George Bailey is a small-town man whose life seems so desperate he contemplates suicide. He had always wanted to leave Bedford Falls to see the world, but circumstances and his own good heart have led him to stay. He sacrficed his education for his brother's, kept the family-run savings and loan afloat, protected the town from the avarice of the greedy banker Mr. Potter, and married his childhood sweetheart. As he prepares to jump from a bridge, his guardian angel intercedes, showing him what life would have become for the residents of Bedford Falls is he had never lived.
"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 Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Talk about a cheap marketing ploy. Paramount has tried to gussy up this edition of 'It's A Wonderful Life' into something special that would attract collectors, but the result is an epic fail. Stand this release next to Warner's 'Ben-Hur' or any of the studio's other "ultimate" editions and it looks like a destitute relation. The flimsy yet bulky packaging, a 2-1/4-inch-deep thin cardboard box that sports a sparkly, textured overlay to resemble snow and a see-through frosted window that exposes an interior Christmas tree, can be easily crushed and damaged (mine didn't survive the mailing process well at all), and the enclosed commemorative ornament, a replica of the silver bell that signals an angel getting its wings, is about as cheap and chintzy as anything I've ever seen. There's also a measly eight-page booklet that's almost the same size as the standard Blu-ray case that houses this two-disc set, but just a bit too large to be stored in it. It offers a perfunctory overview of production and casting, and is sprinkled with a standard selection of rather poorly reproduced stills.
Just like the previous Blu-ray release, Disc One includes the original black-and-white film and a few supplements, and Disc Two contains a colorized version of the film. Both 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers, along with the mono audio options, are exactly the same as those on the 2009 Blu-rays, making an upgrade idiotic for even the most ardent fan of this film. The cover art is slightly different on this release, but why spend the money for bulkier and less durable packaging, a slim booklet that offers less information on the film than a simple Internet search would yield, and a tacky ornament that will only cheapen the look of your Christmas tree. In the true spirit of 'It's A Wonderful Life,' you should save your money for a friend in need!
Note: This is the exact same video transfer that graced the 2009 Blu-ray release.
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.
Note: This is the exact same audio transfer that graced the 2009 Blu-ray release.
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.
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. The other "supplements" of this special collector's edition are a chintzy Christmas ornament and an eight-page booklet.
'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. Unfortunately, this special collector's edition isn't special at all, and no one who owns the previous Blu-ray release should even think about a double dip. The transfers (which are marvelous) are exactly the same, and the poor packaging and paltry extras add no luster to this holiday favorite. 'It's A Wonderful Life' is an essential American film, but this is far from an essential release. Even if you've never purchased the film before, stick with the 2009 edition, which is less expensive and easier to store.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.