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 1946. 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 DVD.
The familiar plot, based on the short story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern, covers some forty years in the life of a good, honest man, George Bailey, portrayed 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 he is saved by a guardian angel named Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers). 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 story, told mainly in flashback as we see George grow up, have aspirations to do great and adventurous things, be forced by circumstances to stay in his small hometown, marry, live happily, and then face ruin; 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, we are led to see that no one is a failure who believes in himself. George just needs his confidence restored.
But my own interpretation 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 our daily existence, a lesson learned by a recently deceased young woman who is allowed to relive any one day of her past. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Frank Capra, director, producer, and co-writer of "It's A Wonderful Life," was directly inspired by Wilder's earlier piece.
The initial screen size for the film was about 1.37:1, typical of movies made before CinemaScope and other widescreen processes of the 1950s. Its present size of 1.33:1, the screen dimensions for most of today's TV sets, means that almost nothing of the image is lost. More important, Republic remastered the DVD from the film's original negative, which must have been topflight because the result is among the most stunning black and white reproductions I've seen. There are a few lines here and there, barely noticeable, to betray its age, but, otherwise, the picture quality is as good or better than any B&W film made today.
The Dolby Digital sound, like the picture, is THX-certified. It's monaural, but clean and smooth, with virtually no noise to speak of. The two featurettes on side two of the disc are brief, about twenty to thirty minutes,
and each covers much the same ground. The first, "The Making of ‘It's A Wonderful Life,'" was produced a few years ago and is hosted by actor Tom Bosley; it includes interviews with surviving actors from the film, like the late Jimmy Stewart and Sheldon Leonard, and Capra himself. The second featurette,"A Personal Remembrance," is hosted by Capra's son, Frank Capra, Jr., and is, if anything, even more affectionate in its praise. Both short films reveal a wealth of minutia and behind-the-scenes trivia. These accompanying materials do the movie justice.
I suspect the concern some fans of the movie will have about buying the DVD, though, is whether or not it's worth the money to replace their old prerecorded video tape. I can say without hesitation, do it. The DVD image is so crisp and clear it will serve as much as the story itself to bring tears of joy to your eyes. Then there is the convenience of DVD playback to consider and the documentaries that are included. Of course, if you don't already have the film, the DVD 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 DVD film library has to own.