is it even connected to housing? Like, what's happening here?

WONG: Yeah. So I ended up doing a lot of reading about this because watching it as a grown-up and now watching it as a grown-up who covers economics for a living, there were, like, certain phrases that came up in that scene...

MALONE: Of course, yes.

WONG: ...You know, and certain things that characters are seeing, where I was like, this is a weird way to talk about a bank.


WONG: And so, like, one thing that happens is, like, George says to one of the customers, sign here, and you'll get your money in 60 days.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Sixty days?

STEWART: (As George Bailey) Well, now, that's what you agreed to when you bought your shares.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Tom, Tom.

WONG: And I thought to myself, well, so there's something else going on here, right? Like, the deposits are not fully liquid.

MALONE: Right.

WONG: And, you know, Potter comes in with this offer.


LIONEL BARRYMORE: (As Mr. Potter) I may lose a fortune, but I am willing to guarantee your people, too. Just tell them to bring their shares over here, and I will pay 50 cents on the dollar.

WONG: And then, that's where I got really confused because I was like, so they own a piece of the Building and Loan? I was like, what is even happening? So what I found out was this is a structure that originated in Britain called, like, a building and loan association because it really was almost like a mutual-aid association where people would basically pay in - they would have shares, and those shares would have a value. And then they would basically pledge their shares in order to get a loan. And the amount they could borrow corresponded to the value of their shares, right? So people would have different amounts.

MALONE: That is very convoluted.

RUBIN: Yeah.

MALONE: Why would you want to do this?

WONG: So, I mean, I think - it was a way for people to get money to be able to invest in a home. And so this is, obviously, like, a very different time in banking. And it was before the birth of the modern, you know, mortgage-lending industry...

MALONE: Right.

WONG: ...That we have. So this is a way for a community to be able to basically fund each other's homebuilding. And so the really interesting thing I found out was that in these associations, you would have to take turns taking out the loan. It's like - it wouldn't be that, like, everyone could take out their money at the same time.

MALONE: Right.

WONG: So then...

MALONE: 'Cause that's like a bank run 'cause that's basically what's happening on screen.

WONG: (Laughter). Exactly. So...


WONG: ...It needs to be more orderly than that. So there were different methods devised of how you would decide who got to take out the next loan. But I thought it was really fascinating because it reminds me of - I don't know if you've heard of savings clubs that they have...


WONG: ...Like certain parts of India...

MALONE: Yeah, yeah.

WONG: ...And immigrant communities here in the U.S., where you just have a community of people who all pay into a pot. And it has just very mutual aid - we're all taking care of each other, you know, we're all in this together - kind of solidarity feel that, you know, really underscores what happens in this movie, right? Like, not just in this scene when George is, like, appealing to everyone's good nature to be, like, your money went to support your neighbor, so we all have to support each other now. But then also, you know, what happens at the end when everyone just basically donates money to George because of Uncle Billy's stupid mistake.

MALONE: We should talk about the fiduciary irresponsibility of leaving someone like Uncle Billy in charge.

WONG: I cannot handle Uncle Billy.

MALONE: But we won't. We don't have time for it.


MALONE: We don't have time for it.

WONG: I don't - I won't get derailed. I won't get derailed. But I'm very mad. Let it - I'm going to be on the record as saying, I'm really mad at Uncle Billy.

MALONE: Well, after the break, we have the economic story of how "It's A Wonderful Life" became a classic and also economics speed round - coming up.


MALONE: Now, part of what we're going to do here is just - because this whole bank run thing and the entity is such a key part of why this movie is taught, we have to address it. But we really want to make sure you have enough ammunition to annoy your family with econ before and after the bank run, as well. So we've each been doing a little bit extra research here. And Willa, I gather that you have now learned a little bit about the sort of meta economics here...


MALONE: ...About this movie in the marketplace.

RUBIN: So basically, there's this infamous story at this point about the broader history of "It's A Wonderful Life." Basically, you know, this movie came out in the 1940s. Frank Capra was a really famous director at the time. And the movie, when it came out, it got, like, five Oscar nominations. Like, critics were really into it. But it did not do great financially. It was, like, kind of a flop...

MALONE: Flop - dare we say a flop?

RUBIN: Reported as being...

MALONE: I don't know.

RUBIN: Do we - dare we say? I mean, it fell, like, half a million dollars short of breaking even on its budget, which was like - you know, if you were going to plug that into my favorite thing on the internet, which is the consumer price index inflation calculator...

MALONE: Oh, no. You're spoiling one of my econ things here. Uh-oh.

RUBIN: Oh, I'm so sorry (laughter).

MALONE: No, no. It's OK. It's OK. Teaser, teaser - CPI calculator ahead.

RUBIN: What is sort of fascinating about this movie is that it comes out in the '40s. It doesn't get, you know, great commercial success for a while. But then it hits its stride almost, like, 25 to 30 years later - 1974. That is the year when the film's initial copyright term expires.

WONG: Oh, copyright trivia.

MALONE: I love a copyright story. This is good.

RUBIN: Yes. So basically, "It's A Wonderful Life" was owned by a company called Republic Pictures. And movies that were made before the year 1964, every 28 years, they needed to be recertified as getting copy...

MALONE: Got to do your copyright maintenance. That's the deal. Yeah.

RUBIN: Yeah, yeah. For whatever reason - sounds like it was likely some kind of a clerical error - this...

MALONE: An Uncle Billy in the old Republic film office...

WONG: I was going to say, someone had a string tied around their finger being like, remember to renew your copyright in 28 years.

RUBIN: It was a little bit of an Uncle Billy moment. But what winds up happening is that the movie's copyright doesn't get renewed. And so "It's A Wonderful Life" enters the public domain for a while.


RUBIN: And this meant that TV stations - especially, like, independent ones and public broadcasters - they had all these empty slots on the calendar between Thanksgiving and New Year's, and they were looking for movies to play on TV...

MALONE: And some rights-free movies would be pretty nice.

RUBIN: Exactly. And holiday themed, too. Although you could make an argument that, like, "It's A Wonderful Life," yes, Christmas is a big part of it. Holidays are a big part of it.

WONG: It's only, like, a tiny little bit. I think that's what surprises a lot of people, right?

MALONE: Right.

RUBIN: But what this ultimately meant was that during the '70s and '80s, this movie was on, like, non-stop for, you know, a two-odd month period of time. You know, even Frank Capra, he - the director - at one point, he was reported as telling The Wall Street Journal - he was like - his exact quote was, this film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it (laughter).

WONG: How would you describe that life, Frank Capra? What adjective would you use?

MALONE: Relevant. Long tale. I'm making no money off of it. I don't know.

RUBIN: But there's a fun little coda to this tale. So Republic Pictures, they had failed to renew their copyright on the movie. But "It's A Wonderful Life" was, in fact, based on a short story. And Republic Pictures did have the copyright on that short story. And so in the '90s, Republic Pictures was able to, like, claw back the movie rights by basically saying, hey, so since we still own that short story and the movie is a derivative work of that short story, therefore we still own the movie. And in their case, this worked. And just to catch us up to today, there have been, like, an unbelievable number of acquisitions and licensing deals. The Paramount company now has distribution rights and NBC now has its own rights to show "It's A Wonderful Life" on TV.

MALONE: OK. Willa, thank you so much. That is a deep dive on how "It's A Wonderful Life" came to our faces and our eyeballs.


RUBIN: Any time.

MALONE: After the break, did "It's A Wonderful Life" predict one of the most famous PLANET MONEY episodes ever? Find out. Coming up.

So I couldn't pick one thing to talk about. So I've got, like, a rapid-fire little econ list that I picked up from this movie. Are you ready for this? We'll do a little rapid-fire. OK.

RUBIN: I love it.

WONG: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah.

RUBIN: Let's do it.

MALONE: No. 1 - tiny little scene during World War II...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Then came a war.

MALONE: ...Where we see, you know, several of the women in this movie - including Mary, aka Donna Reed - working for charitable organizations, doing things like handing out donuts.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Ma Bailey and Mrs. Hatch joined the Red Cross and sewed.

MALONE: Super deep Easter egg for PLANET MONEY listeners - there is a famous episode of PLANET MONEY about the Red Cross and donuts and giving them away for free, in which the Red Cross says that one of the big mistakes in its 140-year history is the way it handled free donuts or not free donuts. I'll just suggest you go listen to that. But donuts, that's a big thing.

RUBIN: Amazing.

MALONE: No. 2, one of my favorite things to do in an old movie is throw any money amounts from that movie into this calculator that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has online. So, like, just a couple right here. You know, George, in, like, 1919 wishes for a million dollars.


BOBBIE ANDERSON: (As Little George) I wish I had a million dollars. Hot dog.

MALONE: So that is around $18 million today.


WONG: Hot dog.

MALONE: Hot dog. And then 1938-ish, George gets this offer from evil Mr. Potter to, you know, like, go work for him.


BARRYMORE: (As Mr. Potter) I'm offering you a three-years contract at $20,000 a year starting today. Is it a deal or isn't it?

MALONE: Twenty thousand dollars a year is, like, $420,000 now.


STEWART: (As George Bailey) Oh, Mr. Potter, I know I ought to jump at the chance, but I just...

MALONE: So George is giving up a lot of money to be a good person. Like, huge opportunity cost to be a good person by not taking that money. And then, of course, my big one - soybean plastics. You remember George's friend Sam and the weird soybean plastic subplot?

WONG: Yeah. And then he ended up becoming super rich because of the war. He was making all the plastic.

RUBIN: Yeah, Sam called it early. He knew. He knew plastics were going to be the next big thing.

MALONE: Yeah, although sort of - George was the one that knew plastics were going to be the next big thing and then tells Sam at Martini's Bar.


FRANK ALBERTSON: (As Sam Wainwright) Do you remember that night in Martini's Bar when you told me you'd read someplace about making plastics out of soybeans?

STEWART: (As George Bailey) I - yeah, yeah, yeah, soybeans. Yeah.

ALBERTSON: (As Sam Wainwright) Well, listen, Thad snapped up the idea, and he's going to build a factory outside of Rochester.

MALONE: And then Sam takes it and runs with it. Soybean plastic is - I don't think it's a joke here. I - it's hard for me to tell. But, like, around this time, the Ford Company had made famously a soybean plastic version of its car that instead of steel was using a bunch of plastic. It was, like, half the weight or something. It was much lighter. They functionally abandoned that effort because of the war. But, like, I think it's not a joke in the '40s. Plastic is hugely important. It's a big driver during World War II of - you know, to replace things that are in short supply. But then by, like, the '60s when "The Graduate" comes out...


WALTER BROOKE: (As Mr. McGuire) Just one word...

MALONE: ...Plastics is a joke.


BROOKE: (As Mr. McGuire) ...Plastics.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Exactly how do you mean?

BROOKE: (As Mr. McGuire) There's a great future in plastics.

MALONE: Within 20 years it becomes kind of a punch line, which I find totally fascinating. It's this hugely, hugely important part of the economy and then becomes a punchline just within 20 years.


ALBERTSON: (As Sam Wainwright) I offered to let George in on the ground floor in plastics, and he turned me down cold.

STEWART: (As George Bailey) Aw, now don't rub it in.

ALBERTSON: (As Sam Wainwright) I'm not rubbing it - well, I guess we better run along.

MALONE: Any other takes, any other non-economic stuff you want to mention - or economic stuff?

WONG: Well, here's a fun fact that I learned from my film nerd husband who was watching this movie next to me. In this scene at Martini's near the end, when George is really, really sad and he's crying, and he's praying, you know, at the bar - that's a pretty famous scene.



STEWART: (As George Bailey) Show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope.

WONG: Originally, that was a long shot, but in the movie itself, you're actually super zoomed in on Jimmy Stewart's face. And it's because he started crying during that scene, and no one was expecting him to cry. But he spontaneously started crying doing that scene, and so they wanted to really play up his emotion and capture it. And so Frank Capra had to go in and manually zoom in, in post-production.


RUBIN: Oh, wow.

WONG: So according to my husband, if you look at that scene, it's a little bit grainier than the rest of the film because they had to manually zoom in.

RUBIN: That's fascinating.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Why you drink so much, my friend? Please go home, Mr. Bailey. This is Christmas Eve.

MALONE: A couple of notes I had in addition to - the Jimmy Stewart yelling that I like is at the end. I don't really like it when he yells at people, although I do think...

WONG: Oh, no.

MALONE: ...It does make George Bailey complicated. But he's the smushiest (ph) face person I've ever - he, like, smushes his face against people. And when he kisses people, it's all very smushy (ph).

WONG: It's...

MALONE: I just don't...

WONG: ...Very smushy.

MALONE: I found it hard to watch in the 4K transfer because it was extra smushy.


MALONE: Pretty hard to unsee all the smush.

WONG: Imagine if it were 4D.

MALONE: I don't...

WONG: Then your own face would be smushed.


MALONE: My own face would be smushed. I also - Donna Reed wears this, like, half baseball cap through the movie...

WONG: I'm obsessed with that.

MALONE: ...That is a freaking, like, iconic - it's so good.

WONG: I couldn't stop staring at it.

MALONE: Those need to come back, yeah? Like, what is that?

WONG: I was saying - I told - I turned to my husband, and I said, I am immediately getting online and looking for that hat.


RUBIN: (Laughter).

WONG: And then I was like, this would be such a great Halloween costume. You get, like, that hat with the brim sticking straight up, and she wears a little kerchief. And she's got, like, the sweater, and I was like, this is...

MALONE: So good.

WONG: ...Halloween 2023.

RUBIN: It's a whole look. It's totally a whole look.

WONG: It's a whole look, yes.

MALONE: And I think what I'd like to close with here is something beautiful, thematic and directly quoted from the economics journal paper that kind of inspired this whole thing. Here we go, quote, "in the end, George Bailey is saved from jail by the generosity of his friends."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) Here you are, George. Merry Christmas.

MALONE: The climactic scene shows the town of Bedford Falls crowding into the Bailey home to help George as they repay the sacrifices George has made throughout the movie.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character) I wouldn't have a roof over my head if it wasn't for you, George.

MALONE: By helping them achieve their dreams of homeownership and treating them fairly, George finds that his rate of return far exceeds his expectations. Indeed, George has a wonderful life.

WONG: Oh, that's so nice.

RUBIN: Beautifully said.

MALONE: All right. Well, we hope, listener, that you can bring some of this economic background to your next viewing with your family. And look, two hours and 10 minutes is a lot of time to kill, and I think there's a lot of dead time in the movie. So fill it with these facts. Be your own pop up video.

WONG: How dare you say there's dead time in the movie? Not a wasted frame. Not a wasted frame, I would say.

MALONE: And if you need more, I got a whole thing on JP Morgan and how Henry Potter is a JP Morgan analog. We can get back to that next year.

WONG: Oh, will you email that to me?

MALONE: Sure. I have to write it first.

WONG: (Laughter).

MALONE: I just had bullet points, but yeah.

WONG: All right. Just call me.

MALONE: All right. Wailin, Willa, thank you so much for chatting.

WONG: It was a blast.

RUBIN: Thank you so much. This was super fun.

MALONE: And let me just say a very, very special thank you to the listeners who have subscribed to PLANET MONEY+ and have given us the space to make these less typical PLANET MONEY episodes, these bonus episodes. We really love doing this, and your support truly does make a difference and helps keep NPR going. If you're not a PLANET MONEY+ listener and you're interested, we're going to include some information about how you can become one of those listeners in the episode notes. We would love to have you over in our weird, little PLANET MONEY clubhouse. This episode was produced by Brent Baughman. It was engineered by Kwesi Lee. It was edited by Jess Jiang with help from Keith Romer and fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Jess Jiang is also PLANET MONEY's acting executive producer. I'm Kenny Malone. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.