Every time a bell rings, Judge Daniel MacDonald tells someone to keep it down.
Our reviews of It's A Wonderful Life (published December 12th, 2001), It's A Wonderful Life (Blu-Ray) (published November 9th, 2009), and It's a Wonderful Life (Blu-ray) Collector's Edition (published November 10th, 2011) are also available.
"A toast to my big brother George, the richest man in town."—Harry Bailey (Todd Karns)
It's a holiday classic, and one of the most inspirational films of all time; Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life is a must see for film lovers young and old. Now re-released in a "60th Anniversary Edition," it's ready to warm your heart on a cold night this winter.
Facts of the Case
George Bailey (James Stewart, Rear Window) has always dreamed of getting out of the sleepy town of Bedford Falls, anxious to walk the Earth, getting in adventures (like Kane, in Kung Fu). After high school graduation, he's ready to pick up a great big suitcase and hit the road, much to the chagrin of Mary (Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity), who has long carried a torch for George. But when a family emergency forces him to take over his father's Savings & Loan, else it fall into the hands of wealthy schemer Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, Key Largo), George finds himself increasingly trapped by responsibility.
Years later, George, now wed to Mary, has made his father's struggling business somewhat profitable, and with younger brother Harry (Todd Karns, The Caine Mutiny) on his way home from the war, this Christmas is looking pretty good. Until suddenly it's not, and all of his built up frustrations come pouring out of him, overwhelming George, leading him to a bridge and serious contemplation of suicide.
Enter Clarence (Henry Travers, The Yearling), an angel sent to earn his wings by saving George. Clarence decides to show him just what the world would've been like had he never been born, in an attempt to prove that no one's life is unimportant. The results of this journey may be somewhat predictable, but they also just might make you jump off your couch and cheer.
There are a lot of wonderful things about It's A Wonderful Life; I'm especially taken by its structure. Ask people to describe the plot, and many will say something like, "It's about a suicidal man who is visited by an angel, and sees what the world would be like without him." And that's accurate—but it's also only the last quarter of the film. For a good hour and forty minutes, we watch George grow up, and bear witness to his many good deeds that have endeared him to the residents of Bedford Falls, from the childhood rescue of his brother out of an icy lake to helping working families buy their own homes. We know how frustrated George has been with being stuck in the small town, and wish he could only see how rich a life he has led, and how loved he is. By the time Clarence the Angel shows up, we already know how impactful George's life has been, and so instead of watching how different the town has become with him no longer in it, we pay strict attention to George's reaction to what he is seeing. George finally appreciating what he's got, and how quietly remarkable his life has been, is thoroughly satisfying to the viewer and makes a powerful, universal statement.
Director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) explored the battle between small-town good will and opportunistic greed in a number of his films, and this is no exception: George is frequently confronted by the powerful and ruthless Mr. Potter, whose money makes him a formidable foe. But, ironically in what the American Film Institute called "most inspiring film of all time," he also created in George a conflicted, unpredictable, and very rich character. While George usually does the right thing, we get the sense that he doesn't always want to, and that he probably wishes he didn't have to be so darn vigilant all the time. More than anything, he is a man struggling with himself, and it's at times hard to watch him take this frustration out on his remarkably patient wife and four children.
James Stewart was reportedly reluctant to take on the role as his return to films after fighting in World War II, thinking himself a bit rusty from not having acted in a number of years. Fortunately he was convinced, as Capra explored Stewart's darker side brilliantly, hinting at a greater range that was fully realized in Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo. Yes, we love George Bailey, but we're also a little bit frightened about what he'll do next, which is exactly what this piece needs.
In a less juicy role, Donna Reed makes the most of her character Mary, imbuing her with determination, understated sexiness, confidence, and a mean throwing arm when called upon to toss a rock through a window from thirty yards. She represents the contentedness and self-satisfaction that George is lacking, and we get the sense that without her around to take care of him, he would have jumped off that bridge years before.
Capra employs subtle but effective filmmaking techniques, including some elements you may be surprised to see in a film from 1946. For example, when we first meet grown-up George, he's humorously stopped mid-sentence in a freeze frame so that angels, who are represented at the picture's beginning by galaxies that light up when each speaks, can talk about him. It's a convention that would be considered hip and energetic today, and must have worked just as well 60 years ago.
Capra shoots much of the picture in medium shots, often including several characters in the same frame, saving the close-ups for when they're most needed. This, too, is an effective and calculated move, as when we do see a close-up, the impact is much greater than it otherwise would have been. The emergence of television, with its small screen, necessitated using close-ups more regularly in filmed entertainment to see the actors' emotions, which influenced audience expectations and ultimately modern film technique, but a picture like this drives home the value of using them sparingly.
Things are kept straightforward and realistic, which grounds the picture and makes it easily relatable. While the early scene of the angels' conversation might suggest a fantastical journey to come, that's about as far as it gets. Even Clarence is just a man in a suit, no wings, no halo, no ability to fly or to do much of anything, really. Capra seemed intent on playing down the fantasy elements and playing up the human drama, which can be credited for contributing to the picture's timelessness.
This 60th Anniversary Edition DVD features a surprisingly satisfying 22-minute featurette going behind-the-scenes of the movie's development, filming, and reception. We learn fascinating tidbits such as the fact that the entire town was a huge set, and although the streets are thick with snow the film was shot during one of the hottest summers on record. Interviews with Capra and Stewart reveal their great affection for the piece. The picture was not terribly successful when first released, and was quickly all but forgotten, only to be resurrected when a clerical error caused the movie to fall into the public domain, meaning it could be shown on television or anywhere else royalty-free. Too good a deal to pass up, the networks aired the film regularly, introducing it to generations (making a terrible colorized version in the process), and ensured that this vital piece of film history would get the accolades it deserves.
Also on the disc is a tribute to Frank Capra, narrated by his son, which gives a solid, if brief, overview of the man's career and the themes he frequently touched on. Rounding out the set is the original theatrical trailer.
Paramount has done a beautiful job with the picture quality on this re-release, coming close to the benchmark set by the special editions of Casablanca and Citizen Kane put out by Warner Bros. Very rarely is there a blemish or speck of dirt intruding on the frame. The black and white photography is crisp and rich: check out Mr. Potter's black-on-black outfit when we first meet him, and see how well defined the shade of his vest is from his overcoat. Bravo for this fitting transfer.
Audio, too, is nicely rendered, with only the occasional pop, and little analogue hiss. It's mono, of course, but never feels too restricted by its technical limitations.
Overall, a great presentation of a great movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Really, the only negative I see here is that they did not include an audio commentary or more recent retrospective documentary (the "making of" included is from the 80s). Criterion put out a laserdisc edition with a commentary by film historian Jaenine Basinger; I understand that rights issues probably prevented its inclusion, but I'm sure there are plenty of people with things to say about this film. How about Roger Ebert?
George's dilemma is one to which we can all relate: being here when we'd rather be there, missing what's right in front of us because of it. Frank Capra has captured some universal truths and put them in a thoroughly entertaining, timeless film that can be enjoyed at almost any age. Highly recommended.
Of course it's not guilty. Come on.
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Scales of Justice
• The Making of "It's A Wonderful Life"
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