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IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame, Henry Travers
Director:  Frank Capra
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  B&W and Color Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Making-of Featurette, Trailer
Length:  130 Minutes
Release Date:  November 3, 2009

ďEach manís life touches so many other lives.  When he isnít around, he leaves an awful hole, doesnít he?Ē

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.

Itís a Wonderful Life was released in 1946.  It was James Stewartís 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, Itís 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 Capraís vision.  Year after year, it became a holiday staple.  Today, itís considered the American Film Instituteís number one most inspirational movie of all time.

Itís 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 didnít 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 missedÖmore than we could possibly imagine.

James Stewart remains the cinemaís 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 weíd like to believe we have in us.  Stewartís gift, apart from his talent, was his ability to make us believe thereís a George Bailey, a Mr. Smith, or countless others within us all.  And that when backed against a wall, thatís the side of us thatís capable of coming out.

Sure, like many Capra films, it treads dangerously close to corniness from time to time.  His movies donít actually show an America that truly ever was, but perhaps the most perfect dream of America.  We donít 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 Itís 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 ****

There's nothing quite like seeing a vintage black and white classic looking more crisp, clean and beautiful than ever before, and there's never been a format like Blu-ray to make it possible.  The contrast between lights and darks has never been so well-defined, and the state of the print is enchantingly good, particularly for those of us who have seen so many of the horrid public domain presentations over the years. 

And if you came here today expecting to hear news about the colorized version, which is also included, I'm very sorry...you came to the wrong website.  Colorization is one of the biggest detractions from American cinematic culture ever concocted, and I will not watch any film that has been subjected to this travesty.

Audio **

The mono track is highly serviceableÖdialogue 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 the original theatrical trailer in HD.

Summary:

Itís 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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