Due to a botched hypnosis, every time a bell rings Judge Mike Rubino thinks he's a chicken.
"Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings!"
Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life has become so ingrained in the Christmas holiday that it's hard to imagine a year going by without seeing it. It's a movie filled with iconic, and oft-parodied, scenes: Jimmy Stewart running down the main street of Bedford Falls screaming "Merry Christmas!"; Stewart and Donna Reed doing The Charleston backwards into a swimming pool; and Zuzu's ending line about bells. Unlike most Christmas movies, It's a Wonderful Life transcends the holiday genre and resides securely amongst Hollywood's best.
It's a Wonderful Life was based off of a 200-word short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, which was purchased by RKO Pictures for a paltry $10,000. After three unsuccessful attempts by three screenwriters to make it into a viable picture, director Frank Capra (Arsenic and Old Lace) stepped in and combined the three stories (as well as adding his own flair to it). The end result is the masterful Christmas story we know today.
The story is set up as a framed flashback, as we watch George Bailey (James Stewart, Rear Window) progress through his small-town life from the viewpoint of an angel. George's selfless attitude makes him immediately likable; however it is also his tragic flaw. At a young age George saves his brother, Harry, from drowning in a frozen lake, which in turn leaves George with a deaf left ear. He grows up, filling his mind with aspirations of traveling the world with his National Geographic magazines at his side; unfortunately, when his father unexpectedly dies, George is left to take up the Bailey Building & Loan—a business that puts him at the center of the town, and against the corrupt businessman, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul). George's life progresses, and while he may never get to achieve personal happiness, he becomes a keystone in the community…until the weight of it all comes crashing down around him.
Capra's script is pure magic. All of the actors, from the big wigs like Stewart and Reed down to the lowly character players that fill the streets, create a truly lovable and believable Bedford Falls. While the iconic aspect of the film comes from the third act, in which George Bailey witnesses a world in which he had never been born, the journey to that point is what really stands out in my mind. From the beginning, we see George as this tragic, wide-eyed adventurer who wants nothing more than to escape the doldrums of his tiny town and see the rest of the world. Unfortunately for George, he's so capable, trustworthy, and honest that he's relied upon by everyone in the town. Stewart plays the part perfectly, mixing together charm and humor with just a dash of apprehension. The build-up of Bailey as the courageous individualist is executed marvelously by Capra, and it makes his inevitable fall all the more powerful.
For decades this film has been a Christmas staple, and it's easy to understand why; however to merely peg it as another "Christmas flick" alongside Jingle All the Way and The Santa Claus, would be a mistake. It's just a flat-out classic piece of Hollywood that is so uplifting and positive that I can't imagine it ever being made today.
Most people are perfectly satisfied with watching It's a Wonderful Life every year at Christmas when it's run non-stop on television. But in case you want to control your own destiny and watch the movie at your own pace, you can now pick it up on DVD…if you didn't buy it last year. That's right, in just another instance of studio double-dipping: this edition of the film is being released in no less than a year from its previous version. Apparently, Mr. Potter now works at Paramount.
This latest edition is dubbed a "2-Disc Collector's Set" and re-packages last year's 60th Anniversary Edition with a newly colorized version. The first disc is the same exact release as last year's—it even says "60th Anniversary Edition" on it! The second disc is completely new, and offers just the colorized version without any special features.
It's a Wonderful Life was colorized twice in the 1980's, and both times apparently sucked. This latest edition is a brand new digital colorization…and if you ask me, it still kinda stinks. Colorization never really looks good to me, all of the skin tones look either too pink or too orange, and all of the pure blacks of the original film stock tend to get washed out. This latest version is no exception. And while I understand there are folks out there who will only watch "color" movies (probably the same folk who only watch "dubbed" foreign films), movies filmed in black and white usually make certain choices in terms of lighting, camera arrangement, and framing that don't translate in to "forced color." In this transfer, some scenes look very natural, but most of the time things look fake. I guess it's nice to have the option if you really want it.
Aside from this disc, everything is exactly the same as the previous release. The black and white disc still features a very good film transfer, and the same special features as before. First, there's the making-of featurette, which was a made-for-television special back in 1990 featuring Tom Bosley (Happy Days). The picture quality is terrible, and Bosley's bits by the fireplace are cheesy as can be, but there is some good information there about the creation of the movie. The second featurette is even cheesier; Frank Capra Jr. hosts a personal look at Frank Capra while he was making the film. Junior has that deer-in-headlights look while he reads the Teleprompter and follows forced transitional motions. It's kind of funny, but the feature offers little in terms of content. It covers much of the same ground as the first featurette, even though it was produced a year later, in 1991. Rounding things out is a theatrical trailer.
The latest double-dip is a cop-out for what could have been a great opportunity for Paramount to give this classic a fitting special edition. Instead, we get a bastar—I mean colorized version, and last year's anniversary disc complete with special features made in 1990. If you don't own this film, then this is a suitable version to get on the cheap. It's a classic film worth adding to your library, but for the perfectionist, just keep holding your breath for a Criterion version some day.
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Scales of Justice, It's A Wonderful Life (B&W)
Perp Profile, It's A Wonderful Life (B&W)
Distinguishing Marks, It's A Wonderful Life (B&W)
• The Making of "It's a Wonderful Life"
Scales of Justice, It's A Wonderful Life (Colorized)
Perp Profile, It's A Wonderful Life (Colorized)
Distinguishing Marks, It's A Wonderful Life (Colorized)
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