If Judge Clark Douglas had never been born, someone else would have reviewed this disc. Mind-blowing, huh?
Our reviews of It's A Wonderful Life (published December 12th, 2001), It's a Wonderful Life (Blu-ray) Collector's Edition (published November 10th, 2011), and It's A Wonderful Life: 60th Anniversary Edition (published December 11th, 2006) are also available.
Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! How could it be anything else?
"Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!"
Facts of the Case
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, Vertigo) is not having a good day. His business has seemingly failed, he's wanted by the police, he's had a fight with his wife Mary (Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity) and he's contemplating suicide. It's up to an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers, The Yearling) to convince George that his life has been one of worth and that it's still worth living. After taking a long look at George's life, the angel offers a portrait of what life in the town of Bedford Falls would be like if George had never been born.
At this point, what is left to say about the much-loved It's a Wonderful Life? The story has become such an integral part of our pop culture, such a staple of the holiday season, so well-known and often-seen that it will undoubtedly be immensely challenging for most people to view it from any sort of detached critical standpoint. That's certainly the case for yours truly, as the film was viewed multiple times each December in my household throughout my entire childhood. Though I may be looking at the film through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, it's a testament to the film's staying power that it continues to be watched and loved by many. It may be rather melodramatic, but melodrama is not necessarily a bad thing when rooted in truth (just ask Charles Dickens, who created another eternally popular Christmas story).
The film was made shortly after the conclusion of World War II, and it was a considerable change of pace for both the director and the star. Frank Capra had primarily been working on patriotically-themed films created in support of the war effort. These films were serviceable, but Capra was at his very best when working on melodramas (still very deeply American) like Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It's a Wonderful Life gave the director the opportunity to return to the brand of old-fashioned, emotionally-charged storytelling that he was so good at. Meanwhile, star Jimmy Stewart was returning to acting after a five-year hiatus due to his WWII service. Up until leaving Hollywood to serve his country, Stewart had been a charming, lightweight leading man. While he certainly maintains his nice-guy persona throughout significant portions of It's a Wonderful Life, he also taps previously unseen dramatic areas and reveals new depths as an actor.
It's a Wonderful Life is more or less permanently connected with Christmas at this point, but the story as a whole is much less defined by the holiday than many films that get rerun during the final month of the year. The largest chunk of the film is devoted to telling George Bailey's life story; the biopic of an ordinary man living in small-town America. All of this material is elaborate set-up, offering character development, following various plot strands, and immersing us deeply into the world of George Bailey and Bedford Falls. It's just a prologue to the third act, in which George is shown a vision of what the world would be like without him. It's a similar journey to the one Scrooge takes in a A Christmas Carol, though in this case it's about showing the protagonist his own virtues rather than his own flaws. George has led what seems to be a normal, uneventful life, his grandiose dreams typically undone, and his puny town somehow keeping a permanent hold on him. Even so, he has impacted those around him in a remarkable way simply by being a decent and kind human being. He may not be the war hero or the business leader or the leader of anything important, but he has profoundly impacted the lives of those around him nonetheless. No wonder this story resonates with the common man.
Stewart's depiction of rage and depression during the final act is perhaps the most impressive acting to be found in the film, but the entire cast is excellent. Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter is a classic villain, a crafty man who would prefer to crush his enemies via good old-fashioned capitalism but isn't above taking less legal means to get what he wants. He's mean and unpleasant, but not over-the-top. I've met men like Mr. Potter before, and odds are that you have, too. Donna Reed is excellent in her role as Mary, giving nearly every scene she is in a sense of life and serving as an excellent foil for Stewart during numerous dialogue scenes. Henry Travers was given the role of his career as Clarence the Angel. Many filmmakers might have made Clarence a wise, serious, all-knowing figure (much like those three spirits in A Christmas Carol), but Clarence was something completely new: an affable, bumbling, second-class angel who faces a challenge as big as the one George is confronted with.
This Blu-ray set includes both the black-and-white and colorized version of the films. As someone adamantly opposed to the very idea of creating colorized versions of films originally made in black-and-white, I can't stress enough just how important it is to watch the proper black-and-white version. Not only does it offer the film as it was intended to be seen, but the later scenes in the film are vastly more effective and menacing when shown in black-and-white. Use the disc containing the colorized version as a Frisbee. As for the transfer, it's nothing short of fantastic. During the early scene when one angel begins to show Clarence a portrait of George's past, slowly bringing a blurry image into focus, I couldn't help but exclaim, "Wow!" The level of detail and depth is just terrific; it's clear the movie has been very well-preserved. There are very few scratches and flecks to be found, and the image is very clean throughout. There are just a few moments that look a tad soft, but otherwise I have no problems. The audio isn't quite as impressive, offering a clean but underwhelming 1.0 mono track (not lossless, I'm afraid) that is merely serviceable. Supplements are disappointing, simply offering the 22-minute "The Making of It's a Wonderful Life" featurette included on the previous DVD versions and a theatrical trailer. This is a film crying out for some sort of supplement-heavy deluxe edition, but for now we'll simply have to settle for a great hi-def transfer.
It's a Wonderful Life is a bona fide classic, and this disc is worth an upgrade for those who want to witness a great new transfer, but I remain disappointed that the movie hasn't received the supplemental package it deserves.
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