Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The perennial Christmas favorite It's a Wonderful Life is much more complex than the average film blanc, that mostly lighthearted subgenre postulating a cheery afterlife and the blessings of a protective, optimistic universe. The miraculous tale of George Bailey can't quite reconcile its faith in goodness with an equally profound, incompatible feeling of impending personal catastrophe. Frank Capra recognized this as his most personal film but even he seems not to have come to grips with its full implications, at least not in interviews. The movie has become such a cherished icon that few recognize its Jekyll-Hyde split between forces both blanc and noir.
Paramount's new 2-Disc Blu-ray of It's a Wonderful Life is well worth the investment. Sharp, clear and more vivid than ever before, it's a movie we all want in the best version possible. The package I saw has a trade-in rebate worth $10 for customers currently owning older DVD releases.
A quick synopsis of the story, for viewers recently arrived from Mars: Alerted that small town businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) is about to commit suicide, heaven's powers-that-be intervene by dispatching the inexperienced Angel Second Class Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers). Having abandoned his dreams to face the realities of the Depression, family responsibility and civic good will, George finds himself at the center of an ignominious scandal, with only a life insurance policy to provide for his family. George tells Clarence that he'd be better off dead, a statement that inspires a lesson-teaching stroke of genius: Clarence shows Bailey what his town would be like if he had never been born.
It's a Wonderful Life's first wave of popular revival occurred in the early 1970s when it fell into the Public Domain. The unusually long film suddenly showed up at odd times on local TV stations, often mutilated beyond recognition. I remember seeing one airing that began after the 'heavenly' introduction of the flashback, and another that cut out the flashback entirely. UCLA had one of the surviving 35mm prints, all of which had been cut down for reissue on double bills. The scene showing the Martini family moving into their new home was missing, along with a big chunk of the nightmare flashback including George Bailey's attempt to talk to his mother. UCLA's associate professor Bob Epstein popularized a 35mm restoration of the film at a memorable showing at the County Museum of Art, synchronizing 35mm and 16mm projectors to re-integrate the film in one go. Epstein later took up collections in UCLA classes to help pay to protect the film's original negative. "Shall we rent an expensive film to project in class, or can we see something from the Archive's holdings, and donate the funds for the restoration instead? "
By 1976 new restored repertory 35mm prints were circulating, and the buzz was that a great American classic had been rediscovered. By the early 1980s bad Public Domain prints were shown so frequently on TV that people were sick of it. Then the copyright was re-established through an expensive legal maneuver involving the movie's score, or perhaps the original Philip Van Doren Stern story. Since 1990 or so the film has been properly taken care of and is no longer grossly overexposed. Along with The Wizard of Oz, it shows up almost every year on network television.
We film students embraced It's a Wonderful Life; it was the magic movie that taught us values in cinema beyond the violent cynicism and hopelessness of early 1970s film fare. What may be Capra's best sentimental film softens his often-disturbing Populist themes into a useful philosophy. George Bailey's story has flaws yet provides interesting food for thought for anybody trying to make choices about life -- whether to have a family, how to cope with adversity, how to relate to a world where nice people seldom come out on top. The good and generous George Bailey tries to avoid becoming 'warped and frustrated', as he likes to describe his nemesis Mr. Potter. Is the world a cynical and corrupt place, where only simpletons adopt a positive outlook?
It's a Wonderful Life was met with a great many lousy notices from respected critics (even James Agee) that found it too saccharine for words. Yes, a few of the movie's demonstrations of love and joy get a bit thick but most are honestly earned. Capra's heavenly Angels are not omnipotent: Clarence can influence Bailey but can't solve his problems for him. Capra's biggest shortcoming is his assignment of human worth in relation to one's position on the playbill. Mary and George are deeply caring people with real problems, and the audience is asked to give the highest priority to their needs and welfare. We also sympathize with rich supporting players like the alcoholic Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and George's Mother (Beulah Bondi), a widow. But when Capra needs conflict he reaches for villains like the belligerent Mr. Welch, who belts George on New Years' Eve. Anyone not a blind booster of George Bailey is written as a jerk, like Charles Lane's rent collector or Charles Halton's grumpy bank examiner ("I guess people do those things"). Capra seems to think that George needs a wicked nemesis, and creates the Simon Legree clone Henry Potter, "The Meanest Man in Town." Rather than admit that the world is a complicated place with shades-of-gray contradictions and conflicting values, Capra lets Potter personify all Evil. Mustn't muddy George Bailey's subjective dilemma with realistic problems.
The film's real problem is generic to the film blanc: why do heavenly forces choose George Bailey as an object of intercession? Suicide can't be the only reason heaven gets involved down here. Plenty of George's neighbors have troubles, too. Maybe Ernie the taxi driver has an alcoholic wife. Doesn't heaven care about Violet Bick's reputation? The person who could really use an attitude adjustment is Henry Potter, which leads us right back to Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Do all of these people have personal Angels that they just ignore? Is Bedford Falls crowded with invisible Angels, like Berlin in Wings of Desire?
All of these questions fall away when we get to Capra's brilliant stroke, the Nightmare Alternate Reality sequence. Potter has transformed Bedford Falls into Pottersville, a soulless place of unhappy people where every storefront is a bar or a dime-a-dance hall. If Potter is so powerful, why does he bother with such a small town? Because George Bailey was not there to hold the Savings & Loan together, the city has been sold down the river. Was that Bailey's fated mission in life? If he'd innocently gone to Samarkand, or if the S&L had folded by accident, Bedford falls would have been doomed anyway. Is every American town a potential Sodom or Gomorrah? It's a Wonderful Life holds George personally accountable for the general ills of society.
What the nightmare sequence really demonstrates is that our complacent world of family values and wholesome living is a thin veneer. One slip-up and Bedford Falls becomes Sin City where families are crushed by poverty, cops shoot first and bitter old women like Mrs. Bailey no longer mourn sons that drowned or died in childbirth. George's story is egocentric (a personal Angel, what a status symbol!) and also highly subjective. George stumbles from his mother's porch into a horror close-up of frozen-faced doom ... facing the existential nightmare of his own non-existence. When George stumbles into the graveyard, he retraces the steps into the tomb of souls in Fritz Lang's Destiny. George thought that suicide would be the answer, but it's really a trap; Clarence has drawn him into a mind-warp of psychological dislocation. George argues to hold onto his own personality, which Clarence calmly tells him no longer exists. In fact, it never existed. George isn't even a ghost: he's nothing.
It's a Wonderful Life is a film blanc and its Alternate Reality scene is a self-contained film noir nightmare. Capra hated the noir outlook, but his evocation of it is brilliant, better than noirs with much more violence. George Bailey is already 'backed into a dark corner', fighting desperately for his existential soul. It's great, great stuff.
This sequence is a significant development in Capra's career and the state of American films in 1946. In his autobiography Capra writes himself blue in the face condemning the trend of negative movies about misery and murder, cruelty and violence. He even quotes the nasty 'lady down the staircase' killing in Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death. Capra is complaining specifically about film noir, although the term doesn't yet exist. His own Liberty Films buddy William Wyler won Best Picture in 1946 with The Best Years of Our Lives, a sentimental-tough picture with a few similarities to It's a Wonderful Life. Its characters are impacted much more profoundly by the war. Instead of "Every time a bell rings, an Angel gets his Wings," Wyler ends his picture this way:
"You know what it'll be like, don't you Peggy? It may take years to get anywhere. We'll have no money. No decent place to live. We'll have to work, get kicked around."
After It's a Wonderful Life Capra's films seemed increasingly out of touch with American trends. We get the feeling that he was so turned off by the downbeat content of some postwar movies, he stopped watching them and tried to overcompensate.
But It's a Wonderful Life is a showcase of Capra's performance-enhancing direction with its expertly judged moods and tone shifts. James Stewart's acting ranges from his typical grandstanding (those debate-champion emotional tirades against Potter) to uncommon sensitivity. One of Stewart's most impressive scenes is a simple unbroken shot when George finds out that his brother Harry isn't going to take over the Savings & Loan. George's face darkens in close-up, and as he starts to walk he looks as murderous as one of his cowboy heroes in the Anthony Mann westerns to come. The shot just tracks with Stewart as this look fades. George finds a smile, and asks Harry's new wife for more details on the situation. George has the ability to put his own problems aside, to put other people's feelings first. That's why we like him. On the other hand George's contrary behavior on Christmas Eve may be more serious than a bad attitude. At his worst, George screams at his children and explodes in destructive rage. It's a Wonderful Life is more complicated than it looks. Is he showing his true self under pressure?
The film's only unforgivable moment is in the nightmare, when George confronts Mary Bailey. Because George wasn't there Mary has become a grossly exaggerated spinster librarian, frigid and timid. This has got to be the ultimate expression of blind male ego, to think that one's wife wouldn't have found someone else had things been different. The only reason a vivacious woman like Mary would stay single would be if she wanted to, and nothing short of shock treatment could turn Mary into such a neurotic mouse. This raises suspicions about Clarence's nightmare vision of Pottersville. Is it really what would have happened if George had not been born, or has Clarence rigged a cheap illusion of what he wants George to think would have happened? Does Heaven Lie?
Old movies can elicit a 'phantom' nostalgia, a longing for a dream reality when we all lived in neat houses with picket fences and the uglier problems of modern living were unknown. If a war came along there were no doubts about its purpose or merit. It's a Wonderful Life may reinforce this fantasy, but it also expresses a strange mix of doubts and fears. The film's stated message -- "No man is a failure who has friends" -- is greeting card-lite, the kind of wisdom we wish could change our lives. We know that it's not that simple. It's a Wonderful Life knows that it's not that simple too, and expresses the conflict in its strange contrasts of attitude. How odd that a 'sappy Christmas tale' should be so profound.
Paramount's 2-Disc Blu-ray of It's a Wonderful Life is a fine and highly-recommended disc -- the HD far outpaces a good 16mm print for image quality and the audio probably equals or betters the optical tracks from 1946.
The added sharpness and broader contrast in the B&W version really helps when reading fine details on faces and absorbing wide shots. The special effects also hold up well in HD. Clearly Paramount and Legend Films have taken pains to do the best job possible. The release consists of two Blu-ray discs. The first has a colorized version by itself, and the second the B&W original with two extras seen before. The trailer is a reissue item that's really poorly put together. It may be a sloppy cut-down of the original, and it would have given 1946 viewers no particular impression of what the film is about ... it makes the movie seem totally generic; there's no hook or anything to remember.
The B&W transfer on the newer Paramount disc is simply splendid. A digital cleanup has eliminated scratches and other flaws from what was already a good looking disc, and the enhancement doesn't seem to have damaged the image or exaggerated the outlines between light and dark areas.
I didn't view the colorized version on the previous DVD and thought I'd do so now, especially to see how it looks in HD. Commercially speaking the bottom line is that ordinary viewers will like the color, and will quickly adjust to the very unreal tints that do enliven the image. It's also fun to see what hues have been assigned to the clothing and what has been done with the views of outer space, etc.. "Tinting" is the proper word because when the screen goes black, the colorization process cannot add chroma. that's why the entire film has been lightened in contrast. Still the chocolate syrup or whatever was used on James Stewart's lip looks like dark grape jam, or motor oil -- they can't make something jet black look red.
Putting the B&W version back on immediately reminds us of the difference between the versions. The B&W brings the contrast back to the correct values, sharpening the photography and focusing our attention more precisely on parts of the image that the cameraman intended us to see. For instance, in the nighttime "Buffalo Gals" walk after the dance, the colorization now places Mary and George in the middle of a lot of flowers, which are now in bright color. Bedford Falls seems a real garden spot, and the art direction has been changed drastically. George's nightmare visions in the horror sequence have the same color scheme as the normal nighttime footage. The bleak, sinister "noir" aspect has been drained away: with all those bright neon signs, etc., downtown Pottersville seems an exciting and attractive improvement over dull Bedford Falls. That's something that Capra surely didn't intend. With parallel versions like this there's always the likelihood that the original will be set aside when somebody decides that the colorized copy is the only one people still want to see. So far Paramount doesn't seem to be going in that direction.
The extras remind us that It's a Wonderful Life's status as a sacred family favorite has somehow exempted it from critical discussion; people that love it are warm & fuzzy and those harboring reservations are miserable Grinches. The Making of It's a Wonderful Life from 1990 is an adoring tribute hosted by Tom Bosley, who stands by a holiday hearth to explain the film's genesis. This new Blu-ray has done without a 1991 Remembrance featurette featuring Frank Capra Jr..
To illustrate what happens when a movie becomes 'sacred', the docu repeats many uncorroborated bits of trivia. The most blatant is the claim that James Stewart and Donna Reed's first kiss by the telephone was a difficult scene, done so well on the first take that Capra said it was unrepeatable and no more takes were made. To begin with, there are two angles on the kiss -- but they were probably running two cameras at the same time. Look at the film's trailer on the disc, and you'll see an extended angle on Stewart's mini-tantrum before the kiss. The improvised action is very different, proving that the 'one take' story is old publicity hogwash from RKO. At least half of Hollywood history is composed of apocryphal baloney like this, thanks to the lazy tendency to reprint publicity blurbs.
The docu also stresses that Capra rewrote the earlier unsatisfactory screenplay drafts, and barely mentions that the final screenplay was the work of Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, superb writers who surely did 'Robert Riskin' duty: writing a gem of a movie for which Capra would take the credit. The 'print the legend' mindset of Hollywood nostalgia guarantees that It's a Wonderful Life will forever be seen as Capra's sole inspiration.
The show does cover the fact that the film was not a big hit when new, but no discussion is made of the fact that Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens' independent experiment Liberty Films was doomed by corporate tax laws that favored established giants and clobbered smaller outfits. No mention is made either of the fact that Capra felt late in production that he had bitten off more than he could chew by both producing and directing. In his autobiography Capra confesses that he and James Stewart thought they had a complete disaster on their hands, a movie that plain didn't play. Considering the charming classic that resulted, this puzzling 'disaster' story initiated the curiosity that led to Savant's It's A Wonderful Recut? theory. Was It's a Wonderful Life originally a straight narrative, with no flashback? Was the 'heavenly' opening a restructuring to introduce the film's fantastic element from the very beginning?
Partly rewritten from an earlier review.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It's A Wonderful Life Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent English, French, Spanish Mono, English, French, Spanish subtitles
Supplements: Tom Bosley-hosted show The Making of IAWL, Reissue Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 7, 2009
An earlier review at this URL is appended with some interesting reader mail.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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