There are certain films that only get better with age and can tell a story that almost everyone can relate with regardless the era of cinema or the generation watching. This statement rings most true when speaking of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that saw modest returns during its initial theatrical release in January 1947 and went on to become one of the most renowned films of all time.
The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who spends his whole life giving to those around him to try and make their lives better and never seems to catch any breaks himself. Eventually things become too much for him and he contemplates jumping off a bridge and ending it all as a solution to all his problems. Fate intervenes, however, and his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) shows him what life would have been like for those around him had George never been born at all. That’s a very quick summary of an incredibly well put together story that charts well over a decade in George’s life, but there’s no need to delve that deeply into it as most have likely already seen it and those who haven’t now pretty much have the gist of it.
One of the best parts about It’s a Wonderful Life is the fact that from the title it sounds like the sappiest movie ever made when in fact that’s not the case at all. It’s an incredibly touching story with a few scenes that scream golden age of Hollywood, but part of what makes it so moving is that it’s also a story about missed opportunities and just how easy it is to get stuck somewhere you want to escape from more than anything. That’s why the character of George Bailey works so well and speaks to audiences of any generation, as I’m sure looking back we can all think of one point or another where we had to give up a dream in order to do what we felt we had to do. Of course, the realization is that opportunities are what one make of them and just because one doesn’t get to travel the world as they once dreamed it doesn’t mean the life they’ve lived has been any less meaningful.
It also doesn’t hurt that the film looks fantastic with the down of Bedford Falls coming to life even though it was all an elaborate set created by the design crew that covered four acres of land. What really brings life to this sleepy town is the lively inhabitants, all of whom brought their A-game to the set every time they step behind the camera. So many great things can be said about the work of Stewart here that it’s crazy to think that he almost gave up on acting to go back to work at his family’s hardware store before this film fell on his lap. Thankfully that didn’t happen, as the role of George Bailey seemed tailor made for Stewart and his work here is absolutely brilliant. Donna Reed, who plays Mary Hatch (and George Bailey’s love interest), is perfect for the girl-next-door vibe they were going for, and she was nowhere near the studio’s first choice for the part. But just like he did for Stewart to play Bailey, Capra pushed the studio and got his way when it came to the casting of Reed. Another name that must be mentioned is Lionel Barrymore who plays the evil Henry Potter, the man who wants nothing more than to own the town of Bedford Falls but sees his plans foiled time and time again by the George Bailey’s generosity. Barrymore is fantastic as from the first time we meet him we want nothing more than to see him get his.
There’s also a reason why William Hornbeck was nominated for an Oscar for his editing work, as the film is paced beautifully and even at its 130-minute runtime it never feels as though it’s dragging along. The direction of Frank Capra (which also garnered an Oscar nom) is also magnificent, as this is not an easy story to tell. As timeless and relatable as the themes in the film are, the story had to weave together the intricate tale of one man’s influential life and that of those around him, while also hitting the right emotional notes along the way. In the end, Capra (who also co-wrote the film) made it look easy, and he – along with a terrific cast and crew – created a heartfelt holiday masterpiece that is as wonderful now as it was then and will continue to be for generations to come.
The film looks absolutely fantastic in its 1080p format. I chose to watch it in black and white, as that’s how the film really should be watched. The blacks are deep and dark, and the whites vibrant. The lines are crisp and it truly is the best version of the film available today. I did switch over to the colour version after to see how it looks, and I must say that the colours look great as well. While I think black and white is the way to go, those who choose colour are in for a treat, as it’s such a crisp transfer you really can’t go wrong. Unfortunately the audio is still in mono, and while it never really took away from the film (which is all you can hope for) it is noticeable from time to time.
This is the second time It’s a Wonderful Life has been released on Blu-ray, and it’s the exact same Blu-ray in a special box with an ornament and a small paper booklet inside with a bit of backstory on the making of the film. The booklet is three pages in length and while it’s an interesting and quick read, it doesn’t fit into the Blu-ray case, which is incredibly inconvenient as there’s nowhere to really keep it safe from damage (unless you choose to keep the box the film comes in, which is highly unlikely.) I would have preferred the booklet be a centimeter smaller so it fit inside the case for safekeeping.
The ornament that comes with the film is a simple bell with the title of the film on it. It’s a nice little piece, though you’ll likely find yourself changing the ribbon it comes attached to with a more sturdy hanging mechanism if you want to put it on your tree. If you can find this set at the same price as the original Blu-ray release then it’s a no-brainer which to get; however, if there’s a dollar difference one will really have to decide whether or not these small additions are worth the extra money.
As with the previous Blu-ray release the only other special features are as follows:
The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life – This is a documentary that runs at just under 23 minutes in length and is hosted by Tom Bosley. It’s an incredibly interesting piece so fans of the movie (and those who are just watching it for the first time) will likely want to check this out. It’s got some great tidbits of information that will at times completely blow you away. Fun stuff here, though for those wondering, this transfer is anything but HD.
There’s also the original theatrical trailer, which really, really pushes how “wonderful” this film is.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a Blu-ray that every movie and or Christmas aficionado should have in their library. This is a movie you can watch time and time again and never grow tired of the characters involved or the moments they share together. It’s a touching story that truly stands the test of time and if you know someone who doesn’t already have it, this gift-set is the perfect Christmas gift that they’ll no doubt cherish for many years to come.
Paramount Pictures presents It‘s a Wonderful Life. Directed by: Frank Capra. Written by: Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hacket. Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame, Henry Travers. Running time: 130 minutes. Rating: G. Released on Blu-ray: Nov. 1, 2011. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: Christmas, Frank Capra, It's a Wonderful Life, James Stewart