It's a Wonderful Life

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Nov 12, 2009
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Frank Capra

Release Date(s)

1946 (November 3, 2009)

Studio(s)

Republic (Paramount)

Review

Both Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra have called It’s a Wonderful Life their best work, and it’s hard to argue the point.  Stewart, in his first acting role after returning from World War II (he was a pilot in the Army Air Force) gives the performance of a lifetime as George Bailey, the likable everyman who yearns to leave his small town behind, to see the world and make his fortune.

As fate would have it, of course, events conspire to keep George in tiny Bedford Falls, where he must bear the seemingly thankless task of keeping the family business (a tiny Building and Loan) afloat after the death of his father.  To make matters worse, the greedy Mr. Potter (actor Lionel Barrymore, as the local miser and Grinch) will stop at nothing to put the Building and Loan out of business, as part of his bid to own everything in town.  But George has the love, strength and inspiration of his childhood sweetheart Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) to help him endure, not to mention a true rogue’s gallery of friends and family.  And in his darkest hour, a lowly, second-class guardian angel named Clarence is there to show George the true value of his life.

Few filmmakers have been as prolific as Frank Capra in exploring the human condition.  Ever idealistic, Capra endowed all his films (among them Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can’t Take it With You, Lost Horizon and It Happened One Night) with a somewhat simplistic sense of hope and optimism, leading some to criticize his work.  But that same optimism has helped to ensure that few filmmakers’ work has been as enduing as Capra’s.  And no film is more exemplary of his ideals than It’s a Wonderful Life.  Given that, it’s hard to believe that the film was largely unsuccessful when first released in 1946.  Moviegoers then found it too dark and depressing to embrace.  It was not until the copyright expired in the 70’s that it finally found a wide audience.  TV stations around the country were suddenly able to air the film without charge, and air it they did, particularly around the holidays.  The rest, of course, is film history.

Presented in black and white in its original 1.33 aspect ratio, Paramount’s new HD transfer is a quantum leap beyond the original DVD version.  Contrast is just perfect, with very good detailing and texture.  The image is occasionally a little soft looking but it appears that this is a camera focus artifact as opposed to any kind of excessive digital filtering.  I say that because there’s still a lovely and very light patina of film grain visible throughout the image.  To top things off, the print is in close to perfect condition – noticeably cleaner than the original DVD presentation, with far less visible dust, dirt and nicks on the print.  Simply put, this film has never looked so on disc good as it does here.  The audio is somewhat improved as well, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (there’s no lossless mix, but I don’t think you’ll miss it).  This is essentially the same audio track as was on the most recent DVD.  Dialogue is clear at all times, and the track thankfully fixes the audio defects that hampered the original DVD version, which caused the sound to occasionally take on a muffled quality.  Note that the absence of lossless audio allows a higher average video data rate, and the picture benefits accordingly.

[Editor’s Note: Own Robert Harris believes that CBS digitally removed a bit too much grain from this HD transfer, and suspects that touch of "video noise" has been added back into the image to simulate the missing grain.  Upon very close reexamination, he may be correct.  Therefore, we’ve nicked the video grade down a hair.  However, as Robert readily admits, there’s still substantial fine detail in this image.  The transfer remains very good on the whole, and is a substantial improvement over the DVD.  Definitely don’t let the issue stop you from upgrading if you love this film.]

The original DVD edition featured a pair of documentaries, The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life (hosted by Tom Bosley) and A Personal Remembrance (narrated by Frank Capra, Jr.), along with the film’s theatrical trailer.  Paramount’s most recent 2-disc DVD included The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life and the trailer, but omitted A Personal Remembrance.  It also added a second, colorized version of the film, for those who prefer it (why you would, I don’t know, but such is the case).  This new Blu-ray edition emulates exactly the most recent 2-disc DVD version, down to the inclusion of the HD colorized version (in addition to the HD B&W) and the omission of A Personal Remembrance.  I’d have rather kept the featurette and ditched the colorized version, but I didn’t have a say in the matter.  Ah well.

As a student of film, one of the greatest pleasures I’ve found with DVD is the opportunity to rediscover the rarely-seen original quality of classic films.  That’s even more true with the advent of high-definition, and I’m pleased to say that It’s a Wonderful Life has never looked better than it does on this new BD from Paramount.  If you already have the original DVD, you might want to still keep it for the missing featurette.  But the video and audio improvements here are significant, such that if you really love the film, it’s worth trading up.  If, on the other hand, you’ve never owned It’s a Wonderful Life on disc before, there’s never been a better time to add this delightful classic to your collection.

- Bill Hunt

 

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