Season’s Screenings: An Appreciation for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

The Frank Capra masterpiece gets a deluxe 4K digital upgrade with a new restoration and extras

The screenshots in this review are for illustrative purposes only, and do not represent the 4K restoration.

Facing a financial crisis and a life that’s failed to achieve his big dreams, George Bailey sinks into a deep depression and makes his way to a bridge with the intention of ending his life. But his suicide attempt is interrupted by the most unexpected kind of interference: his guardian angel, who hears and grants his expressed wish — that he had never been born.

I wrote a little about It’s A Wonderful Life in analyzing another Capra film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and will borrow that as it encapsulates my personal introduction to this wonderful film:

“When I was about 12 or so, no doubt bored of having watched Home Alone and Swiss Family Robinson many times over, I ventured out of our kid movies and popped in a recordable VHS tape with the words “Wonderful Life” scrawled on the label in my Dad’s familiar handwriting. That was my first experience with the film, a poor quality VHS tape recorded from a TV broadcast. The first few minutes were missing, rendering some of it difficult to understand. None of this mattered. I sat mesmerized by the childhood dreams, teenage romance, adult struggles, and eventual victory of George Bailey. Whatever my expectation was when I started that film, it certainly wasn’t to cry through a good part of it. I was aware, probably for the first time, that I saw myself in a film’s protagonist. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was one of the major milestones in my film journey.”

On the whole, It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t specifically a Christmas movie at heart — it spans some 30 or so years of its protagonist’s life, showing how his dreams are continually crushed by his loyalties and perceived obligations. George is the boy who dreamed of exploring the world, ironically trapped in his hometown maintaining the family business he despises while his friends move away to more adventurous lives. But the film’s intense seasonal finale and decades of television broadcasting have cemented it as a holiday classic.

That’s thanks in part to the film accidentally being released to the public domain. Broadcasters could freely show the film, and thus a Christmas tradition was born.

But what Capra understood, like Shane Black, John Hughes, and others, is that the holidays inherently engage us with a heightened sense of both drama and wonder. Christmas can be a particularly trying time, especially for anyone experiencing financial difficulty or seasonal depression. But it’s also a time that can bring out the best in people, and if not a bit of magic, then perhaps the miraculous.

Capra gets painted with an unfair brush these days — because of his appreciation for happy endings, his films are falsely remembered. “Capraesque” is used as shorthand for cloying and fantastical. This casual dismissal of Capra’s work and legacy obfuscate the truth of the matter: his best films, including this one, were often deeply concerned with society, using entertainment to highlight and uplift while also taking audiences down very dark paths.

James Stewart is doing some of the best work of his career here as a man trying to maintain his course while continuously being dealt with roadblocks and frustrations, choosing to sacrifice his own desires in order to help those around him; set against the backdrop and challenges of the Great Depression and World War II. He’s so embittered in having to be the anchor of his family and even his entire town of Bedford Falls, that you feel every slam of a car door and note of underlying rage in his timbre. It’s an unfair self-assessment as he fails to realize his long-suffering and underappreciated wife, Mary (the incomparable Donna Reed), shoulders this burden with him — but still, we understand and empathize with his quiet fury.

George’s run-in with Clarence, his doddering but wise guardian angel, probably paints him as too much of a hero, revealing an elevated portrait of how much he’s impacted the lives of others, and how his hypothetical absence has harmed them. Mary growing into an old maid who never found love, for example, is an unlikely and unfair portrayal of her character. But what this exploration does effectively bring to light is the side of the equation which George had neglected to appreciate: life hasn’t gone the way he expected, but it’s still his life. His family and friends aren’t a burden, but his greatest blessing, and helping those around him is a richer and more fulfilling legacy than anything he ever set out to do for himself.

Paramount has performed a new 4K restoration of It’s A Wonderful Life which is now available digital VOD platforms. Press release follows:

Paramount Pictures proudly presents a brand new 4K digital restoration of one of the most beloved films of all time: It’s A Wonderful Life. Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and Henry Travers, director Frank Capra’s heartwarming classic has made an indelible impact on popular culture and continues to be a cherished part of many families’ holiday traditions.

It’s A Wonderful Life in 4K with High Dynamic Range delivers amazing clarity with sharper and brighter images for a sensational home viewing experience.

The studio spent over a year painstakingly restoring this treasured film, using the original nitrate negative along with two fine grain masters made in the 1940s. Each element was carefully scanned using the very latest technology to both preserve the delicate negative and create the best possible digital image. Fortunately, 13 of the 14 reels of the original negative survived, but portions had begun to deteriorate so the best image was selected from one of the three original sources on a shot-by-shot basis. The result is a more vibrant and detail-rich picture than has ever been available before.

It’s A Wonderful Life will arrive on Digital 4K Ultra High Definition November 20, 2018. The perfect film to enjoy over the holidays, the release will also include new interviews with contemporary filmmakers and restoration experts about the movie’s extraordinary sound, music, cinematography and visual effects, as well as the meticulous process of preserving and revitalizing this iconic masterpiece.

Special Features (iTunes)

This assessment is based on iTunes; other platforms may vary. A very pleasant surprise for this edition — iTunes extras include not only the supplements from the existing Blu-ray releases (Colorized Version, Making Of featurette, and Trailer), but a slew of new ones as well.

Colorized Version

Secrets From the Vault: It’s a Wonderful Life (22:09)

Restoring a Beloved Classic (13:03)

It’s a Wonderful Wrap Party (7:58)

The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life (22:45)

Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Personal Remembrance (14:05)

Trailer (1:44)

A/V Out.

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