It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is beloved by many because it's a simple story well told. On the surface, it's also about a nice guy who puts others before himself and eventually gets rewarded in the end. The film's status as "mild box-office failure turned holiday staple" doesn't hurt its reputation, either: it's usually at or near the top of everyone's "watch list" as Christmas draws near. I didn't fully succumb to the charms of It's A Wonderful Life until several years ago, but now it's easy to appreciate what's made the film so enduring, entertaining and eternally likeable. Produced by director Frank Capra's Liberty Films---a short-lived company with only one other film to its name---It's A Wonderful Life would further cement its underdog status by winning none of its five Oscar nominations (blame William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, which earned eight nominations and seven wins in identical categories).
At first glance, It's A Wonderful Life plays it fairly straight. The meat of our story revolves around George Bailey (James Stewart), a selfless boy who grows up to be a selfless man. After his late father's Building and Loan is strong-armed by local businessman Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), George takes the reins to save the humble company's future. Though younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) was initially set to fill his father's shoes, George pushes aside his own dreams for Harry's sake. The younger Bailey eventually goes to college, gets married and works for his new father-in-law...and George remains stuck at home in Bedford Falls. He eventually gets married to local sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed), but the young lovers sacrifice their honeymoon savings to support Building and Loan customers after a bank run. Time and time again, it seems as if George will never fulfill his personal dreams, but karma eventually comes full circle when he needs the love, forgiveness and support of friends and family.
This isn't just a vanilla story with a happy ending, though: the film's darker third act reminds us that our tiny lives are remembered by our actions, for better or for worse. It's A Wonderful Life paints this dark picture with broad strokes, like A Christmas Carol cranked up to "11"...but it never feels gratuitous or self-serving, even though the villainous Henry Potter don't seem to have an ounce of love in his body. Like our protagonist, It's A Wonderful Life instead comes across as genuine and well-meaning despite unavoidable imperfection. The film's holiday framing only represents a fraction of the entire story, but it's easy to see why It's A Wonderful Life's underlying message of "good will towards men" has permanently paired it with Christmas...even though it was originally released in January.
The popularity of It's A Wonderful Life has grown exponentially since the advent of home video, DVD and now Blu-Ray, with a number of notable releases presenting Capra's classic in progressively better packages. This isn't the film's first outing in high-definition, of course: Paramount unleashed an impressive two-disc Blu-Ray package several years ago that paired a quality A/V presentation with a few recycled bonus features (including a colorized version of the film, if that floats your boat). Paramount's new gift set of It's A Wonderful Life is the exact same release in new packaging, with the only new additions being a pair of keepsake goodies. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in the film's original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of It's A Wonderful Life looks crisp and well-defined from start to finish. I never upgraded to Paramount's "60th Anniversary" DVD release back in 2006, so I've become somewhat accustomed to Republic's "Silver Screen Classics" edition from 2000. This Blu-Ray represents a substantial improvement in every category: black levels, fine details and textures are all rock-solid across the board, while only a hint of dirt and debris can be spotted along the way. Digital problems, such as edge enhancement and compression artifacts, don't seem to be an issue at all. Most viewers simply aren't used to seeing films this old in great condition; as such, the impressive presentation should make It's A Wonderful Life that much more enjoyable.
The audio presentation aims much lower...and even though we still don't get an uncompressed track, this Dolby Digital Mono mix manages to get the job done. Dialogue, music and sound effects are understandably thin at times, especially on the high end. Long story short: one can't expect too much out of a 65 year-old film in the audio department, but it goes without saying that a DTS-HD Master Audio track would've softened the blow a little. Optional French and Spanish Mono dubs are included during the main feature, as well as English (SDH), French and Spanish subtitles.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, this newly-created gift set comes with a few exclusive bells and whistles covered in the "Bonus Features" section. The two-disc set is housed inside a nice digipak case with attractive artwork and a slipcover, while the menus themselves are simply designed and easy to navigate. These dual-layered, 50GB discs appear to be locked for Region "A" players only. As far as size is concerned, this package is slightly on the bulky side...but at least it's sized to fit on shelves properly.
Unfortunately, we still don't get much in the way of traditional extras. Disc 1 includes "The Making of It's a Wonderful Life" (480p, 23 minutes)
, a 1990 made-for-TV retrospective hosted by Tom Bosley. This was found on just about every previous DVD release of It's A Wonderful Life
, but it's a well-rounded featurette that fans should enjoy watching again. Also returning is the film's odd Theatrical Trailer (1080p, 2 minutes)
; like the previous Blu-Ray package, this has been given the high-def treatment.
Film purists, the color-blind and brave parents should only consider Disc 2 a curiosity: this includes the Colorized Version of It's A Wonderful Life in its entirety. Originally crafted in 2007, it's a fairly well-done colorization...but if you don't like this practice in general, I doubt you'll get much out of it. Technical specs and A/V quality appear to be identical to the black-and-white original on Disc 1.
Unfortunately, the "Frank Capra, Jr." retrospective from earlier DVD releases is still absent.
As for the gift set exclusives packaged with this release, we get a small bell-shaped Christmas Ornament and a fairly brief Commemorative Booklet with a general overview of the film's origins and production. These trinkets are nice to have if you're a collector, but owners of the previous two-disc Blu-Ray package definitely shouldn't consider them "upgrade worthy" material on their own.
It's been a holiday staple for decades now, and the luster of It's A Wonderful Life doesn't look to be fading anytime soon. Featuring strong performances, memorable characters and a timeless story, there are few movie lovers out there who haven't seen and enjoyed it at least once. Paramount doesn't offer much new material with this Blu-Ray gift set---aside from a few themed trinkets, of course---but the rock-solid visual presentation makes it an easy choice for those who recently moved to high-def. An uncompressed audio track and more extras could've made this a true upgrade, but most fans wouldn't complain about finding either Blu-Ray of It's A Wonderful Life under the tree. Recommended.
Further Reading: DVD Savant's "It's A Wonderful Recut?"
NOTE: The above captures were obtained from promotional outlets and do not represent this release's native resolution. Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes at a local gallery and runs a website or two. He also enjoys slacking off, telling lame jokes and writing stuff in third person.