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It's a Wonderful Life
"Just a minute, just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. Just a minute. Now, you're right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building & Loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was...why, in the twenty five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get outta your slums, Mr. Potter. And what's wrong with that? Why, here, you're all businessmen here. Don't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers?
"You, you said that they...what'd you say just a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home. Wait?! Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken-down that...you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you – a warped, frustrated old man – they're cattle. Well, in my book, he died a much richer man than you'll ever be."
- George Bailey; It's a Wonderful Life
It's a Wonderful Life hasn't become such a beloved holiday staple simply because its third act happens to be set at Christmastime. As the great many who make it a point to revisit Frank Capra's timeless classic every year know all too well, it embodies the most defining aspects of the season: compassion, generosity, family, faith, and community. It's about one man setting his own dreams aside so that others may achieve theirs. Bedford Falls is intended to represent Anytown, USA, and what George Bailey (James Stewart) offers with his family's struggling Building & Loan is the American Dream. The financing he supplies for their modest homes isn't to be mistaken as a gift; it's a helping hand for good-hearted folks who've worked hard and hadn't previously been afforded the opportunity to succeed. George could've left Bedford Falls behind decades earlier, or he could've followed in the footsteps of the miserly Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), bleeding his lessers of most every last nickel for no other reason that he could. But no, he instead sacrificed so that others could thrive. And when George needed it the most, that amity and generosity would be returned many times over.
But then, It's a Wonderful Life is a film in no need of that sort of introduction. I don't need to tell you about Clarence (Henry Travers), George's guardian angel who's hoping to at long last earn his wings. You already know what George learns when, at his lowest point, he insists that Bedford Falls would be far better off had he never been born, only for that wish to unexpectedly be granted. You're well-acquainted with the infectious joy at George and his new bride Mary (Donna Reed) all but giving away the money they'd scrimped and saved for their honeymoon – to help keep their customers and the Building & Loan alike afloat just a little bit longer. You've teared up as George, as a child, saved the grieving town druggist (H. B. Warner) from making a terrible mistake. Your heart has swelled as George hides the fallen petals from Zuzu's (Karolyn Grimes) beloved rose, returning the same imperfect but beautiful flower to her "as good as new". You've recoiled in horror at George's venomous outburst towards his family when his world looks to be on the verge of collapse.
You have no need of a review of It's a Wonderful Life as a film because you already adore it, or, on the remote chance that you haven't yet experienced one of the most widely watched films ever produced, you unquestionably soon will. It's a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Every facet of It's a Wonderful Life is deliberate and brilliantly crafted, from its endlessly quotable dialogue to its Academy Award-winning artificial snow. The wide variety of emotions on display here resound in a way that few other films can claim. There's something wonderful and unforgettable about every last scene. It's endured as it has – is as beloved as it is – for good reason. And I'm thrilled to say that, with this Ultra HD Blu-ray release, It's a Wonderful Life has been graced with a presentation every bit as extraordinary as the film itself. DVD Talk Collector Series.
This is anything but just another remaster. It's a Wonderful Life by any measure ranks among the most beloved films in the history of cinema, and the spectacular digital restoration showcased here will define the way it's seen by generations to come. That's not hyperbole either; not all is well with the original camera negative, and it's unclear just how much longer it may be viable as a source for further remasters. Rightly recognizing this as one of the most important films in their storied library, Paramount spared no effort in restoring It's a Wonderful Life to its former glory and beyond. In the years to come, when the film is screened in theaters, airs on television, or is streamed via one digital platform or another, what future viewers see will in all likelihood be based on this restoration. And it is indeed a sight to behold.
I often see it asked on message boards and Facebook groups how much a film of this vintage – especially one in black-and-white – could possibly stand to benefit from 4K. Even just a passing glance at It's a Wonderful Life will silence those sorts of concerns. The 1.37:1 image is startlingly crisp, consistently showcasing a level of detail and clarity I could scarcely have dreamt possible. Even something as seemingly mundane as a modest snowfall manages to dazzle; I feel almost as if I could've counted each individual snowflake, if only that were really snow falling from the sky. The care and craftsmanship of its every last element can be deeply felt here, whether it's the extremely fine woven pattern in George's suit as Ruth steps off the train or the breath faintly visible during their "Buffalo Gals" nighttime stroll.
The application of HDR to classic cinema invariably sparks concerns about revisionism, but that's not at all an issue here. This Dolby Vision presentation is tasteful and natural, offering a more expansive range of grayscale without drawing undue attention to itself. Though I repeatedly found myself impressed by the glints of light caught by the actors' eyes, along with, say, the specular highlights at the Bailey's dinner table as a young George tells his father of his ambitious plans for the future, there's never the sense of HDR for the sake of HDR. Even the likes of Pottersville's garish neon and megawatt lights are appropriately bright without searing any retinas.
The word repeated more than any other throughout It's a Wonderful Life's restoration featurette is "filmic", and deservedly so. Despite the daunting task ahead of them – severe damage, nitrate deterioration, fading, jitter – the tell-tale signs of a rushed remaster are nowhere to be found. To whatever extent noise reduction was applied, it's been with a light touch, given how fine and lovely its sheen of grain so consistently is: far better than the 4K presentation on VUDU can claim, even with a gigabit connection. The presentation is immaculate; throughout It's a Wonderful Life's 130 minute runtime, I didn't spot so much as a small nick or a stray fleck of dust. And, again, those concerned with HDR compromising the purity of such an enduring classic should note that this is a far more filmic presentation than any previously issued on home video, steering clear of the edge enhancement, heavy filtering, and inexorably video-esque boosted contrast of Paramount's initial Blu-ray release.
I'll confess to being concerned that Paramount might not bring It's a Wonderful Life to Ultra HD Blu-ray, having been available in 4K through iTunes for close to a year before this physical release. I can't put into words how glad I am to at long last have this restoration in my hands, given that it is, simply put, perfect. The dearth of films from Hollywood's Golden Age on Ultra HD Blu-ray has long been a disappointment – before this month, there was literally only a single film on the format produced prior to 1960 – and It's a Wonderful Life brilliantly showcases just how much these classics indeed stand to gain. In every way exceptional, and in every way essential.
While a traditional Blu-ray disc has been included in this combo pack, it's disappointingly the colorized version of It's a Wonderful Life from a decade ago – hence why the screenshots throughout this review are sourced from the digital copy. Curiously, this isn't the case the world over; the British release is reportedly accompanied by a newly-remastered presentation of the film on Blu-ray in its original black-and-white.
It's a Wonderful Life's original monaural audio is preserved here in 16-bit Dolby TrueHD, and it's every bit as deserving of the praise lavished upon the visual presentation. Nevermind that the film is nearly three-quarters of a century in age; its lossless soundtrack easily ranks among the cleanest and clearest of any movie of its vintage I've yet experienced, befitting It's a Wonderful Life's Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Recording. Its dialogue isn't marred by any edginess or clipping, and even the deafening roar of, say, the Charleston dance-off early on doesn't suffer from any strain of note. It's such a beautiful mix, with no element unduly overwhelming another, and the film's occasional use of near-silence remains every bit as impactful as its most gloriously chaotic moments. It's a Wonderful Life's lossless audio belies its age by too many years to count, and it accomplishes this without any trace of excessive filtering or processing. Similarly, no background noise, pop, clicks, or dropouts ever threaten to distract. At the risk of repeating myself, it too is perfect.
A Descriptive Video Service track has also been included, alongside lossy monaural dubs in German, Latin American Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese. Subtitles, meanwhile, are offered in English (traditional and SDH), Danish, German, Latin American Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish.
All of the bonus features on It's a Wonderful Life are presented on the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc. (In a reversal of what we normally see, there are no extras to speak of on the accompanying Blu-ray disc.) Disappointingly, what few features were offered by earlier editions – the 22 minute "The Making of It's a Wonderful Life" from back in 1990 as well as the film's theatrical trailer – have not been carried over.
- Restoring a Beloved Classic (13 min.; 4K / Dolby Vision): Paramount's Andrea Kalas and Laura Thornburg delve into how herculean an effort was invested in It's a Wonderful Life's 4K restoration, which took some six months to complete. It's quite a deep dive into precisely which surviving elements were utilized, how cleverly the restorationists were able to mask the seams when weaving together disparate sources, how image capture and digital restoration tools have evolved in recent years, and the application of HDR, among a great many other topics. Anyone with the least bit of interest or curiosity in film restoration will doubtless find this as compelling as I do. And, appropriately, the featurette reflects the presentation of the film proper, delivered in both 2160p and Dolby Vision.
- Secrets from the Vault (22 min.; HD): Given their backgrounds in visual effects and sound design, Academy Award winners Craig Barron and Ben Burtt are ideal guides into the behind-the-scenes artistry of It's a Wonderful Life. Whether it's inventing an alternative to the bleached cornflakes up to then used to stand-in for snow, noting how the façade of city hall was all of three feet thick, or exploring the sound of wind throughout the movie, "Secrets from the Vault" is a celebration of technique too rarely seen in extras of classic films. Barron and Burtt also chart the genesis of both this project and of Liberty Films, the camerawork and invisible use of matte paintings, and how It's a Wonderful Life came to enjoy its place in pop culture despite being a failure at the box office. Two shots that didn't make it into the film in their entirety – a completely excised look at the exterior of Potter's mansion and an extended view of the Baileys' neighborhood as viewed from Heaven above – are presented here in sterling 1080p as well, along with a somewhat annotated version of the home movies that follow.
- It's a Wonderful Wrap Party (8 min.; HD): A set of home movies from It's a Wonderful Life's wrap party are presented in full here and, better still, in high definition. These include the cast, crew, and their families picnicking together, swimming, participating in a sack race, and generally just enjoying one another's company. This eight minute reel is as endlessly charming as its title suggests.
It's a Wonderful Life includes both a Blu-ray version of the film – which, again, is the colorized version issued a full decade ago – as well as a digital copy. The set also comes packaged in a lovely slipcover.
The Final Word
To say that It's a Wonderful Life has never looked better, while accurate, doesn't begin to convey how truly revelatory a presentation this is. Paramount's masterful restoration wholly and completely eclipses anything I could ever have expected, and here's hoping that its success helps to open the floodgates for further Ultra HD releases from the Golden Age of Hollywood. A more extensive slate of extras would've been appreciated, yes, but what's offered is more than compelling for me to still feel proud to award It's a Wonderful Life this site's highest possible rating. As essential an upgrade as they come, especially given the modest asking price. DVD Talk Collector Series.