Blu-ray
4 stars
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Overall Grade
4 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
5 Stars
HD Video Quality
4.5 Stars
HD Audio Quality
3.5 Stars
Supplements
2 Stars
High-Def Extras
0 Stars

It's a Wonderful Life

Street Date:
November 3rd, 2009
Reviewed by:
Review Date: 1
December 4th, 2009
Movie Release Year:
1946
Studio:
Paramount
Length:
130 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Unrated
Release Country
United States

Editor's Notes

Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of the 'It's a Wonderful Life: Collector's Edition Gift Set.'

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

"No man is a failure who has friends."

It's a simple yet powerful statement, and no film expresses it more eloquently or emphatically than Frank Capra's perennial holiday classic, 'It's A Wonderful Life.' The world's best known (and probably most played) Christmas movie never fails to infuse viewers with seasonal spirit and produce a palpable lump in the throat, if not a torrent of tears. (I cried like a baby when I watched it for the umpteenth time the other night.) Sure, the yuletide setting slathers on an extra layer of emotion, but the film's universal message of selflessness, generosity, caring, and kinship plays well any time of year...and never gets old. Though the popularity and familiarity of 'It's A Wonderful Life' may have rubbed some of the bloom off this Hollywood rose and spawned a cynical backlash, it's tough to watch this movie without being drawn into the quaint, homespun world of Bedford Falls and absorbed by the colorful, affecting characters who reside there. And unless your heart is made of stone, it's impossible to escape the onslaught of honest feeling that pervades this heartwarming – and I mean that in the best and truest sense of the word – motion picture.

George Bailey (James Stewart) is a man in crisis. Having sacrificed his own dreams and ambitions to shoulder the burden of his family's business (a "broken-down building and loan" that has helped countless town residents, but never yielded much of a profit), George reaches the end of his rope one Christmas Eve when his blithering Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces several thousand dollars while a bank examiner is auditing the company's accounts. With no way to recover the funds, George – who fears the ensuing scandal might send him to prison and make him unable to provide for his wife (Donna Reed) and four children – wonders whether he's worth more dead than alive, and questions the value of his existence. Enter Clarence (Henry Travers), a second-class angel (that's right, angel) with "the IQ of a rabbit and faith of a child," who's sent back to Earth to show George how intensely he's impacted and benefited others during his time on the planet, and how he shouldn't be so quick to throw away the precious gift of life. If he succeeds in bringing George back from the brink, Clarence will earn his wings and the Bailey family will be saved.

Capra's film has been copied, imitated, and lampooned to death over the years, and it's easy to understand why. The inspired story takes a unique tack as it examines how one person's influence ripples across a broad spectrum of human experience, and seemingly insignificant acts can alter our own lives, the lives of those close to us, even the lives of people we've never met. And the feeling of self-worth that stems from that, especially when we apply it to our own existence, produces a powerful sense of euphoria that easily gives way to tears.

Yet without the film's dark, searing elements – ruthless greed, personal and corporate manipulation, and a longing to reject the rigid rules of society and indulge one's own fantasies – such an emotional catharsis would not be possible. The reason this film resonates so strongly is that at one time or another we've all felt like George – burdened, trapped, unable to shoulder the weight of work and family, unsure we'll ever catch a decent break, live up to our potential, or achieve what we believe to be our destiny – all the while taking the many blessings bestowed upon us for granted. And in the final analysis, it's those little things, like Zuzu's petals (if you've seen the film you know what I'm referring to), a smile from a spouse, a loving environment, and friends who care that make life worth living…and cherishing.

Without question, Capra was one of Hollywood's finest Golden Age directors, but his often preachy, heavy-handed style earned him a reputation as a shameless sentimentalist. Yet despite the rivers of emotion that flow through 'It's A Wonderful Life,' the movie really can't be called corny, thanks to its well-balanced presentation, exceptional script (by the excellent husband-and-wife team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett), and memorable performances. Stewart, in his first post-war role, exhibits a newfound depth and rawness that incisively lays bare the turmoil ripping George to shreds. It's a natural, nuanced, and dimensional portrayal, and Stewart makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Reed is the perfect wife – level-headed, loving, protective, and strong, without any of the insipid Stepford qualities movie spouses often exhibited during that period, while the cuddly Travers brings incomparable innocence and whimsy to his lovable guardian angel. Lionel Barrymore blatantly overplays the devious, Scrooge-like magnate, Mr. Potter, but exudes a delicious nastiness that ultimately heightens our emotional response, and without the superb supporting work of such unsung players as Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, and others, we'd never relate to the film as intimately as we do. Though strangely not a popular success at the time of its release, 'It's A Wonderful Life' justly deserved its Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Actor.

Long after we're all dead and gone and possibly acting as guardian angels for other George Baileys, 'It's A Wonderful Life' will still be captivating legions of viewers and remaining an essential cog in the seasonal wheel. Imitators will come and go, but Capra's original film is bullet-proof, a timeless classic that deserves to be played and revered on an annual basis, if for no other reason than to remind all of us that we have wonderful lives, too.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

For years, 'It's A Wonderful Life' languished as a public domain title, and consequently an assortment of banged up prints circulated among TV stations and home video releases, making this all-time classic look as broken down as the Bailey Building & Loan. So it's especially gratifying – and thrilling – to see such a pristine black-and-white transfer pop up on this new Blu-ray edition. (Disc Two of this set houses a colorized version of the film; see the supplements section below for that video review.) Though the most recent DVD release boasted a "beautifully restored" transfer (which was indeed a significant step up from previous DVD releases), even that rendering deeply pales when compared to this strikingly clear, blemish-free effort from Paramount. Black-and-white film stock can look so luscious in high-def, and 'It's A Wonderful Life' enjoys such marvelous gray scale variance and finely tuned contrast, it's an unequivocal joy to watch from start to finish.

Grain has been reduced, but not to the degree that it eliminates the picture's celluloid feel. The image maintains a lovely natural texture throughout, distinguished by gloriously rich black levels and perfectly modulated whites. Fine details are easily distinguishable (the falling snow looks especially good) and shadow delineation is excellent, too. Close-ups are crisp, blooming is absent, and complex patterns resist shimmering. Fans, this is truly the transfer you've been waiting for, and if you love this film like I do, you won't hesitate to upgrade to this Blu-ray package. Trust me, it will be money well spent.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

No fancy audio here, just the original mono track, but it's been nicely scrubbed, so no pops, crackles, or hiss can be heard. A dialogue-driven classic like 'It's A Wonderful Life' doesn't require the bells and whistles of multi-channel audio; even the forgettable music score by Dimitri Tiomkin sounds just fine in mono. Most importantly, all the conversations are clear and comprehendible, and no distortion creeps into the range scale's higher end. Various effects possess a palpable presence, adding some zip to a pretty standard track. All in all, this is perfectly acceptable audio that complements but never overshadows the on-screen action – and that's exactly as it should be.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

Just a couple of extras adorn the disc, both of which have been transferred over from the 2007 collector's set DVD. Unfortunately, one of the supplements from that DVD, "A Personal Remembrance" – a special tribute to director Frank Capra narrated by his son – did not find its way onto this Blu-ray edition.

  • Colorized Version (HD, 130 minutes) – If you know me at all, you know I abhor the idea of debasing a director's work through colorization, but I must admit if my previous DVD edition of 'It's A Wonderful Life' didn't include a colorized version, I would never have been able to convince my kids to watch this classic film...which, by the way, they ended up loving. So if colorization can expose people to a work of art they might otherwise avoid, especially the younger generation, I do see some small merit in the process. (Now that my kids adore this movie, they will happily watch it in its original black-and-white form, and are not quite as put off by other such films, for which I am very grateful.) The good news here is that the colorization of 'It's A Wonderful Life' is done with taste and care, and looks pretty darn good as these things go. The image maintains a very processed look throughout, so no one would mistake it for an actual color film, but unlike shoddier efforts, all the background elements have been properly shaded so the print looks like a cohesive whole. Hues certainly don't resemble three-strip Technicolor, but they're bright enough to lend the picture some pizzazz, but unfortunately, fleshtones look pasty with a bit of a pinkish tinge. If you've never seen 'It's A Wonderful Life' before, I certainly do not recommend watching this version, but if you must, you'll find it's one of the better color-treated films out there.
  • Featurette: "The Making of 'It's A Wonderful Life'" (SD, 23 minutes) – Actor Tom Bosley of 'Happy Days' fame hosts this folksy 1990 tribute to the film, which includes reminiscences from Capra, Stewart, and actor Sheldon Leonard, who played the bartender, Nick. The featurette examines the film's themes, looks at alternate casting choices, notes changes that had to be made to satisfy the stringent production code, and divulges how the studio produced all that Bedford Falls snow. Other interesting bits of trivia flesh out this breezy piece that will certainly appeal to fans.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD) – The film's original preview is presented for the first time in high definition.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

There are no high-def exclusives.

Final Thoughts

'It's A Wonderful Life' may be a cinema antique, but its emotional power remains as vital and visceral today as it certainly must have been back in 1946. Few films engender such unabashed affection or appeal to such a wide-ranging audience, and this Blu-ray edition, with its superior video and clean audio, is a welcome Christmas present for those who have seen this classic 100 times or not at all. Supplements are a bit thin for such a major title, but such skimping can't dull my enthusiasm for this first-class presentation of an essential American film. Highly recommended any season of the year.

Technical Specs

  • Blu-ray
  • BD-50 Dual-Layer Disc
  • Two-Disc Set

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/AVC MPEG-4

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.37:1

Audio Formats

  • English Mono
  • French Mono
  • Spanish Mono

Subtitles/Captions

  • English Subtitles
  • English SDH
  • French Subtitles
  • Spanish Subtitles
  • Portuguese Subtitles

Supplements

  • Colorized Version
  • Featurette
  • Theatrical Trailer

Exclusive HD Content

  • None

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