It s hard to believe now, but when It’s A Wonderful Life was released in December of 1946 it received mixed reviews. While a few critics liked it, many found the picture far too sentimental. Although nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Actor for star James Stewart (he called this his favorite role), the movie was shut out at the ceremony. And, despite director Frank Capra’s undisputed popularity at the time, the film was shut out at the ceremony, and It’s A Wonderful Life barely made back its budget at the box office.
It’s A Wonderful Life didn’t gain its current popularity until the copyright ran out. Once everyone was exposed to it dozens of times during the holidays, its sentimentality became an asset. Based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” written by Philip Van Doren Stern, It’s A Wonderful Life tells the story of small-town banker George Bailey (James Stewart), who lives in his much-adored Bedford Falls. It’s Christmas Eve 1946, and George has just had the most miserable day of his life. Lucky for him, a fledgling guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) is looking to help. To get Clarence up to speed two other angels take him through the events that led George to this point, from a childhood of good deeds—he risked his life and lost his hearing in one ear to save his drowning brother—to his adulthood, where he scarified his dreams for others. Even though he fell in love with a wonderful woman (Donna Reed), has married, and has four beautiful children, George has always put others ahead of himself. Today though George feels like he has nothing to live for; his tiny Building & Loan has started to fail—thanks to the malicious influence of the local tycoon Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore)—the only answer is to end it all.
Despondent, George heads out to the local bridge to carry out his plan, when Clarence intervenes to show George what life would be like without him: Mary is a lonely spinster; George’s brother, Harry, is dead; George’s uncle, Billy, is in an insane asylum; and Potter owns the entire town. This third act reminds us that our lives are remembered by our actions, for better or for worse. The way this portion of the story plays out is reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In both tales, the vision supplied by supernatural beings convinces their charges that their life has much meaning. Despite the apparent difference each story’s protagonist, both popular Christmas tales strike similar chords with audiences.
Frank Capra had a knack for storytelling, as well as fabulous casting. Although the role had originally been developed under another producer for Cary Grant, when Capra took over, he began rewriting things to suit Stewart. Even though Donna Reed was not Capra’s first choice for Mary (Jean Arthur, who co-starred with Stewart in two of the director’s previous efforts, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take It with You, was otherwise committed), it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this role. She and Stewart have undeniable chemistry.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Lionel Barrymore’s Potter is perfectly nasty. Thomas Mitchell plays Uncle Billy, George’s lovable-but-incompetent partner in the Bailey Building and Loan Society. Henry Travers is Clarence, the angel trying to earn his wings. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are Ernie the taxi driver and Bert the cop, respectively. And Gloria Grahame is Violet, Bedford Falls’ “bad girl”, who has a soft spot for George.
Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, when considering its age, It’s A Wonderful Life has been given an impressive 4K transfer. Sharpness is impressive overall, with only a few moments of slight softness remaining. Much of the film exhibits strong delineation. There are no significant print flaws in evidence. DNR is insignificant and a nice layer of grain remains. Blacks are dark and deep throughout and shadows offer a nice level of clarity. Contrast is above average. Overall, there’s a nice level of depth and clarity to the image that makes this a pleasing presentation.
The Dolby TrueHD monaural soundtrack won’t blow you away, but it’s perfectly acceptable for a 73-year-old film. Dialogue sounds a bit hollow, but it’s always clean, clear and concise. Effects don’t pack much of a punch, but are more than acceptable. The score too, isn’t given much depth, but it’s free of any audible flaws.
English, Spanish, French, Danish, German, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish subtitles are included.
*NOTE: The extras from previous Blu-ray editions have NOT been ported over.
- Restoring A Beloved Classic (HD, 13:03) Includes comments from Paramount Archives SVP Andrea Kalas, Paramount Film Preservation Executive Director Laura Thornburg and film scanner Eric Chilpa, and digital film colorist Michael Underwood. They discuss efforts to ready the film for a 4K presentation.
- Secrets From the Vault (HD, 22:11) VFX supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt give their thoughts on the technical side of the production.
- It’s A Wonderful Wrap Party (HD, 8:04) Footage from the party at the end of the filming. No audio is available, so the score from It’s A Wonderful Life is played.
- Colorized Version of Its A Wonderful Life on Blu-ray: Originally crafted in 2007, it’s a well-done colorization, but if you don’t like this practice in general, I doubt you’ll get much out of it. It’s odd to me that a 4K package includes this controversial colorized version on Blu-ray, but not the original black and white.
It's A Wonderful Life (1946)
Movie title: It's A Wonderful Life
Director(s): Frank Capra
Actor(s): James Stewart, Donna Reed , Lionel Barrymore , Thomas Mitchell , Henry Travers , Beulah Bondi
Genre: Family, Holiday, Drama, Melodrama