OK, raise your hand if you think Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" is mushy, sentimental, over-praised hokum. Now, go to your room. Both of you. It's surprising, though, that while today we think of the film as an American institution, it did not fare well in its first theatrical release. In fact, it lost over half a million dollars, a fair sum in 1947. It was really television that elevated the picture to its present popularity, especially as a perennial Christmas favorite. It is none too soon to have it on a high-definition Blu-ray disc.
The familiar plot, based on Philip Van Doren Stern's short story "The Greatest Gift," covers some forty years in the life of a good, honest man, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart in a role he was born to play. But even good, honest people get down and depressed sometimes, and this happens when George faces financial ruin through the carelessness of his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and the dishonesty of the town skinflint, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Neither the love of his children nor the devotion of his wife (Donna Reed) can divert George from what he thinks is his only way out: suicide. He figures he's worth more dead than alive if his family can get his life insurance. But a guardian angel named Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) saves him. Clarence allows George to see how much his life is really worth by showing him what the world would have been like without him, had he never been born.
It's a sweet fable, told mainly in flashback as we watch George grow up, have aspirations to do great and adventurous things, be forced by circumstances to stay in his small hometown of Bedford Falls, marry, live happily, and then face possible disaster; which is where Clarence steps in to take us to the present.
The movie's themes are obvious: Our lives touch many more people than we realize. Until Clarence points this out to him, George never knows how much good he has done in the world, how many people he has made happy just by being a nice fellow. Further, the movie leads us to see that no one is a failure who believes in himself. This was Capra's own creed. "No man is a failure," he said. George just needs someone to restore his confidence.
My own interpretation, though, is closer to what Thornton Wilder was driving at in the similarly inspired story, "Our Town." In that famous American play, Wilder suggests that life's real joys are in the simple things, the everyday, mundane pleasures of friends and family and daily existence, a lesson learned by a recently deceased young woman allowed to relive a day in her past. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Wilder's earlier piece directly inspired Frank Capra, the director, producer, and co-writer of "It's A Wonderful Life."
Capra's populist appeal in the story took a while to catch on, as I've said, with the film growing in popularity over the years. As common, everyday working people began to understand for themselves the importance of the individual, they may have begun also to appreciate Capra's ideas about everyone sharing in the American Dream. Perhaps the greed principle has somewhat tarnished this Dream in recent years, but it hasn't diminished the importance of "It's a Wonderful Life" one bit, a film that is just as important today as it was in 1947, in 1957, or in 1977. Come to think of it, it's probably more important now than ever.
Trivia notes, courtesy of John Eastman, "Retakes," Ballantine Books, 1989: "At loose ends with his career stalled just after his World War II army discharge, James Stewart gratefully accepted Frank Capra's offer of the role of George Bailey, a part in the long-shelved script that RKO had originally bought for Cary Grant. Jean Arthur spurned the costarring role that went to Donna Reed. Lionel Barrymore, reveling in skinflint characters, accepted his part without reading the script. The town of Bedford Falls, including tons of chemical snow, shaved ice, and gypsum to simulate snow, arose on the RKO Ranch."
Paramount give us two versions of the film: the original black-and-white and a newer colorized rendering, using a pair of dual-layer BD50s and an MPEG-4 audio-video codec. They also preserve the film's original aspect ratio, about 1.33:1, typical of movies made before CinemaScope and other widescreen processes of the 1950s. I'm not sure why the studio felt the need to provide the colorized version, although in high def it does look sharp and clear. Unfortunately, the colors don't look very realistic, having the dull, deaden appearance of most films artificially colorized.
The black-and-white reproduction, though, is a different story altogether, among the most stunning such transfers imaginable, with some of the whitest whites, blackest blacks, and most gleaming contrasts one could ask for. Paramount claim in their press release that they fully restored the film. I shouldn't doubt it. Just compare the results with the standard-definition making-of featurette that accompanies the film. It's practically night and day. The new high-def picture quality on "It's a Wonderful Life" is as good as or better than any B&W transfer I've seen.
Unfortunately, after all the fine work Paramount did restoring and remastering the picture, they chose to use ordinary, lossy Dolby Digital for the sound. It's monaural sound, to be sure, with a limited frequency response and dynamic range, so maybe they thought it didn't matter. In any case, the sound is clean and smooth, with virtually no background noise, so, who knows--maybe it doesn't matter after all.
I suppose Paramount figured that providing the two versions of the movie was enough. I dunno. In addition, they do give us a brief featurette, "The Making of It's A Wonderful Life," about twenty-three minutes long, in standard definition. Actor Tom Bosley hosts this segment, released in 1990 and looking the worse for wear. It includes interviews with surviving actors from the film, like the late Jimmy Stewart, Sheldon Leonard, and Capra himself, all of whom reveal a wealth of minutia and behind-the-scenes trivia. Oddly missing from the set, however--given the two double-layer Blu-ray discs involved--is the featurette "A Personal Remembrance," which the studio include in their regular DVD sets. With so important and well loved a film, they might have included more bonuses. Oh, well....
The extras conclude with an original theatrical trailer in high def; twenty-eight scene selections; bookmarks; pop-up menus; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. A nicely embossed, cardboard slipcover ties the package together.
I understand the concern some people may have about buying a high-definition edition of an old black-and-white film. I can say without hesitation, I'd do it. The Blu-ray image is so crisp and clear it serves as much as the story itself to bring tears of joy to your eyes. Of course, if you don't already own the film and you have a Blu-ray player, the disc is a must-buy in any case. "It's A Wonderful Life" is one of the handful of American classics that anyone with a claim to building a home video library has to own.
Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.
Thanks for the wings.