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IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame, Henry Travers
Director:  Frank Capra
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  B&W and Color Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  130 Minutes
Release Date:  November 13, 2007

“Each man’s life touches so many other lives.  When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Film ****

I WANT TO LIVE AGAIN.  These words, spoken by George Bailey (Stewart) signify a desire to embrace life and all it has to offer; both hardships and triumphs.  It could also be the cry of a nearly forgotten film destined to become a classic, and arguably the defining movie for both the legendary James Stewart and his director Frank Capra.

It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946.  It was James Stewart’s first major film role after returning from the service.  Reuniting with Capra, the two artists crafted a motion picture filled with warmth, sentiment, and spirit.  It was a right movie at the wrong time, as the country in the throes of World War II seemed reticent to embrace such an openly sentimental offering in the midst of great trials and turmoil.

As hard as it is to believe, It’s a Wonderful Life was not a success.  It came and went, and fanfare was minimal.  Neither Stewart nor Capra believed they had connected with their viewing public, and set out to continue their careers with their next project.  For Stewart, it continued to be a lucrative and wonderful life.  Capra never produced, financed, co-wrote and directed a movie entirely by himself again.

But a happy accident changed everything.  Somehow, somewhere, someone forgot to renew the copyright on the film, and it fell into public domain.  It was shown on television one Christmas, and movie goers who missed out the first time were ready to embrace Capra’s vision.  Year after year, it became a holiday staple.  Today, it’s considered the American Film Institute’s number one most inspirational movie of all time.

It’s certainly one of the most well-known and most imitated.  The story of a good man, Bailey, the woman he loves Mary (Reed), the evil businessman Potter (Barrymore), and a simple wish that turns it all upside down.  Distraught, facing jail for something he didn’t do, and weary from a life of thinking of others before himself, George decides he and the world would be better off if he had never been born.

Enter Clarence (Travers), an angel in search of his own wings.  He grants George his desire, and George gets to see for himself what would become of Mary, his beloved town of Bedford Falls, his friends and his family had he never existed.  And he comes to learn first hand that what Potter told him, that he was worth more dead than alive, is far from true. 

Though it may have taken awhile, the film found an audience and continues to resonate because we all have low moments like George, and can identify with the thoughts born out of his despair.  And Capra, ever the sentimentalist, affirms for us a most simple and basic truth:  we are here for a reason.  And we would be missed…more than we could possibly imagine.

James Stewart remains the cinema’s most perfect everyman.  His down-to-earth quality and lack of pretentiousness, not to mention a basic genuine decentness and goodness shows us all a side we’d like to believe we have in us.  Stewart’s gift, apart from his talent, was his ability to make us believe there’s a George Bailey, a Mr. Smith, or countless others within us all.  And that when backed against a wall, that’s the side of us that’s capable of coming out.

Sure, like many Capra films, it treads dangerously close to corniness from time to time.  His movies don’t actually show an America that truly ever was, but perhaps the most perfect dream of America.  We don’t revisit his films for nostalgia so much as for a yearning for the elusive perfection that only seems to flicker on the screen.

But sentiment is something we all carry, and It’s a Wonderful Life is the kind of picture that makes us unashamed to dig down deep where we bury it and let it rise to the surface for a couple of hours.  It keeps us in touch with our humanity to nurture that part of our soul every once in awhile, which is why, I imagine, that we keep coming back year after year.  Life is indeed wonderful.  And so is this movie.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The names of the cops would become the inspiration for two memorable characters on Sesame Street:  Ernie and Bert.

Video ***1/2

Paramount does a sparkling job with the crisp, clean black and white picture.  Forget cheap public domain video releases that have plagued us for decades…this is the real deal.  Images are sharp and clear throughout with only minimal grain or artifacts to belie the age here and there.  For those who must have it, the colorized version is also included, but you’d just about have to be Mr. Potter to opt for it over the original.

Audio **

The mono track is highly serviceable…dialogue is clear, noise is minimal, and dynamic range pretty restrained, but perfectly adequate for such a classic.

Features ***

Only two extras, but both good.  One is a modern making-of documentary hosted by Tom Bosley, and the other is a tribute to Frank Capra as hosted by his son, Frank Jr.

Summary:

It’s a Wonderful Life will be a holiday staple for as long as human beings feel the need to embrace the good and the positive inside of us all.  In other words, for a long, long time to come.  At least I hope so.  Angels who get their wings make the world better for us all.

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