It's A Wonderful Life
There are many films that claim to be classics. Some actually are; others are just pretenders to the throne. There are even seasonal classics; films that we may not think about except at a certain time of year. Of all the holidays Christmas has provided the most of these annual favorites. From Dickens to cartoons of Frosty the Snowman Christmas time has a slew of beloved films. One of the favorite of these Christmas films is without a doubt Frank Capra’s "It's A Wonderful Life". Although it was released in 1946 with mixed reviews and less than anticipated box office. Of course it was up against some pretty heavy competition that year, another perennial television must see, Miracle on 34th Street". It did receive pretty good acclaim during the Academy Awards that year with five nominations including three of the top five; Best Actor, Director and Picture. Over the years it has become as much a staple of the holiday season as getting a tree and hiding presents. Families gather together to watch or perhaps have it on in the background while trimming the tree or making the holiday feast. Many may find it strange that the film generated some degree of controversy as a piece of communist propaganda but now for so many it is just ‘that movie we always watch over at grandma’s’. The DVD release of this film is a chronology of the rights moving from studio to studio. In 2005 Republic Pictures released a version. Then in 2006 Paramount got a hold of the rights and released theirs. Now they offer a release which is the most complete version to date. There is both the original black and white version as well as a colorized variation. This is one for just about every family to watch during the holidays and now for the first time you have a choice in versions.
For anyone who has been living in an Iraq spider hole or in a coma for a few decades this is a story of redemption. George Bailey (James Stewart) is the local banker for the cozy town of Bedford, New York. Even though it is Christmas, 1946, George is not filled with the usual holiday cheer. He has been suspected of embezzling funds from his bank and is wanted by the police. He needed the money to try to bail out of the looming threat of bankruptcy. George is on the verge of suicide unable to face a life of disgrace and possible prison. Up in the heavens two angels are listening to the prayers of George’s children. They decide to send some help but Christmas is a busy time of year up in heaven and the only angel available is an apprentice, Angel Second Class Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers). He has been on the job for two thousand years and has yet to earn his wings. If Clarence does a good job here he will finally get his wings. One of the senior angels begins to brief Clarence of the important moments in George’s life. When he was twelve years old he saved his brother’s life when he slides into a frozen pond and almost drowns. George winds up with a serious infection that leaves him deaf in one ear. As the boy grows up he takes a job in the local drug store working for the elderly Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner). A younger girl, Violet Bick (Jeanine Anne Roose) is constantly trying to catch George’s eye but he is interested in Mary Hatch (Jean Gale), an adventurous girl who wants to see the world. George continues to do good unsung good deeds for those around him. In one case he notices that Mr. Gower has put the wrong medication in some pills. George is dispatched to deliver the medication and knowing the error returns with the undelivered medication. Mr. Gower boxes his bad ear before young George can explain. George dreams of building important things; buildings even cities. George’s father wants him to take over the family banking business but the you8ng man is reluctant. At a party for his brother’s graduation George sees Mary who was traveling aboard. The reconnect and eventually George and Mary (now Donna Reed) marry and settles down to raise a family. As Clarence continues to see flashbacks of George and Mary’s life it becomes evident that they are good people. George was driven by desperation not because he was criminal. In the end just as George is about to jump to his death Clarence appears and dives in the freezing water. George momentarily forgets his own plight and rescues the angel.
Yes, this story is corny, hokey and overly sentimental. One reason people watch this at Christmas time isn’t the famous ‘bell ringing’ on the Christmas tree scene, it is the time of year when it is okay to enjoy a film like this. This movie was not the best in the Capra inventory but it was typical of his style. Frank Capra was concerned with the backbone of America, the small town man. In another film with Stewart, ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ he demonstrated that one dedicated man could make a difference in the country. In this film the scope is much more personal. George deserved another chance at life because he made a difference in individual lives. If he had never existed many people would not be around. This film can move the hardest heart to tears; it is personal and direct in capturing your emotions. This film is able to lift your spirits even if you have a case of the holiday blues.
There is nothing that can be said about this cast other than incredible. This is a film that showcases some of the finest members of the American acting community, ever. James Stewart is the definitive small town American man here. He has a way of building a character that makes it more than acting; it is as if he literally transforms himself. I have never seen a performance by Stewart that was anything less than perfect. He builds up a level of pathos that has the audience eating out of his hand. Donna Reed may have been best known, to my generation at least, for her sit-com. Here she demonstrates her full range as an actor. From the humorous to the dramatic Reed gives a memorable performance. Most people now know Drew Barrymore but this film goes a bit farther back in the first family of American acting to her great uncle, Lionel. He was able to do a better job acting confined to a wheel chair than most actors today can do on two good legs.
Once again Paramount comes up with a re-issued DVD that is truly worth while. Most of us are used to a tired print of this film on television. Paramount has fully restored the black and white picture and re-mastered the original mono sound track. This film has never looked better. If you love this film this is the only way to watch it. For those that are into such things there is a brand new colorized version. I have personally never been a fan of this technique but at least Paramount gives the consumers the choice. Instead of only going with one video or the other Paramount provides both and lets you be the judge. There have also been considerable advancements made in the colorization process. This film in color is a different experience and the colors are well done. There is a featurette that takes you back in time to the making of the film. Frank Capra Junior is also given a featurette to remember his talented father. You no longer have to wait for December 24th to roll around, you can watch this classic anytime you want.