Paramount // 1946 // 131 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 10th, 2011
Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! How could it be anything else?
A timeless holiday classic finally completes the decades-long transition from bargain-bin VHS treatment to pristine high def transfer. Was it worth the wait?
You've seen the story of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life filtered down through endless pop culture over the years, but here's where it all began: On Christmas Eve, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, The Philadelphia Story) is contemplating suicide. He's a decent man who has had his share of bad luck and hard times, and over and over again has sacrificed what he wants in life for the sake of others. Before he takes his life, though, heaven dispatches Clarence (Henry Travers, The Invisible Man), George's guardian angel, to show him the impact he has had on the people in his life and what the world might be like without him.
Confession time: I had never seen It's a Wonderful Life prior to this review. It's one of those classics that has always fallen through the cracks -- even during those years when it was in the public domain and aired around the clock on public access and UHF TV stations. It's my best friend's favorite movie of all time. It almost seems like it's been more work to avoid it than to see it, but somehow I never managed to make it happen. I come into the movie as a blank slate.
Actually reviewing the film is almost impossible to do. It's the same problem I ran into when reviewing The Wizard of Oz on Blu-ray a few years back (incidentally, the first HD title I reviewed here at DVD Verdict). It's a Wonderful Life is so beloved, so ingrained in our public conscious that it transcends labels of "good" or "bad." Even if I didn't like the movie, my criticisms would be futile. I would just be the guy trying to make a name for himself as the lone voice of dissent when it comes to what is arguably Frank Capra's crowning achievement.
But I'm not that guy, because even as a first-time viewer, it's easy to understand the lasting popularity of It's a Wonderful Life. It's exactly the movie you remember it being: a little corny, but tremendously big-hearted, sweet, and sincere. It's a movie with a handful of dark moments but no real edge, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. It is, as the title suggests, all about being life affirming, but I somehow didn't find the movie treacly or saccharine. I suspect a lot of this has to do with the fact that the movie was made in 1946, and has the advantage of the distance of time -- the same movie made today, in the age of cynicism and irony, would not work nearly the same. And, of course, the entire enterprise would sink without the performance of Jimmy Stewart at its center -- not just because he is the Great Everyman of movies, but because he's a talented enough actor and capable of enough darkness (a quality that not enough films exploited over the course of his career) to keep George Bailey from just being a cipher. The pain he feels is real, and his choices are believable. Most other actors, in wanting to keep with the positive tone of the movie, would have been obvious in their pretending during the more serious moments. Stewart understands that for the happy stuff to work, we have to go through the hard times, too. The sour and the sweet, as Billy Wilder would say.
Not that It's a Wonderful Life has much in common with Billy Wilder. Frank Capra has no interest in Wilder's acidity, and that's OK -- they're opposite sides of the coin. While my taste typically leans more towards the Wilder view of the world, I'd be lying if I said I didn't totally get swept up in the big hug of Capra's film. As my friend JB says, classics are classics for a reason: because they're great. It's a Wonderful Life is great. 'Nuff said.
The newly-released It's a Wonderful Life two-disc collection "gift set" comes in bulky and mostly unnecessary cardboard packaging, mostly so that it can contain the bonus "gift" (more on that in a second). Inside the box, however, is a standard Blu-ray keepcase housing two versions of the film: the original black and white version on the first disc, and the Ted Turner "colorized" version on the second. While I'm not opposed to both versions being included -- I'll always advocate more options versus fewer -- I can't conceive of who would ever watch the "colorized" version (especially discerning fans who frequent DVD and Blu-ray review sites). It's lame, it looks bad, it's not the original version and it's a crime against nature. Other than those reasons, I guess it's fine.
I really only watched the black and white version all the way through, which looks very good on Blu-ray. The 1.37:1 full frame image boasts impressive contrast and detail throughout, with only occasional softness which can be attributed more to source issues than this 108p HD transfer. I popped in the "colorized" version just to see what it looks like, and it's just what I expected: again, good detail and no visible flaws or damage, but it has the terrible, artificial colorized look and loses the stunning contrast of the black and white version. If you're a fan of colorized films, you'll probably be happy with the work Paramount has done. You also shouldn't be a fan of colorized films.
There is no lossless audio option available on either disc, which is likely going to disappoint some HD purists who have grown accustomed to such treatment on Blu-ray. That being said, the mono audio track sounds good, with excellent clarity on the dialogue throughout and not too much of the "hissing" that can sometimes plague classic films (confession: I kind of like the hiss. It sometimes has the power to lull me to sleep.). Everyone pretty much knows what to expect from a track like this, and it should either meet or (perhaps) exceed your expectations. Nothing revelatory, but it gets the job done.
Where the disc disappoints somewhat is with the special features. It's nice that we have a version of It's a Wonderful Life that looks and (maybe) sounds better than anything we've gotten before -- especially considering those dark years when the movie was in the public domain, and dozens of awful editions were in circulation -- it's too bad that the movie didn't get the deluxe retrospective treatment. There's an older "making of" featurette (hosted by Tom Bosley) that looks at the movie's production and legacy in some -- but not enough -- detail. It's enjoyable and informative, but I was definitely left wanting more. Also included is the original theatrical trailer, presented in 1080p HD. Both bonus features can be found on the first disc.
This "gift set" also includes a booklet and a small bell Christmas ornament, adorned with the title of the movie, that's fairly cheap. Every time you ring it, an angel gets his wings. Or her wings. Sexist '40s.
If you already love It's a Wonderful Life, the Blu-ray is worth the investment just for the video quality (though you can purchase the movie-only edition and skip this "gift set," since the ornament isn't really worth the extra money). If you've never seen It's a Wonderful Life, what are you waiting for? It took me over 30 years to finally see the movie. Learn from my mistakes.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 1946
MPAA Rating: Not Rated