Every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, three movies will show up somewhere, sometime on television: A Christmas Carol (of which there are several good versions), A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life. After its copyright was inexplicably not renewed in 1974 and the film became part of the public domain, It’s a Wonderful Life was broadcast dozens of times during the holiday season. It was only in 1994, when NBC obtained exclusive rights to the film, that it became less ubiquitous.
It seems 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.
Paramount has released two previous Blu-ray editions of It’s A Wonderful Life in 2009 and 2011, respectively. The transfer, as well as the audio and video specifications are also the same.
Presented in the film’s original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of It’s A Wonderful Life looks crisp and well-defined throughout. Black levels and fine details are impressive. Hints of dirt and debris can be spotted on a few occasions, but it’s not a distraction. Digital problems, such as edge enhancement and compression artifacts, aren’t an issue at all.
The Dolby Digital Mono mix manages to get the job done, but don’t expect anything earth shattering. Dialogue music and sound effects are understandably thin at times, but I’ve heard much worse. This is a perfectly serviceable arrangement.
Optional French and Spanish Mono dubs are included during the main feature, as well as English (SDH), French and Spanish subtitles.
The extras have been ported over from the previous Blu-ray editions, though paramount has added six “art cards” that feature various posters and lobby cards for the film.
The extras are found on Disc One, which also houses the black-and-white version of the film. The Making of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (SD, 22:45), hosted by Tom Bosley, looks at the history of the film. It begins with a glimpse at the greeting card — “The Greatest Gift” — that inspired the film and moves on to share Frank Capra’s involvement and his style of positive and uplifting filmmaking, Jimmy Stewart’s performance, the casting of the secondary roles, several interesting anecdotes, the large set built to represent Bedford Falls, the fake snow, the film’s premiere, its legacy, and more. The piece includes vintage interview footage with Capra, Stewart, and Sheldon Leonard; clips from the film; and behind-the-scenes footage. Also included is the It’s a Wonderful Life original theatrical trailer (HD, 1:48).
Disc Two is the colorized version of the film. 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. Technical specs and A/V quality are identical to the black-and-white original on Disc One.
It’s A Wonderful Life is both a Christmas classic and a Frank Capra masterpiece. With that said, it’s a shame that Paramount didn’t use the film’s 70th anniversary as an opportunity for a remaster as well as some additional extras. As it stands, if you own one of the previous Blu-ray releases of It’s A Wonderful Life, investing in this one isn’t necessary unless you really need the newly included “art cards.”