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It's a Wonderful Life: 2-Disc Collector's Set Blu-ray Review

It's a Wonderful Life movie poster It's a Wonderful Life

Theatrical Release: December 20, 1946 / Running Time: 130 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Frank Capra / Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra (screenplay); Jo Swerling (additional scenes); Philip Van Doren Stern (story)

Cast: James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch/Bailey), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Henry F. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy Bailey), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet Bick), H.B. Warner (Mr. Emil Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), Mary Treen (Cousin Tilly), Frank Albertson (Sam Wainwright), Virginia Patton (Ruth Dakin), Charles Williams (Cousin Eustace), Sara Edwards (Mrs. Hatch), Bill Edmunds (Mr. Martini), Lillian Randolph (Annie), Argentina Brunetti (Mrs. Martini), Bobbie Anderson (Little George), Ronnie Ralph (Little Sam), Jean Gale (Little Mary), Jeanine Ann Roose (Little Violet), Danny Mummert (Little Marty Hatch), Georgie Nokes (Little Harry Bailey), Sheldon Leonard (Nick), Frank Hangey (Potter's Bodyguard), Ray Walker (Luggage Shop Joe), Charlie Lane (Real Estate Salesman), Edward Kean (Bldg. & Loan Tom), Carol Coomes (Janie Bailey), Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu Bailey), Larry Simms (Pete Bailey), Jimmy Hawkins (Tommy Bailey)

Buy It's a Wonderful Life from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray with Ornament 2-Disc DVD with Ornament Blu-ray 2-Disc DVD 1-Disc DVD 1-Disc DVD + White Christmas Instant Video


Thanks to decades of seasonal airings, It's a Wonderful Life is widely hailed as the definitive Christmas film, so it's interesting to notice how little of the movie is set around the holiday.
Likewise, despite the upbeat title and the heartwarming images with which the film is marketed, it's also noteworthy how dark and grim much of its story is. The entire film hedges on a thirtysomething husband and father contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve because he's about to be arrested in scandal over misplaced funds. Jingle all the way!

I'm not making any profound discoveries here, but I'm not sure there are any huge ones left to make. It's a Wonderful Life is, after all, one of the most seen and reseen films in history. It almost ranks up there with Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz among films whose endurance in popularity knows no bounds. Facebook fan counts are perhaps the most accurate gauge we have to determine modern-day popularity. Of those three, Wizard currently leads with 800 thousand supporters. It's closely followed by Wind's 782 thousand, which doesn't include another 32 K whose allegiance is pledged to an alternate listing of the same 1939 film. Wonderful isn't too far behind, with over 370 K likes. You won't find many other 1940s movies in the same league: Casablanca has an impressive 640 K; Citizen Kane, 156 K; even widely celebrated ones that spring to mind (The Philadelphia Story, The Maltese Falcon, Hitchcock's earliest hits) check in under 100 thousand.

It isn't hard to understand why It's a Wonderful Life remains so admired sixty-five years after its theatrical debut. Sure, the annual network TV broadcasts and retail presence have helped a lot, but people don't like (or even "like") movies out of obligation or ubiquity. This has endured primarily because it's a wonderful film. Like the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, those directed by Frank Capra have withstood the passing of years remarkably well. This is an especially rare feat for Capra, because he primarily dabbled in comedy, a genre particularly susceptible to aging.

Though dismissed by some as cornball, Capra's films did receive ample recognition, beginning with prototypical romantic comedy It Happened One Night's still significant sweep of 1935's Academy Awards, which earned it Best Actor, Actress, Original Screenplay, Director, and Picture honors. Capra would win two additional Best Director Oscars in the '30s, for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can't Take It With You, with the latter also winning Best Picture. When World War II hit, Capra's flourishing filmmaking career was, like many things, put on hold. The director enlisted as a major in the U.S. Army just four days after Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Capra spent the next several years making propaganda for the cause, training documentaries commissioned by the government.

Our first look at the grown-up George Bailey (James Stewart) finds the 21-year-old describing the dimensions of the suitcase he'd like for his imminent European vacation. Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) is glad to be visited by her future husband, George Bailey.

It's a Wonderful Life was Capra's comeback film, as it was for star James Stewart, the popular Hollywood actor turned U.S. Air Force pilot. As a comeback, the results were mixed. A box office disappointment, it would be one of just two movies completed by Liberty Films, a production company Capra formed with fellow directors William Wyler and George Stevens. Capra never regained his standing and directed just a few other films before moving to television and a long retirement. Stewart, on the other hand, reinforced his stardom, bolstered by multiple Hitchcock thrillers and Anthony Mann westerns.

As a film, there is no questioning the achievements of It's a Wonderful Life. A winning mix of pleasant comedy, heavy drama, romance, and affirmative fantasy, the film is funny, moving, thought-provoking, and as relevant today as ever. Few other old movies can claim all those qualities, especially the last one. How much consideration can or should a storyteller give to how their work will be received long after they are gone? Probably a great deal less than making sure it works for modern audiences, the one that matters most from a business point of view.

Understandably, many films lose impact over time. In the 1940s, cinema immediately reflected and incorporated WWII. That elevated the dramatic stakes and real-life implications of movies like Mrs. Miniver, which won Best Picture for 1942 but pales in current comparison to many of its contemporaries. Films that hold up better don't begin and end with the War, they use it to tell an interesting story, be it one of complicated romance (Casablanca) or societal reintegration (The Best Years of Our Lives, which beat Wonderful for Best Picture). The War inevitably features in It's a Wonderful Life but not as a primary source of fascination.

Capra's film retains the utmost relevance by dealing more with timeless human longings and dilemmas: the desire to escape "a crummy small town", unpredictable life obligations that get in the way of dreams, balancing professional success with the interests of one's community, and so on.

This seemingly casual exchange between wicked banker Mr. Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and absent-minded Uncle Billy Bailey (Thomas Mitchell) impacts the remainder of the film. Second-class guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) has difficulty blending in with George at Nick's bar.

George Bailey (Stewart) is a genuinely good guy, who inherits leadership of his family's small Building & Loan business when his father passes away. This is not the life George wanted. He had plans to see the world with a European trip and then head to college. Instead, he gives his tuition money to his younger brother Harry (Todd Karns), who returns home with a wife and a revised career plan. Selfless George sacrifices so that the Building & Loan can continue to serve the idyllic small town of Bedford Falls with its citizens in mind.

George stands up to greedy bank mogul Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), resisting his lucrative offers, and, during a bank run, gives his clients money out of his pocket that was intended to finance a honeymoon for him and his loving wife Mary (Donna Reed). The respect George's hometown holds for him is forgotten as he tries to make sense of absent-minded Uncle Billy's (Thomas Mitchell) Christmas Eve misplacement of $8,000 (a sum that may date the film more than anything else).
Before he knows it, the Bailey business is being investigated and Potter, in whose lap the missing envelope was actually dropped, is eager to see his compassionate competitor taken down.

Enter Clarence (Henry Travers), a sweet second-class guardian angel determined to earn his wings. After being given George's life story, Clarence pays the downtrodden dad a visit and gets the idea from George's lips to show him how much different Pottersville (formerly Bedford Falls) would be had George never been born.

A redemption story with overtones of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life is brilliant by any measure. Stewart delivers one of the great film performances, convincing as both a charming, decent everyman and as a troubled figure in despair. He is nicely countered by Barrymore's nasty wheelchair-bound Mr. Potter, one of cinema's most iconic villains. In each of those turns, there is a happy meeting of screen and page that pervades the film. Adapted from a short story Philip Van Doren Stern sent to friends as a Christmas present, the screenplay by Capra and The Thin Man's husband-wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich is full of great ideas and witty moments. But Capra heightens it still with his fine directing. Special effects are used sparingly and efficiently. Scenes are tightly edited, with many short shots resembling today's pacing sensibilities. And the film manages to supply just the right amount of heart and sentimentality, never getting sappy even when that seems inevitable in the end.

Tinsel in his hair or not, George Bailey (James Stewart) has seen better Christmas Eves. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is horrified by what Bedford Falls, er, Pottersville has become without him born in it.

Some distance benefits all cinema critically. Just as lingual and cultural translation enables a foreign film to seem more adept than a native one, the passage of time has allowed Wonderful to rise in estimation as its style and presentation grow further from those now fashionable. A movie tackling these same large themes as earnestly and unpretentiously today would almost certainly earn critical dismissal. As a product of Hollywood's Golden Age, however, this seems like perfection, delightful filmmaking ahead of its time.

Nowadays, it's unheard of to open a Christmas movie in theaters in December. The day before Thanksgiving is generally accepted as the latest to debut a film expected to experience a somewhat understandably sharp drop-off in attendance after Christmas Day. The bigger ones typically arrive in early November. The movie business was much different back in the 1940s. It's a Wonderful Life opened in New York five days before Christmas, narrowly qualifying it for 1946 awards contention. The rest of the nation had to wait until January 7 (one day after the Epiphany feast considered the season's very end) to see the film. Interestingly, another all-time classic Christmas film, opened even less seasonably four months later; the original Miracle on 34th Street began its financially comparable run on May 2, 1947.

Hardly a holiday season has passed without current rights holder Paramount Home Entertainment making this evergreen bestseller available in a new way. Most recently, the film made its Blu-ray debut in 2009 alongside a deluxe repackaging of its two existing DVD discs with an ornament. This month, Paramount combined those two ideas, taking the movie's black & white and colorized Blu-ray discs and placing them in an eye-catching wintry box with the same modest ornament. Read on for our full review of this sort of new gift set.

It's a Wonderful Life: 2-Disc Collector's Set with Exclusive Ornament Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc & Gift Set Details

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Aspect Ratio)
Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Not Closed Captioned; Featurette Subtitled
Gift Set Release Date: November 1, 2011 (discs first released November 3, 2009)
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50s)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Keepcase in White Felt & Plastic Box
Still available as Standalone 2-Disc Blu-ray (2009 - $29.99 SRP), 2-Disc Collector's Gift Set DVD with Ornament (2009 - $29.98 SRP), 2-Disc Collector's Set DVD (2007 - $19.99 SRP), 1-Disc 60th Anniversary Edition DVD (2006 - $19.99 SRP), Classic Christmas Collection DVD with White Christmas (2006 - $29.98 SRP), and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

It's a Wonderful Life dazzles in its glorious pillarboxed 1.33:1 black & white Blu-ray presentation. The transfer is virtually perfect. I spotted faint light on the right edge of the frame on one shot. Otherwise, the element is spotless, sharp, and free of even minor shortcomings. The most recent DVD remastering occurred in 2006 and was tremendously pleasing so the gains are far from out of this world. Still, the picture is nothing short of stunning for a film of this age and no doubt bests every theatrical exhibition it ever got.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack isn't quite as breathtaking. Some of the dialogue is pretty quiet, but distortion is minimal and hiss is non-existent. You likely won't ever need to consult subtitles, but they're there if you do. The few pops that marred the DVD have been fixed here.

In the original black and white, Little George (Bobbie Anderson) serves 
Little Violet (Jeanine Anne Roose) and Little Mary (Jean Gale) candy in gray dresses. The colorized version allows us to see Little Violet (Jeanine Anne Roose) and Little Mary (Jean Gale) are dressed in pink and blue, respectively.

The second disc offers a colorized version of the film. You don't have to be much of purist to object to colorization and the greater the film, the greater the travesty. Admittedly, this 2007 job by Legend Films is the best of its kind that I've seen, but I'm not in the habit of watching colorizations. Nor are, I imagine, other fans of classic cinema on Blu-ray. That makes the disc a novelty at best and more likely a waste, one that factors into the list price with no cheaper Blu-ray alternative. Not that it matters too much, but the colorized disc does boast the same high picture quality as Disc 1. The added hues are subtle and natural, giving the film the look of old Christmas cards. There are new dimensions and sensations gained here, such as when we see Violet's eye-catching dress is pink and that the letters of the Pottersville sign are lit. Still, it is a colorization and you never forget that.

Mr. C (Tom Bosley) oozes warmth as the comfortable host of "The Making of 'It's a Wonderful Life." The first title logo appearance in the "It's a Wonderful Life" theatrical trailer is original. The second is not.

BONUS FEATURES

It's a Wonderful Life has been released to DVD more than half a dozen times from at least three different studios.
Every single time, it was joined by the same three bonus features. Surprisingly, only two of those make the leap to Blu-ray.

The casualty is the 14-minute "A Personal Remembrance" by Frank Capra Jr. This polished 1991 piece was evidently intended to precede the film in TV broadcasts. In it, the director's son (who passed away in 2007) shared production facts and some memories about the film. It did include a few notable exclusives, such as some of the final interviews given by Capra Sr. and Jimmy Stewart and information on the clerical error that rendered the film part of the public domain and therefore ubiquitous on TV. Though certainly and inexplicably missed, this nice, informative featurette did repeat some of the same ground covered more thoroughly in one of the two standard extras that are retained here.

That is "The Making of It's a Wonderful Life" (22:45, SD), the first and more substantial of Disc 1's extras. Warmly hosted by "Happy Days" patriarch Tom Bosley (who sadly passed away last year), this 1990 television special predates the DVD era when such retrospectives became expected accompaniment for classic films and is more special for it. Making direct addresses from a decorated fireplace setting, Bosley discusses the project's origins, actors considered for parts, Capra's good luck raven, production code script objections, construction of sets, revolutionary movie snow, and the surprising truth behind certain scenes. All of this information has long since been disseminated over the Internet, but it's more enjoyably absorbed here. This fine, nostalgic show includes brief, borrowed interview clips with Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart and supporting actor Sheldon Leonard.

In addition, we get the film's "original" theatrical trailer (1:48) in high definition. True to 1940s promotional practices, it names actors and throws out enthusiastic phrases instead of giving audiences any idea what to expect. I put "original" part in quotes, because for some odd reason, this jarringly replaces the closing title shot from the version on DVD with an "M & A Alexander Productions" re-release title card.

Unsurprisingly, the Paramount DVD's dated trailer for Queen Latifah's Last Holiday has not been carried over to Blu-ray. No extras appear on Disc 2, which sort of makes sense, since the colorized presentation itself should be considered a bonus feature.

Disc 2's only advantage over Disc 1? Colorful Christmas lights on the Blu-ray menu screen. A photograph of the It's a Wonderful Life Gift Set contents: box, Blu-ray, booklet, and bell.

MENUS, DESIGN and PACKAGING

Both discs feature a static and silent 16:9 menu screen, offering a silvery up-close look at a decorated Christmas tree. Reflecting their presentations, Disc 1's is colorless, while Disc 2's has colorful lights. Both discs support bookmarks on the film, but, encoded with BD-J, they do not resume after pressing stop or powering down your player.

At first glance, this Blu-ray looks quite dusty. In fact, it's frosty! The box has the height of a standard Blu-ray case, but the width of four, almost resembling one of those rare double VHS sets. The velvet white box is soft to the touch and features just enough glitter to resemble the sparkle of snow. As on the domed DVD equivalent, the case features Clarence somewhat creepily looking in through the window at the Baileys' Christmas joy, which again consists of a pop-out tree on which the real ornament hangs. The design doesn't let you get as close a look at the sparkly tree as you'd like.

That ornament is just a tiny (1" high, 1.5" wide) silver bell bearing the film's trademarked title. The exact same thing that the DVD had, not that "exclusive" at all! A red ribbon is looped through it for hanging on a real tree. Simple, cheap, and with not much of a clapper to it, the ornament's real value lies in the significance it has to the film's plot.

Inside, the standard slim Blu-ray case resides at the back of the box, behind a smaller (but not small enough to fit in the case) reprinting of the "commemorative booklet" that now warrants a mention on the box's front. This nice staple-bound 8-page pamphlet features quotes, pictures, and information on the film's creation and makers. An in-case insert simply defends the Blu-ray's quality, as if anticipating compatibility problems. Unlike the DVD equivalent, there is no code for downloading free holiday songs.

In the uplifting conclusion of "It's a Wonderful Life", the people of Bedford Falls rally in support of their friend, making George Bailey "the richest man in town."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Sixty-five years after its release, It's a Wonderful Life stands among the most enjoyable and satisfying films ever made. Frank Capra's crowning masterpiece is humorous, heartwarming, and, above all else, human. It may or may not be something you feel compelled to watch on a regular basis, but every viewing is bound to lift spirits and move you.

The picture on Paramount's repackaged Blu-ray is a real knockout and surely one of the best afforded a Golden Age film. That said, it is less impressive than it would be, since the studio's DVD already looked so terrific. I don't know that the gains are significant enough to mandate repurchase for non-videophiles.
As a first-time buy, this is a solid disc, although it is very strange that no new supplements have been produced in twenty years for such an admired and surely strong-selling movie. Paramount has upgraded many a less popular film, so one wonders when this acquired jewel will get its due. Furthermore, I can think of no good reason for Frank Capra Jr.'s remembrance to have been dropped; it was good enough to miss here, but at least the excellent Tom Bosley-hosted special is still included.

As for this gift set edition, there is little more than a big striking box to justify the $10 difference in list price and $5 or so in consumer cost. The bell is a cheap little thing and the booklet should be a standard inclusion. With this release, the studio seems to be counting on the average person's gut reaction to fancy packaging and unwillingness to make time for bonus features. So much more could and should be done for such a beloved film. For proof of that, look no further than the Ultimate Collector's Editions Warner has bestowed upon their modern Christmas comedy classics A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, and Elf.

You can't go wrong buying any of Paramount's It's a Wonderful Life editions for yourself or someone else, but the wait for a definitive deluxe presentation continues.

Support great cinema and this site when you buy It's a Wonderful Life now from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray with Ornament / 2-Disc DVD with Ornament /
Blu-ray / 2-Disc DVD / 1-Disc DVD / 1-Disc DVD + White Christmas / Instant Video

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Reviewed November 15, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1946 Liberty Films/RKO Radio Pictures and 2009/2011 Paramount Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.